Problems in Higher Education

Over at alternet, a liberal/progessive news source, there is an article about the demise of higher education. This author immediately set off my loony-toons indicator with her “big business is secretly subverting higher education” conspiracy, but even beyond that I think most of her points can be directly argued against.  The problems she brings up (if they are problems at all) cannot simply be fixed by 1. remembering that higher education is about expanding our minds and 2. getting more funding for our schools (but no funding from corporations!)  However, she does make a few reasonable observations.

We’re just here to expand our minds.

1. Defunding education:

“For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than a third of its public funding.” (Lone quotation was original to text). Just because the percentage of the budget is decreased, does not mean the amount of money going to schools has decreased. For instance, if the funding for public education doubled from 1989 to 2011 (this is hypothetical), then that means funding to schools actually increased over that time period by 25%. (Statistics!!) But we should also seriously question where public education funds are going, if not to schools. I don’t believe Washington state, a known liberal state, is defunding its schools for “corporatism” if it is defunding its schools at all, it’s probably just wasting that extra money, which is on to the next point.

“Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for defunding of public education is racial, pro-corporate and anti-protest in nature.” This is a huge jump to conclusions. How many elite and liberal schools have to force racial diversity on their campuses? Higher education is, in general, an elite white man’s game (or with current statistics, white woman’s) and to claim that it’s different in that regard to corporate America, or that it’s the fault of conservative forces outside the institution, is ridiculous. To immediately claim a conservative racist reason may be easy, but it has no justification.


Also, it’s offensive that this author tries to claim that only humanities “train[s] and expand[s] the mind”. Nothing teaches you to think like mathematics and logic, which are also practical in the job market. As nice as it is to think about art, philosophy, and gender studies, those aren’t actually useful skills to most jobs. Trumpeting liberal arts education over any practical education is basically saying “higher education isn’t for getting a job, it’s for learning about culture.” That’s all well and good unless you’re in a suffering job market at graduation time. And to deny the important ways science and mathematics teaches you to think is hurting our students, her acclaimed era of liberal arts education in the 50s and 60s would have required much more in science and math than universities require today.

2. Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).

Oh, this gets me. Why are there a surplus of PhDs? Because people get PhDs in things like philosophy, art, and gender studies. Good luck finding a job in gender studies outside of lobbying. You know why there are PhDs, even in STEM, that will work for adjunct pay (and please note, adjuncts get paid less than graduate students because they have no unions)? Because people get PhDs and then refuse to work outside of academia  (or have degrees in subjects where they can’t possibly get a job outside of academia).There is a limit to the number of professors we can have at our universities. And at most universities with graduate programs, the professors only have to teach 1 class a semester! We could solve the problem of adjunct pay, by getting rid of adjuncts all together and making professors teach at least 2 classes a semester. But then there would be even fewer jobs in academia for all those PhDs who refuse to get other jobs. It’s not a pretty picture, but corporatism/universities aren’t doing this on their own.

3. Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

“The money wasn’t saved [by hiring adjuncts], because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries.” OK, I’m totally with this lady here, and may I also add outrageous housing, athletic, and dining facilities. This point is spot on. This is a huge problem not just in higher education, but also in K-12. The problem is more complex though, it seems the more we pour into schools, the more bloated our administrations get. Consider, again a hypothetical, the example of doubling our school budgets. If we have 50% to administration and the rest to teaching, and then we double our budgets, but give our administration 62.5%, we have increased our teaching budgets by 50% (even though their share now is only 37.5% of the total), but those administrators are still making out even better. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happens, but more funding can easily lead to this. Frugality whenever it comes to non-teaching school projects and administration is the solution. Conservatives believe bloated administration is a reason to cut funding, but unfortunately the administration decides where those cuts actually take place None of the funding “problems” can begin to be fixed without first substantially fixing administration internally.

4. Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

“When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money.” I do find business school to be particularly insidious, but that’s probably because I’m an introvert in computer science who doesn’t understand the need to go to school for schmoozing. I digress. I’m not really sure the problem with businesses funding business schools? Business schools cost a lot (due to supply and demand in the market) and if corporate America takes up part of the tab, doesn’t that help with funding our schools – less to take away from the Arts and Sciences? But then the author moves directly into her point that anything that is non-Humanities is not mind-expanding and not important to higher education, so businesses should only be funding humanities?

“Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research.” Sure, this is a problem, if you view it in the most sinister way possible. But guess what, if corporate money isn’t funding our science research, the government is. Let’s not pretend that government has no self- or political-interests.  I’m sure I could find a large swath of college-educated people across the country who would shudder at the idea of George W. Bush once upon a time being in charge of our university science research. And again,this corporate money helps the funding problem. And all the research coming out of America’s universities (in the sciences) is highly peer-reviewed, even by people who are funded by other corporate or government interests.

5. Destroy the students.


“Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast-food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.” My liberal arts university had a lot of core curriculum. In fact, as a math major, it was because of this core curriculum that I got a “mind-expanding” experience in philosophy, literature, poetry, sociology, history, theatre, and dance. But even if we only consider big state schools, I’m really not going to cry over here about all the sociology majors who also have to take a science and calculus, or, heaven forbid, statistics. Yes, engineering departments may churn out a bunch of over-processed engineer-bots, but those kids are all getting jobs (I know, according to the author, getting a job is not the point. Unfortunately I did not, and I believe most other students did not (by the author’s next point, even), grow up in a family rich enough to allow me the freedom to not consider my job opportunities upon graduation).

“You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt-free.” Government subsidized loans are a form of government funding. It may put most of the burden on the student, but as someone who has unsubsidized loans, those interest rates can be substantial. I read a comment on an article somewhere that “if the government was giving out $500 loans for a loaf a bread, bread would start to cost $500.” And this all hearkens back to administrations building huge housing, athletic, dining, and lounge facilities. If college was just about class and a place to study, sleep, and keep our stuff, college could be a lot cheaper. With the loans and student expectations feeding off each other, it becomes a downward cycle of unaffordability.


So, yes, there are problems in bloated administration and student costs at universities. But this isn’t some kind of corporate take down of navel-gazing education. Administration is a problem with colleges, as organizations themselves, not because of conservative or corporate America. And the burden of cost is partially on all Americans – for raising kids who want the best and prettiest dorm rooms (private bathrooms, please), exercise facilities, dining experiences, and football teams to go along with expanding their minds.  However, more funding will not directly fix these problems, and may only make the problems worse. With good peer review, outside funding is not going to warp our research institutions. And telling kids that they should consider job prospects (and that PhDs in some subjects are nothing more than mind-expanding hobbies) will not pervert a good liberal arts institution.

“Son, Men Don’t Get Raped”

The documentary The Invisible War made waves a couple years ago by tackling the subject of sexual assault within the U.S. military, largely focusing on female victims. A recent issue of GQ has a disturbing and heartbreaking article focused solely on male victims:

Sexual assault is alarmingly common in the U.S. military, and more than half of the victims are men. According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every single day. These are the stories you never hear–because the culprits almost always go free, the survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.

…The moment a man enlists in the United States armed forces, his chances of being sexually assaulted increase by a factor of ten. Women, of course, are much more likely to be victims of military sexual trauma (MST), but far fewer of them enlist. In fact, more military men are assaulted than women—nearly 14,000 in 2012 alone. Prior to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, male-on-male-rape victims could actually be discharged for having engaged in homosexual conduct. That’s no longer the case—but the numbers show that men are still afraid to report being sexually assaulted.

Military culture is built upon a tenuous balance of aggression and obedience. The potential for sexual violence exists whenever there is too much of either. New recruits, stripped of their free will, cannot question authority. A certain kind of officer demands sex from underlings in the same way he demands they pick up his laundry. A certain kind of recruit rapes his peer in a sick mimicry of the power structure: I own you totally.“One of the myths is that the perpetrators identify as gay, which is by and large not the case,” says James Asbrand, a psychologist with the Salt Lake City VA’s PTSD clinical team. “It’s not about the sex. It’s about power and control.”

The title of the article captures this brutal reality: “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped.”

First Things: Ruthless Optimism

2014-09-29 First Things

I neglected to mention this a few days ago, but First Things ran a post I wrote about Mormonism’s tendency–historical, cultural, and perhaps theological–towards “ruthless optimism.” It’s a piece that meant a lot to me, and I was really happy to see it find such a great home. I’ve even seen it mentioned a few times from other folks since it came out, including a nod from Dan Peterson on his Patheos blog and a mention at the Cultural Hall podcast. So, if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to give it a read.

Sameness or Sexism

2014-09-24 Ginger Rogers

Just came across a blog post by Patrick Rothfuss that made me a little sad. Here’s the relevant portion:

Today Oot came up to me and asked me if I’d like to play a game.

“What kind of a game?” I asked him.

“Oh you know,” he explains, sounding very matter-of-fact. “A guy game. Because we’re both guys.”…

[T]his stuff is insidious… This constant, low-grade sexism is everywhere. It sneaks in.

I’m skipping some text, but it really is the case that Rothfuss goes straight to sexism without any other statement from his son at all. A distinction is drawn between guy games and girl games and that alone is the basis for crying sexism.

So let’s get a couple of things straight. First: the presumption that any gender difference is a form of discrimination or sexism is pernicious. There really are differences between the sexes, and refusing to acknowledge those differences will hurt someone. Since I’m responding to a particularly extreme view, I can pick particularly easy examples to illustrate this point. If you deny physiological differences between boys and girls, then there’s no basis for girl- and boy-only versions of sports. No WNBA aside the NBA and no USWNST aside the USMNST. Obviously, in sports, denial of stereotypical differences would be mostly bad for girls. And, although there’s still controversy, an increasingly large number of people believe that denial of differences in education are mostly bad for boys. Wherever there are significant differences between male and female, and there are at least some such differences, denying those differences will do at least some damage to boys, girls, or both.

Second: a big motivator for calling out sexism is that doing so is a powerful cultural signifier. If you want to be popular with the right sort of people–and if the right sort of people are intellectual, progressive, etc.–then you write about sexism. There’s a cadre of sci-fi and fantasy authors in particular (Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Jim Hines, and Mary Robinette Kowal all come to mind) who regularly use their prominent blogging voices to personally weigh in on this issue. I’m sure that a lot of their motivation is genuine, but it would be foolish to ignore the role that displaying in-group status has. Meanwhile, it’s easy to find similar cadres of sci-fi and fantasy authors (notably Larry Correia) who do the exact same thing from the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s bad because it’s polarizing, and it’s downright creepy because of the overt religiousness of so much of the language. White male privilege is the new original sin:

It’s like trying to keep dust out of your house. You can do a lot, but ultimately, *you* are one of the main reasons there’s dust. You track it in on your clothes without knowing it. And even if you somehow managed to avoid that, you’d still shed skin cells. Even if you don’t want to.

Third, the fact that discussion of sexism functions so prominently as a means of expressing tribal loyalty means that there’s enormous pressure to discard nuance. Every instance of sexism you can find to write about in a poignant and self-aware way will raise your status. So there’s a strong incentive to (1) see sexism everywhere and (2) not think too critically about any given potential instance. People who think about these things in more detail will protest that I’m taking a kind of straw man because virtually no feminist who’s thinking and writing seriously about the issue is going to take the extreme position that there are no gender differences or that we should ignore the gender differences that exist. No one seriously wants to merge the USWNST and the USMNST, right? I get that. I’m not trying to paint all social liberals with the brush of this one blog post by a highly gifted author with (to my knowledge) no actual expertise or training in sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, etc. What I want to show, instead, is the way that potentially usefully sophisticated and productive critiques of society can be subverted by the gravitational pull of popularity.

Of course this applies to both sides of the political spectrum. There’s an incessant gravitational pull towards extremism the moment you declare an allegiance to a particular ideology. It becomes an arms race to see who can show they are more committed than their fellow partisans. It also ensures that opposed ideologies have a steady stream of prominent but incompetent spokespersons who constantly pump out a dumbed-down, inflammatory version of the ideology to keep the other side’s anger and righteousness sufficiently aroused. As someone who is staunchly conservative in their beliefs, I am in no way immune to these effects, but my hope is that writing about the non-partisan aspect of the question as I’ve tried to do in this post can suck some of the oxygen out of the partisan flamewar.

There is a fourth and last point, and it’s an important one. Nothing in this post should be construed in any way as an argument that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad person or a bad parent. The biggest reason for that is that judging him on such grand scale based on one blog post would be lunacy. I don’t know him personally, and even if I did I would still not have any basis for forming a judgment like that. Honestly, my impression of Rothfuss as person and parent based on that blog post is rather high. Parents always get a lot of things wrong. The most important thing we can do, I believe, is try sincerely to get it right. Rothfuss sounds like a father who is really trying, and I respect that immensely. I can say no better for myself. Besides, when all the angst was said and done, he went and played with his kid. As far as parenting goes, that’s all that really mattered in that blog post.

World Competitiveness Rankings 2014

The IMD World Competitiveness Center released their 2014 rankings earlier this year. The top ten countries are:

  1. USA
  2. Switzerland
  3. Singapore
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Sweden
  6. Germany
  7. Canada
  8. UAE
  9. Denmark
  10. Norway

These rankings are based on four main factors (which are further divided):

  • Economic Performance
  • Government Efficiency
  • Business Efficiency
  • Infrastructure


Worth checking out (if you’re into that kind of thing).

The Slow Hunch: “…The Sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a Four-Count Rhythm…”

fly fish

I watched Robert Redford’s film A River Runs Through It for the first time last week. The film was absolutely gorgeous to look at, though admittedly dull. However, the narration from portions of the original novella left me a lot to chew on and I ended up reading the story over the course of the following week. While there are many beautiful elements of the story, for my purposes, I couldn’t help but notice the underlying concept of the sacred in the mundane. Crafts and tasks, whether for hobbies or work, can be transformed into an art. And grace can be manifested through art.

This is the topic of my latest post at The Slow Hunch. Check it out.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Saint of Scientism

2014-09-22 NDT
Doesn’t this look like it could be a screen shot of a televangelist?


The overtly religious behavior of supposedly secular, anti-religious opponents is becoming increasingly obvious, but the reaction to revelations of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s plagiarism are surprising even to me. This, my friends, is what happens when you tip a sacred cow.

The story comes from Sean Davis by way of The Federalist. Davis has done some digging and has found that many of the punchiest and most perfect quotes Tyson uses to excoriate religious believers who don’t grasp the magnificence of science are punchy and perfect because he made them up.

The fabrications were not a one-off thing. They were deliberate and calculated, crafted with one goal in mind: to elevate Tyson, and by extension his audience, at the expense of know-nothing, knuckle-dragging nutjobs who hate science. Tyson targeted journalists, members of Congress, even former President George W. Bush. And what was their crime? They were guilty of rejecting science, according to Tyson.

There’s only one problem. None of the straw man quotes that Tyson uses to tear them down are real. The quote about the numerically illiterate newspaper headline? Fabricated. The quote about a member of Congress who said he had changed his views 360 degrees? It doesn’t exist. That time a U.S. president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” as a way of dividing Judeo-Christian beliefs from Islamic beliefs? It never happened.

That’s already a pretty interesting story, but before I had a chance to write about the other shoe dropped. Folks, naturally enough, started adding this information to Tyson’s Wikipedia page. This is pretty standard fare: whenever a person with a Wikipedia entry gets connected to some major controversy, there’s usually a section in their entry dedicated to discussing the charges. But, in this case, Wikipedia editors did not take kindly to anyone besmirching the honor of their patron saint!

According to a review of the edit history of Tyson’s page, one long-time Wikipedia editor deleted an entire pending section summarizing the issue of Tyson’s fabricated quotes. Another editor attempted to insert a brief mention of Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote. That mention was also deleted. When it was reinserted, it was deleted yet again by an editor who describes himself as a childless progressive and an apostle of Daily Kos (h/t @kerpen)… Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page.

The only thing possibly worse than the fanatical desire to protect Tyson’s image from reality is the viciousness with which Davis, for daring his sacrilege, is pilloried by his opponents. It is, as he describes, overtly religious.

These lovers of science don’t actually love science, because science requires you to go where the evidence takes you, even if it goes against your original hypothesis. What many of Tyson’s cultists really like is the notion that one can become more intelligent via osmosis — that you can become as smart and as credentialed as Tyson by merely clapping like a seal at whatever he says, as long as what he says fits the political worldview of your average progressive liberal.

Davis’s analysis is particular interesting from a Mormon perspective, because the Book of Mormon closely identifies false prophets with flattery. Examples:

  • And he [Sherem] preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ. – Jacob 7:2
  • Yea, and [the people] also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them. – Mosiah 11:5
  • And [Nehor]  had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; – Alma 1:1
  • But behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; – Alma 30:47 (This is Alma speaking to Korihor, another false prophet)

It’s not just a generally religious template that Tyson is enacting. It’s some of the worst religion has to offer: the promise that if you give a prophet loyalty this means you are superior to your neighbors. It’s a message seductive as it is sinister.

Saving Beer

Over at The New Republic, there was a small post praising former President Jimmy Carter for saving the beer industry via deregulation:

To make a long story short, prohibition led to the dismantling of many small breweries around the nation. When prohibition was lifted, government tightly regulated the market, and small scale producers were essentially shut out of the beer market altogether. Regulations imposed at the time greatly benefited the large beer makers. In 1979, Carter deregulated the beer industry, opening  back up to craft brewers. As the chart below illustrates, this had a really amazing effect on the beer industry:



The increase in breweries over the past few decades is staggering. The industry has reached a milestone with over 2,700 breweries in the U.S. at the end of 2013 with 98% of these being small and independent craft breweries. This is the highest count in close to 140 years. As economist Mark Perry has noted, there has been a 2600% increase in US breweries largely because of craft breweries. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, also finds that “the presence of a strong craft industry has been great for the beer industry.” Between 2009 and 2013, the states with the strongest craft beer industries on average gained volume, while the majority of states lost volume. These craft breweries have also become widely dispersed within the US. While there is still plenty of room for growth, the dispersion is pretty extensive. “Long gone are the days where San Diego and Portland are hogging all the local breweries,” writes Watson. “There are 2,295 [Zip Code Tabulation Areas] that now have a brewery. They range in size from over 100,000 people to 10 (10 ZCTAs with fewer than 100 people have a brewery). Americans, whether they live in urban or rural areas, large towns or small, are increasingly being exposed to beer produced by a local brewer.” Furthermore, this increased competition has led to numerous choices for consumers. As Watson puts it,

Regardless of the optimal number of brands on a shelf, the innovation and entry of so many great new breweries can only be a good thing for the category. Competition breeds innovation, and innovation has bred the incredible diversity of amazing beers available in the US today. The beers that people love will thrive and continue to find shelves and taps and the ones that don’t stand out will fade away. Make a list of your favorite craft beer brands. How many are 10 years old? 5? 1? I know that I’m continuously amazed by the new offerings from America’s 3,000+ breweries, and if it means I have to spend a few extra minutes in the beer aisle sorting out my next selection, it’s worth the wait.

There are a few conclusions I draw from this overview of the beer industry:

1. Regulations often hamper innovation and growth (a major loss for everyone, especially consumers).

2. Perspective is important: information on historical trends is better than snapshot data.

3. There is a difference between pro-business and pro-market.

4. Sometimes I wish Mormons could (still) drink beer.

The Spirituality of U2

2014-09-18 U2

Obviously I know the band u2. Everyone knows the band U2, and I like the songs of their’s that I’ve heard. And I now all about Bono’s humanitarian efforts. But I’ve never really gotten into u@ in a big way, so I’ve never really paid attention to the lyrics, so I never really knew that Bono’s Christian faith is important to him; important enough to show up in his lyrics on a regular basis. Thankfully, a long article from Deseret News headlined The biggest band in the world is also one of the most spiritual has cleared that up for me.

The article goes through too many examples of religious themes in the music across many of the bands albums for me to list here, and easily enough to convince me that–like songwriting from Brandon Flowers of The Killers–the religious themes are deeply intertwined with their music. Looks like I’ve got a lot of listening to do.

The Primordial Origins of Marriage

Michelangelo's Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.

You can find plenty of attacks on “traditional marriage” these days. These pieces generally take a historical approach, looking at how the institution of marriage has changed throughout history and how widely they differ from 1950s stereotypes. There is a legitimate point to this analysis, marriage has changed quite dramatically from time to time and from place to place, and there are certainly modern embellishments that are anachronistically applied to the tradition backwards throughout time.

Unfortunately, the political assumptions that frequently accompany such critiques distort the analysis. Closer inspection reveals that the same core aspects that defenders of traditional marriage emphasize are much, much older and more deeply embedded into the institution of marriage than critics and maybe even defenders of traditional marriage realize.

The proximate provocation for this post is a piece by Angela C. at By Common Consent: The Myth of Traditional Marriage. The core assumption that leads Angela astray is that marriage is an invention. As she writes:

Depending on whom you ask, marriage was either invented by men to protect or to oppress women.  And some men would argue that marriage was invented by women to domesticate men (a pouty version of the protection argument).

Of course, Angela is also employing the highly partisan assumption that the invention of marriage had to have been sexist: either the outright misogyny of exploitation or the insidious sexism of assuming women need protection. As objectionable as this assumption might be, it’s actually far less important than the subtle assumption that marriage is an invention. Which is to say that it is a social construct.

The explanation of why this idea of social constructivism is associated with socially liberal politics is an interesting one, but it is mostly also outside the scope of this post. I will just point out that it is associated with socially liberal politics. The most obvious example, of course, is the argument that gender is a social construct distinct from biological sex.

2014-09-17 Everything is ChemicalsImplicit in these theories is the peculiar notion that society is not biological. It is peculiar because it is most often embraced by those who either outright deny the role of a supernatural deity in creating humanity or at least downplay it in favor of scientific explanations. But it’s quite difficult to see how science can provide any metaphysical justification for treating humans and our society and its constructs as one class of beings and the natural world as another. It’s very much like the natural foods advocates who warn against eating anything “chemical” without realizing that everything is chemicals. Social constructivism—at least in its most extreme and naïve form—is a modern superstition.

So let us set aside the assumption that marriage is an invention, a deliberate construction willfully created by humans to accomplish a consciously desired end. I don’t mean to say let’s assume that marriage is not an invention. I’m merely saying: if we don’t make that assumption do we find any more likely candidate explanations? And, as it turns out, we do.

To understand the origins of marriage we first have to understand a little bit about the differences between human beings and other animals. The answer is that humans have evolved to make a very high-risk, high-reward tradeoff. The risk is that our offspring are basically helpless for an exceptionally prolonged period of time. This requires enormous resources to feed them and keep them safe. The reward is that, in exchange for that helplessness, our offspring are incredible learners (and then, later in life, incredible teachers). Learning and teaching are what humans do better than any other species. Human babies are useless at running or fighting or hiding, but they are tremendous geniuses at things like language acquisition. We have highly plastic brains that take a long time to learn anything, but that can eventually learn just about anything. That single difference pretty much explains the difference between chimps using sticks to forage for ants and humans launching the Space Shuttle.

The reason why this change has such huge dividends is that it separated human knowledge from human genetics. Other animals are capable of some pretty amazing behaviors (like migration), but these are often instinctual. That means the information is genetic. Advantage: no one has to teach it. Disadvantage: the animals can only learn and change as the speed of genetic evolution, which takes place across hundreds or thousands of generations. If the migration pattern needs to change in an abrupt way, monarch butterflies can’t just tell the next generation to take a different route next time.

Humans, on the other hand, initially used society as a repository for knowledge. Each generation could teach the skills (from language to tool use) to the next generation. This meant that exchange of knowledge (for example when a new tool was discovered) could be exceptionally rapid both across generations and across tribes. That was the basis for creating (eventually) written language, which only further increased the pace since now our knowledge can be transmitted and reproduced even more rapidly and cheaply and widely. In short: other animals learn at the speed of genetics. Humans learn at the speed of memetics which, in the Internet Age, is the speed of light.

This is pretty cutting-edge science because it relies on concepts like group selection that—although initially proposed by Darwin—have been considered more or less impossible until recently. No one could figure out how to make it work: why would one individual sacrifice altruistically in order to benefit his tribe? In short: how do you get trust? Advances in game theory and complexity science have for the first time made it possible to illustrate how these obstacles can be overcome, and therefore how it is possible for groups to compete against each other (and therefore to have group evolution) rather than just individual organisms.

So now we’ve learned two key things. The first is that the chief difference between humans and other organisms is that we have really, really expensive but also really, really high-performing offspring. The second is that this idea carries with it the notion that groups compete and evolve, which is to say that societies can compete and evolve. Most notably, these are intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. They predate any history and go back to the origins of our species.

Which means that marriage predates our history and goes back to the origin of our species, provided we define marriage as (1) monogamous sexual pairing of males and females who (2) cooperate to feed, protect, and teach their offspring. This behavior must be as old as humanity because humanity is impossible without it. Without cooperation, human children cannot be raised by subsistence cultures. They are too expensive. But without sexual monogamy, males and females are not equally vested in the offspring. These behaviors therefore co-evolved with humanity itself.

So we’ve just bypassed all the historical, cross-cultural analysis of formal marriage institutions by a couple hundred thousand years, at least. So much for an “invention.” What does the story look like from there?

Well, all of the individual cultural variations around the kernel of marriage (monogamy and cooperative child-rearing) end up only being possible because of the integral role that the kernel of marriage played in our society. The logic can’t work any other way. Why would someone use marriage as the basis for political alliance, for example, if monogamous, child-rearing relationships weren’t already fundamental to human society? No one would think to invent marriage from scratch for the purposes of political alliance and, if someone did think of it, it would never work because there would be no foundation to build upon.

So it is absolutely true that marriage comes in a wide variety of cultural and legal and historical instantiations, but it is only the variety that is in any sense invented or constructed or arbitrary. They inventions only exist because there was a stable foundation upon which to build them.

Oral language was not invented. It evolved. Written language was not invented. It evolved. Nation-states were not invented. They evolved. Markets were not invented. They evolved. And, like these other bedrock institutions, marriage was not invented. It evolved. Just as oral and written languages vary widely, just as forms of government run the gamut from tribal chiefs to Prime Ministers, and just as the laws for doing business vary from place to place: so do does the institution of marriage alter and change from time to time and from place to place.

But there are individual characteristics that languages, governments, and markets must have in order to exist at all, and similarly there are traits that marriage—despite its many variations—must exhibit in order to exist. Those are sexual monogamy between men and women raising their biological children. Which, not at all coincidentally, are the characteristics that are of utmost importance in the minds of social conservatives defending “traditional marriage.” Whether you believe that marriage was ordained of God by divine fiat in a literal Garden of Eden, was orchestrated by God through the process of natural selection and evolution, or simply evolved spontaneously without any help from a Creator of any kind: marriage remains the fundamental institution that made the human species possible.

The key lesson to learn here is not necessarily that marriage should never change. Marriage—the entire package including the biological kernel and the social embellishments on top of it—changes all the time. Some of those innovations are bad. When society codifies marriage in a way that treats women as property to be bought or sold or gives men a legal right to rape their wives, then society is leveraging the power of the biological kernel of marriage to do great evil. But when marriage is used as a model to care for those in need—like with fostering or with adopting children—then in that case we’re building something beautiful and worthy on top of the foundation that we’ve inherited to work with.

Because this isn’t an argument that marriage should never change, this post cannot function as a direct argument against same-sex marriage, open marriages, or other currently controversial topics. It is possible to believe that the kernel of marriage has filled its evolutionary purpose. Now that we have enormously greater economic prosperity, perhaps the old rationales no longer apply.

This may be so, but at least those who advocate changes to marriage at a fundamental level ought to admit that they are tinkering with the evolutionary foundations of human society. To use a computer analogy: debates about marriage that get to its essential characteristics are not like swapping out one app for another. They are about making changes to the kernel of the operating system. It would be best to know what one is doing before one undertakes such an endeavor. Those propounding the “myth of traditional marriage” manifestly fail to apprehend its true nature and significance. Therefore, they are the last folks I want involved in the process.