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Marriage equality as evolution

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | June 26, 2015

How quickly things have evolved.

Three years ago this month, I was in Campeche, Mexico, participating in an international congress about the archaeology of the ancient Maya. And I was keeping an eye on the Supreme Court, waiting to write an op-ed that I hoped would be a celebration of an extension of the right to marry to men and women throughout the US.

I feared that I would end up having to write yet another demonstration that anthropology and history do not support limiting marriage based on some kind of “traditional” or “natural” stability of marriage.

But in 2013, and again today, the Supreme Court heard arguments against extending the right to marriage to same sex couples, rooted in claims of human universals, and judged them for what they are: attempts to artificially hold back a cultural change that is inevitable: evolution.

We will need time to read the opinion and reflect on it. In 2013, I underlined one phrase from that Supreme Court decision: “A dignity and status of great import.” The court understood that marriage, as a social recognition of a commitment made based on love, is a matter of human dignity.

The legal debates about marriage equality, in California, in other states, and in Washington, have consistently highlighted the indignities that anti-marriage equality arguments introduced, not just for same sex couples but for anyone who is married and childless, or adopted into a family. In a post on the Berkeley Blog in 2010 after Prop 8 was struck down, I reflected on some of the arguments offered unsuccessfully in that case:

Anthropologists who have written about American kinship have long noted a tendency in US society to equate kinship with blood identity. Yet at the same time, in US society, adopted children are not supposed to be differentiated from children born of the biological union of their parents. Both today and historically, children have been incorporated in families through a variety of means. The idea that biological kinship is more authentic than kinship through fostering, feeding, care, and history would be offensive to many, I would hope most, people in the US today.

Reflecting on the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court, I noted that

proponents of the restriction of marriage to male-female couples claimed that “redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes.” As Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer made clear in their questions, this formulation would seem to define childless couples as unfit for marriage as well.

Both in 2013 and in the case decided today, the Supreme Court considered arguments based on claims of historical precedent. In the 2013 decision, the majority wrote “Marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and its role and function throughout the history of civilization.”

That invocation of “the history of civilization” is something my discipline, anthropology, has the expertise to assess. In 2004, the American Anthropological Association issued its statement on marriage:

The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.

Writing as an archaeologist, in 2012 I noted that people who want to define marriage in a singular way ignore histories, including those of Christianity, showing that attitudes toward marriage and practices about it have varied. In oral arguments leading to the decision issued today, Ruth Ginsburg sharply contradicted claims that marriage should stay the same, noting that

“Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition …. Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female.”

In my own writing, my point has not been to find precedents for same sex marriage in history or a stable “human nature”, but to show the amazing variety of ways human societies have arranged social, affectionate, and reproductive relationships.

As I wrote in 2012, arguments against extending marriage equality to same sex couples  “ignore the one real universal about our species: we are human, and humans evolve to fit their times and circumstances”.

And that is what happened today. Evolution.

Comments to “Marriage equality as evolution

  1. “The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.”

    Two men can’t have children together. Two women can’t have children together. Science is against it, anatomy is against it, physiology is against it, philosophy is against it. Without children created through marriage of a man and a woman ‘across cultures and throughout time’ no civilisation or ‘viable social order’ would even exist.

    • You confuse biological reproduction with the socially sanctioned relationship we call marriage. My discipline– which is the master science of human variability– shows that societies arrange for the care of children through a variety of means, including families with two parents, extended multi-generational families, care by single parents with access to networks of support, and dare I point out, through school systems, where in the US, children spend much of their waking hours after their first few years. None of those social arrangements demands reduction to one man and one woman. There were ideological arguments once that without a singular adult male role model and an equally singular adult female role model, children would suffer; but the research shows this is not the case. And of course, that normative narrative of nuclear families has always been absurd, as it pretends that children have no contact with adults other than a biological pair of progenitors. Children’s care is and always has been provided by many others.

      Once we reject the claim that it is wrong or dangerous to have anyone other than a male and female who provided the biological materials for the formation of the embryo that became a specific child care for that child– as we must, because the evidence shows it is a false claim– then we are left with the biological question. Will facilitating marriages between people whose reproductive biology does not allow them to physically engender children of their own endanger the continuity of society? Clearly not, because we already live in a world where some couples of different biology cannot have children of their own bodies. Many couples, by need or choice, adopt children born to women who for one reason or another cannot care for them. Marriage equality in no way endangers sexual reproduction. Some people will marry people of a different biology; some of them will have offspring and raise them, some will not. Some people of different biologies will conceive children without marriage, and some of them will choose to raise them, together or alone. Some people in relationships with those of different biology will seek medical procedures to help conception, as will some women on their own, and some women in same sex relationships. What the Supreme Court has done is remove the barriers that prevented some US citizens from having security about their right to raise children, to be recognized as parents. And that will help ensure the survival and thriving of more children.

  2. Thank you for your efforts Prof. Joyce. Can we now accelerate our evolution by establishing equal rights for women around the world so we can protect and perpetuate quality of life for everyone into the longterm future?

    We must find a solution to Dr. Jane Goodall’s question, “If humans are the most intelligent beings on earth, why is it that we are destroying our only home?” because time is running out.

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