Mr. Pence and Mrs. Butterworth

Let me start out at the outset by saying that The Onion’s spoof of the WaPo’s revelation that Mike Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either” is hilarious: Mike Pence Asks Waiter To Remove Mrs. Butterworth From Table Until Wife Arrives.

Let me add, as a second point, that the issue of unequal treatment of women is very much alive today, and affects many women, especially those working in male-dominated sectors like engineering and computer science. We’ll come back to that at the end.

The mini-debate that has been ongoing on about Pence’s policy has been quite interesting. At least one friend on Facebook compared it to The Great Dress Debacle of 2015: conservatives found Pence’s stance perfectly normal while liberals were split between ridiculing him and accusing him of practicing Sharia. Lest you think I’m joking, here’s one example cadged from The Federalist:

So, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, some folks seem to be missing the primary point of a rule like this. It is not, as the mockers deride, because Mr. Pence’s self-control is so flimsy he is afraid that merely sitting next to a woman in a restaurant without supervision would place him in danger of fornicating right there on the spot.

This isn’t a minor confusion. It’s a fundamental misapprehension of an ancient worldview that Christians still adhere to. In religious language: we’re all weak, vulnerable, and prone to sin. In modern, secular language: we’re irrational and often behave in ways that counter our own best interests and/or confound the values and goals we think we have. Doesn’t matter if you call it “fallen nature” or “cognitive bias”, in this context we’re talking about the same thing.

So how does this play out? The most common way that Christians (or other social conservatives) might try to explain a rule like Pence’s goes something like this: Anyone who goes on a diet will start by throwing out all the tempting food in their house.

The problem is that this analogy is very easy to misunderstand. One interpretation–the wrong one–is that cheating on your wife is the same kind of momentary lapse as cheating on your diet. It’s as though absent-mindedly chomping down on a Krispy Kreme you forgot to throw out is equivalent to absent-mindedly wandering into a hotel room with a woman you’re not married too. Lots of folks get as far as this (silly) interpretation and stop there.

The actual interpretation of the metaphor is quite different. It is saying that good behavior is not just about making the right decisions in the moment. It’s about manipulating your environment to make it conducive to the kind of behavior that you want in your life. Social conservatives understand that because we’re irrational creatures with amazing abilities to rationalize our ways into following short-term desires part of being virtuous isn’t just saying no to temptation in the moment, but avoiding it altogether.

Pence’s rule doesn’t draw the line at the moment when he’s tempted to be sexually unfaithful to his wife. It draws the line much, much earlier and so prevents the first seeds of infidelity from ever having a chance to take root in the first place.

I don’t follow Pence’s rule. I think it’s overkill. I’m not interested in trying to convince anyone that his particular rule should be some kind of universal standard for everyone. But I don’t think it’s ridiculous or absurd either. After all–in addition to the concerns about compromising marital fidelity out of an initially innocent friendship–there’s also legitimate concerns about being taken advantage of. Politicians are powerful and that also makes them vulnerable. Just ask the KGB (the FSB, these days) which has employed agents to try and seduce traveling politicians and officials for decades and decades in order to blackmail their targets into betraying state secrets. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that the CIA, FBI, and many other agencies are fond of hiring Mormons. Not only are we extremely family-focused (I know lots of Mormons who follow Pence’s rules), but we also don’t drink. Taken together, this means observant Mormons are less likely to be compromised in this way than the average population.

In the wake of the Republicans failing to pass the AHCA, there was a nauseating avalanche of cutesy Facebook posts from liberal fans of Hamilton. Here’s one:

If you missed the reference, it’s from Cabinet Battle #1, when Madison and Jefferson taunt Hamilton. Other favorites included “Winning was easy… Governing’s harder” and “Do you know how hard it is to lead?”

The funny thing is, if Alexander Hamilton had followed a rule like Mike Pence’s, he could have avoided his part in America’s first political sex-scandal, saved his family a lot of agony, and spared Lin-Manuel Miranda a song or two.

And that brings me to my second point. Just as liberals are happy to take very selective lessons from Hamilton, there’s an awful weird dichotomy in a town where liberals practice all kinds of non-judgmentalism for open marriages but are more than happy to ridicule and deride someone for trying to keep their marriage closed. That’s the point Jonah Goldberg made at the National Review:

Last summer, when Bill Clinton spoke about his wife at the Democratic convention (“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl . . . ”), liberals gushed at the “love story,” and the rule of the day was that marriage is complicated and the Clintons’ ability to stay married (though practically separated) was admirable. Besides, “Who are we to judge?” — no doubt Bill Clinton’s favorite maxim.

It’s a very strange place we’ve found ourselves in when elites say we have no right to judge adultery, but we have every right to judge couples who take steps to avoid it.

He’s not wrong, you know.

I do think there are some legitimate concerns. The most important being that if you’re, say, a business executive who follows these rules, does it mean that you’re creating an environment where you give preferential treatment to men? If a young, up-and-coming male executive could ask you out to lunch to seek your advice, but a young, up-and-coming female executive cannot, then we do have a legitimate problem. It’s also possible to simply take this stance too far. I don’t recall conservatives having a problem with forcing Muslim boys to shake hands with their (female) teachers in Switzerland, for example.

So I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have questions and concerns about a position like Pence’s. But the degree of hostility and deliberate (or at least, lazy) misunderstanding of the rules that the Pences have agreed on for their own marriage are at least as concerning as the rules themselves.

The Benefits of Healthy Marriages

Image result for disney marriage gif

A recent post at the IFS’s Family Studies blog has a nice summary of the individual and social benefits of healthy marriages. For those who have kept up with me over the years, this is a subject I spend quite a bit of time researching. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have it all in one spot. Here’s the list:

  • “[T]he presence or absence of marriage impacts economic well-being, particularly for women and children. Children raised by married parents are significantly less likely to experience poverty, whereas single-mother families are over five times as likely to be poor. Additionally, the majority of homeless families are headed by unmarried mothers.”
  • “A study by IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price found that larger shares of married-parent families at the state level are linked to greater economic mobility, higher family incomes, and less child poverty.”
  • “[M]arried-parent families boost the academic prospects of students, especially boys. Research has consistently confirmed that a child’s home environment (family structure, parental education, and family income) is more closely associated with student success than school resources and spending. And a new study by Wilcox and Nicholas Zill found that “the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida.””
  • “Married-parent families also improve the safety of women and children and communities. In general, unmarried women, including those in cohabiting relationships, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than married women. And hands down, the safest place for a child to grow up is with his or her own married mother and father, while a child living with an unmarried mother and live-in boyfriend is the most vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In addition to safer families, violent crime is significantly less common in communities and states with larger shares of married-parent families.”
  • “We know…that girls who grow up in single-mother families are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and to experience a teen pregnancy. Conversely, children who grow up in a married-parent family are more likely to form lasting marriages as adults and to raise their own children within a married union.”
  • “We also know that family fragmentation, including divorce, is especially harmful to children. Although the suffering sometimes manifests itself in less visible ways, it deserves to be acknowledged. Importantly, the harms of divorce are not just seen in lower income families; research shows that even privileged kids suffer when families break down.”
  • “Finally, the growing marriage divide between the college-educated and the poor and working class is at least part of what’s driving economic and social inequality in our nation. Because the college-educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce than less-educated Americans, they are more likely to reap the benefits of marriage, including better education, higher incomes, and family stability for their kids. Meanwhile, marriage is in retreat among the less educated and working class, who are more likely to be raising children outside of marriage, and to suffer the negative effects of family instability, including poverty. Bridging the marriage divide is an important part of efforts to boost economic mobility for all Americans.”

This is why marriage is still the gold standard. Check out the rest to see their pro-family policy proposals.

Education, IQ, and Mating

I’ve written about assortative mating and income inequality before, pointing out that the more educated tend to marry each other and therefore increase their economic earnings. Ronald Bailey at Reason weighs in on the discussion, adding to the mix evidence that shows assortative mating isn’t just about education, but intelligence. Quoting a 2015 study, he writes,

For example, if spouses mated randomly in relation to intelligence, highly intelligent women would be just as likely to mate with men of low as high intelligence. Offspring of the matings of women of high intelligence and men of low intelligence would generally be of average intelligence. However, because there is strong positive assortative mating, children with highly intelligent mothers are also likely to have highly intelligent fathers, and the offspring themselves are likely to be more intelligent than average. The same thing happens for less intelligent parents. In this way, assortative mating increases additive genetic variance in that the offspring differ more from the average than they would if mating were random. The increase in additive genetic variance can be substantial because its effects accumulate generation after generation until an equilibrium is reached. 

He concludes, “To the extent that intelligence is correlated with socioeconomic status, assortative mating will further exacerbate trends to greater income inequality.”

University of Washington professor Tony Gill once shared a thought experiment he employs in his classes during a Facebook discussion:

Most students are for higher marginal taxation on the rich (defined as the dollar amount of people who have a wee bit more than them).

I propose centrally planned sorting by either IQ or socio-economic status (noting some studies that show how IQ might have a hereditary component and how IQ might be related to long-term income potential). I also note that we tend to marry people who are educationally and socially close to us (e.g., people meet at Harvard or in the same upscale neighborhood bars). Some of us use mail order catalogues, but we usually get a box on education to check.

Students freak out. First, they say that this has never been done. Then I note how arranged marriages are not an uncommon fixture in history. Then they say it isn’t possible because of data concerns, and I remind them about all those tests they took in 3rd, 7th and 11th grade and their “permanent record,” not to mention all the income data the IRS has on their parents.

Then they squeal that this isn’t right because it limits their freedom to do what they want. And then I say, “Oh, so now you’re worried about centrally-planned limits on freedom, eh?”

So, next time you get the social justice itch to redistribute wealth, ask yourself the following:

  • Are the adjectives smart or intelligent used to describe your spouse? Are they some of the reasons given as to why you love them?
  • Did you meet your spouse at college?
  • Would it have a negative influence on your choice to date an individual if they were a waiter/waitress, barista, fast food employee, Walmart cashier? (And not one who is working there part-time while they go to school.)
  • Would you date someone you thought was uneducated?

If you answered “yes” to the first three and “no” to the last, congrats: you’ve officially contributed to income inequality.

Opposition in All Things and the Evolution of Love

817 - Wedding Rings

This piece is cross-posted at Junior Ganymede.

One of the most famous phrases in Mormon scriptures comes from Lehi’s farewell message to his son Jacob in the Second Book of Nephi: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” The entire verse reads:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

As I was compiling my notes from my read-through of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I came across this really stunning echo of that concept. It’s a long quote, but definitely worth the read:

Donald Symons has argued that we have genetic conflicts to thank for the fact that we have feelings toward other people at all. Consciousness is a manifestation of the neural computations necessary to figure out how to get the rare and unpredictable things we need. We feel hunger, savor food, and have a pallet for countless fascinating tastes because food was hard to get during most of our evolutionary history. We don’t normally feel longing, delight, or fascination regarding oxygen, even though it is crucial for survival, because it was never hard to obtain. We just breathe.

The same may be true of conflicts over kin, mates, and friends. I mentioned that if a couple were guaranteed to be faithful, to favor each other over there kin, and to die at the same time, their genetic interest would be identical, wrapped up in their common children. One can even imagine a species in which every couple was marooned on an island for life and their offspring dispersed at maturity, never to return. Since the genetic interests of the two mates are identical, one might at first think that evolution would endow them with a blissful perfection of sexual, romantic, and companionate love.

But Symons argues, nothing of the sort would happen. The relationship between the mates would evolve to be like the relationship among the cells of a single body, whose genetic interests are also identical. Heart cells and lung cells don’t have to fall in love to get along in perfect harmony. Likewise, the couples in the species would have sex only for the purpose of procreation (why waste energy?), and sex would bring no more pleasure than the rest of reproductive physiology such as the release of hormones or the formation of the gametes:

There would be no falling in love, because there would be no alternative mates to choose among, and falling in love would be a huge waste. You would literally love your mate as yourself, but that’s the point: you don’t really love yourself, except metaphorically; you are yourself. The two of you would be as far as evolution is concerned, one flesh, and your relationship would be governed by mindless physiology… You might feel pain if you observed your mate cut herself, but all the feelings we have about our mates that make relationship so wonderful when it is working well (and so painful when it is not) would never evolve. Even if a species had them when they took up this way of life, they would be selected out as surely as the eyes of a cave-dwelling fish are selected out, because they would be all cost and no benefit.

The same is true for emotions towards family and friends: the richness and intensity of the feelings in our minds are proof of the preciousness and fragility of those bonds in life. In short, without the possibility of suffering, what we would have is not harmonious bliss, but rather, no consciousness at all.

The idea that our capacity to experience love is tied to the imperfections in our relationships, to their fragility and capacity to fail, is profound.

Broken Families and Broken Music

869 - Eminem

This is an older article, from way back in 2004, but I just discovered it recently and found it really powerful. In it, Mary Eberstadt does an admiral job of surveying the “bad” music of the late 90s and early 2000s (the kind of stuff parents wish their kids didn’t listen to) and drawing some interesting and poignant conclusions. She begins:

I would like to turn that logic about influence upside down and ask this question: What is it about today’s music, violent and disgusting though it may be, that resonates with so many American kids?

What follows is a haunting and well-documented account of how the music she surveys (Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem) all share a common them: rage at the pain they endured as children of broken homes. She cites not just song lyrics, but band interviews stating explicitly that the music is truly inspired by the real-world trauma of divorce and that this really is a source of deep–albeit tragic–connection with fans.

You should really read the article, but here’s the haunting conclusion:

And therein lies a painful truth about an advantage that many teenagers of yesterday enjoyed but their own children often do not. Baby boomers and their music rebelled against parents because they were parents — nurturing, attentive, and overly present (as those teenagers often saw it) authority figures. Today’s teenagers and their music rebel against parents because they are not parents — not nurturing, not attentive, and often not even there.

Couple of additional comments. First: yeah, there are a couple of silly statements in here that I can’t really take seriously. But overall I’m impressed with Eberstadt’s willingness to take the music at face value and learn from it.

Second: this piece was kind of hard for me to read. It hit home in a particular way. Not because my family was unstable. Far from it, my parents had a strong and happy marriage and our home life was stable and loving. I didn’t experience this kind of pain first-hand. But I saw an awful damn lot of it second-hand. I started doing the numbers after I read this article, and most of my closest friends came from broken homes. And in every case, I saw the grief and pain and hardship it caused them.

Divorce is one of those things we don’t think about a whole lot. We’ve been conditioned by society to accept it as normal or even healthy. Mostly, that’s a lie. It’s a lie included by Hollywood in family movies to assuage the guilt of parents, but–in too many cases–the guilt is there for a reason.

I know that sometimes divorce is necessary, and that sometimes a family is broken by the horrible decisions of one spouse. I’m not about blaming or judging here. But I think we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. We’re so interested as a society in being non-judgmental about failed marriages and broken homes and single parents that we’ve whitewashed the tragic consequences for children.

Well, except for folks like Eminem. In this regard, at least, he tells it like it is. Which is why Eberstadt gave the article the headline: “Eminem is Right.”

On the Mutability of Marriage


There are two naive assumptions for the price of one in David Brooks’ most recent NYT column. Concluding, he writes:

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks’ entire point rests on the idea that marriage is immutably monogamous. This hopelessly naive position is undermined by (just to name one prominent example) Dan Savage’s influential argument that infidelity should be not only tolerated but that it can be embraced within marriage. For example, speaking of the infidelity in his own marriage, he writes:

People have come into our lives as lovers and enriched and enhanced our lives. Taken us into new worlds. And exposed us to new communities. New groups of people, new groups of friends. And that’s been very rewarding, and very rich.

So not only is the monogamy/marriage link not set in stone (that was his first foolish assumption), but furthermore the rhetoric of “equality and rights” was not in some way insulated from the policy of gay marriage. (The idea that policy and and supporting arguments could be so insulated was his second foolish assumption.)

Of course homosexuals didn’t invent infidelity, and there have always been heterosexual proponents of open marriage. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to miss the the extent to which the equality and rights rhetoric–by emphasizing the benefits of marriage to the spouses as opposed to their duties and obligations to each other, to the community, and to children–have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage that Brooks is so excited about.


T&S Post: Privilege and the Family

932 - Dom Viol Chart

I wrote a post for Times and Seasons today: Privilege and the Family. The post borrows heavily from work that Walker Wright has done right here at Difficult Run collecting research and data (like the chart above) on the impact of marriage and family for children’s outcomes, and also seeks to answer a couple of questions raised at By Common Consent recently: Who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family? The questions are:

  1. Why should we care about the family?
  2. What does it mean to stand up for the family?

If that sounds like an interesting post to you, then you should check it out.


Healthy Marriages: Protecting Women and Children From Domestic Violence

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia has a recent article exploring the connection between family structure and domestic violence. Drawing on new evidence, he writes,

Using data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, which surveyed more than 90,000 parents of children aged 17 and under, Zill reports that domestic violence is much lower in families headed by intact, married parents. The figure below shows differences, by family structure, in the odds that parents reported that their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians, or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch, or beat each other up,” after adjusting for differences in the sex, age, and race or ethnicity of the child, as well as family income, poverty status, and parent education. So, even after controlling for…pet variables—“education, income and race”—Zill finds that homes headed by never-married, separated, or divorced mothers are about five times more likely to expose children to domestic violence, compared to homes headed by married, biological parents.

Wilcox also notes that marriage may actually be a causal factor in this stabilizing, low-conflict environment. Linking to numerous sources, Wilcox finds that “men tend to settle down after they marry, to be more attentive to the expectations of friends and kin, to be more faithful, and to be more committed to their partners—factors that minimize the risk of violence.”

He concludes that this is yet “more evidence that violence against women (not to mention their intimates and children) is markedly rarer in families headed by married parents regardless of how well-off or well- educated mom is…[W]hat should be clear to analysts willing to follow the data wherever it leads is this: a healthy marriage seems to matter more than money when it comes to minimizing the scourge of domestic violence in American families.”

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.

Family Instability and Wages

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has an interesting piece in The New York Times on rising family instability. Commenting on male and female wages, she states,

Today, job prospects for young men are far less favorable. Real wages for men under age 35 have fallen almost continuously since the late 1970s, and those with only a high school diploma have experienced the sharpest losses. Between 1979 and 2007, young male high school graduates saw a 29 percent decline in real annual earnings — an even steeper decline than the 18 percent drop for men with no high school diploma…Women’s wages, by contrast, have risen significantly since the 1970s, except for those on the very bottom…Meanwhile, women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

She concludes,

If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families — at almost all income levels — than turning back the gender revolution.

This piece goes nicely with a recent review in The Wall Street Journal by sociologist and National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox, in which he points out,

Although the authors put too much stress on economic explanations-their approach cannot explain, for instance, why the economic dislocation of the Depression did not result in high levels of family breakdown in the 1930s-the story told by “Marriage Markets” is worth heeding, whatever one’s political affiliations. Conservatives need to take note of the growing family divide in part because fragile families require more public aid, from Medicaid to food stamps: As marriage goes, so goes the tradition of limited government. Progressives, for their part, might well worry that the family divide begets not only economic disparity but also gender inequality. After all, communities where fathers are largely absent from their children’s day-to-day lives do not come close to approximating the egalitarian ideal championed by today’s left-of-center thinkers and activists.

…What, then, is to be done? Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn offer a number of good suggestions, such as job-relocation grants for laid-off workers (to help them move away from high-unemployment regions to those with jobs) and portable health plans that allow workers to seek out the best job opportunities instead of clinging to bad, low-paying jobs for the sake of their benefits.

But the authors also think that the way forward requires strategies designed to “enhanc[e] women’s power”-such as “improved access to contraception.” …Perhaps. But a stronger case could be made that the bigger challenge facing working-class and poor families is not a lack of female empowerment but rather that contemporary masculinity has been decoupled from work, fatherhood and marriage-and for reasons that are not entirely economic.

Good stuff. Check them out.