Friday, October 07, 2005

Marriage, history, evolution and the unidirectional process....   posted by Razib @ 10/07/2005 03:23:00 PM

Over at Sepia Mutiny Abhi points me to this piece titled Transnational marriage and the formation of Ghettoes. Here some data from Britain:

% marrying spouse from Indian subcontinent

Pakistani male - 48%
Pakistani female - 40%
Bangladeshi male - 60%
Bangladeshi female - 40%
Indian men - 38%
Indian women - 15%

I'm not going to comment much further, except to point out that considerations of the negative impact on the society at large from the emergence of ghettos is a real issue, but it also often neglects the impact that a particular social matrix has upon individuals who are not of their own choice born into a particular community (for example, girls born into a community that still maintains the immigrant ethos and where a large number of foreign born women recapitulate norms and patterns atypical for the West and so impart to their son certain expectations of what a "good wife" is).

Rather, I'll sketch out the emergence of the "love marriage" as narrated in a short book titled Marriage, a History, by Stephanie Coontz, that I read a few weeks ago. The author is a historian, and so she brings particular biases to her work. For example, her view of evolutionary or innate biases seems to be oriented toward an assumption that Evolutionary PsychologyTM is the only paradigm, which once falsified in a strong typological form obviates the need to take into account biologically controlled cognitive biases. The author might have benefited from the contrasting takes on male-female relations viewed through an evolutionary lens in The Mating Mind (weak pair bonds, operational polygyny) and The Ancestress Hypothesis (deep time history for marriage, monogamy and strong pair bonds). I will stipulate that I generally am very skeptical of the idea that phenotypic monomorphism is the norm on many psychological traits relevant to culture, and I am convinced that there are multiple social "fitness peaks," and there are likely different cultural and individual ESSs. The genetics can't resolve this issue yet as to what man's nature is yet, that's for sure.

The author's basic contention is that the modern pair bonded love marriage as the center of social organization is a relatively new thing, and emerged in the Western world as paramount in the 20th (and late 19th) century after a long period of evolution, beginning in the medieval period. One interesting point the author brings up is that the bars on marriage due to incest were extremely high in Western Europe because of the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to 1300 the incest bar extended to 7 degrees of relation (dropped to 4), and was expanded to include relatives of God parents and a host of other non-blood quasi-kin associates. The author offers that this was convenient in the case where the Church was brought in as an arbiter in elite marriages, it was leverage used against elites so that favors could be traded in return for ubiquitous dispensations. The fact is that for a period it was almost impossible for the European nobility to marry someone who they were not related to in some fashion, literally, or symbolically. A few years ago Adam Bellow wrote a book, In Praise of Nepotism, where he argued that the Roman Catholic Church's campaign against "incest" and adoption was in part motivated by the fact that if a wealthy man or woman died without heirs (nephews and nieces could not inherit) their assets would often be given to the Church. This materialist argument might not be absolutely correct, but it is I think at least on the right track and almost certainly a component of the full explanatory vector. The same dynamic was not as strong in Eastern Europe, where the Christian churches (at least until the Ottoman period) were not as powerful as corporate entities with temporal interests (recall that starting in the medieval period the Pope was also an Italian "Prince"). Additionally, for reasons not stipulated, in Southern Europe many of the aspects of Church teaching were not enforced to the same extent or in the same fashion, so the special factors do not apply to the same extent (one thing to remember is that Northern European kingdoms tended to need more Christian legitimacy during the early medieval period because of pervasive pagan relicts or a recent pagan past).

As a byproduct of the Catholic Church's hold on marriage as a sacrament, in Western Europe it was often relatively easy to get married (mutual consent, or reported consent!) and extremely difficult to get divorced. Paradoxically, this resulted in the strengthening of pair bonds, because people only got "one shot" officially (for wealthy men who wanted heirs this was important, bastards were eventually excluded from any rights). Of course, annulments could mitigate this risk, but the Church at different periods had different attitudes toward the ease of this escape hatch. Additionally, convents and monastic communities often absorbed many individuals who did not, or could not, get married. The discouragement of incest resulted in a nobility whose social networks were spread out, and weakened the interests of clan-and-patrilineage. Non-kin associations (guilds, etc.) were pervasive and powerful.

As the modern period dawned and the Reformation destroyed the "old order" a new system emerged where romantic love between equals began to be emphasized to an even greater extent and celibacy was less of an option (the convents and monasteries were closed in Protestant countries). At first the relationship was rather pragmatic, as couples often married explicitly toward the interests of pooling resources and generating enough start up capital to fund a business or buy a parcel of land. The weakness of extended families and kin networks meant that the non-wealthy commoners often moved out of their parents' homes and started their own househould. This pushed back the age of marriage (in other societies the start up capital needs were lower since parents and the extended family operated as a sort of distributed support system for young couples). During the 19th century the rise of "rights" and female liberation (in starts and fits) resulted in a shift of male attention toward the family and his wife as the primary relationship in his life. Before socialization with male companions and subordinates had been an important factor, but over time "family life" and the separation between the public and personal became more explicit.

To truncate the narrative, we have a situation where in the early 21st century the "Western" concept of a love marriage aimed toward individual fulfillment is the dominant media paradigm. There is a perception that arranged marriage societies are in an "earlier" stage of development. I don't think this is correct. Coontz points to the relative lack of jealousy in some South American tribes as regards pair bonded fidelity as evidence that there isn't hard-wiring toward behavioral scripts on this level. I think she misreads the situation. As I note above, her implicit assumption is that there is a Ideal System of Marriage, or, there are a host of historically contingent social systems exploring "culture space." I think where Coontz gets this wrong is that she neglects that the different social arrangments might be alternative equilibriums across the culture space, and that many variants are disfavored, or at least unstable over the long term.

Consider benzene, the ubiquitous six-carbon molecule which comes in two primary structural states, boat and chair conformations. The geometries that molecules are stable at are contingent upon the characteristics of the molecule as a function of structural implications implied by its lower order subcomponents (the atoms with their bonds created by overlapping electron valence shells). A particular conformation has implications in terms of the properties of the molecule, and the most common conformations tend to be those at lower energy states. One can scaffold the situation in a fashion so that unlikely states can arise, for example, from what I recall buckyballs can trap inert gases and so create peculiar assocations that are normally disfavored.

Back to marriage, and culture, my point is that formalized polyandry might not be common, but, it does occur given the appropriate inputs (in poor regions like Tibet a band of brothers will marry one woman because that way they can pool their resources together and set up a household). Similarly, there is a wide range in terms of propensity to pair bond across cultures and individuals. Variation does not refute a contention that there are particular expectations, biases or correlations that can be attributed to a particular behavioral phenomenon. Across the "civilized" cultures of Eurasia there is an expectation one might have in terms of the particular form of marriage that is the norm, powerful patrilineages (and the pater familias) often call the shots in terms of important life decisions for those who are in their charge. In contrast, the Western "love marriage" is more free form and characterized by a flux dictated by the needs of each individual. Coontz's narrative history shows how modern marriage is the byproduct of a "boxing in" process where the Roman Catholic Church transmitted to the barbarian post-Roman polities some of its romanitas in exchange for a monopoly on the arbitration of particular aspects of the life of the elite. Over time, the peasantry also shifted from common law marriages to sacramentalized marriages, and the particular needs of the Church, which Bellow articulates in a materialistic paradigm and Coontz implies in her argument, canalized the evolution of society toward a more individualistic pair bonded structure. To borrow an analogy from evolution, the Church was a background condition which induced particular selection pressures on the memes circulating through the society. Once the societial norms managed to "peak shift" across the valley of death (driven by the tight marriage strictures of the Church) which separates the arranged marriage-joint family structures of the Eurasian civilizations toward the individualistic love marriages that are the norm today, we reached a new fitness equilibrium. The unleashing of modernity as a whole via the explosion of the West is I think driving the world across the low societal fitness valley (in part because modern technology and consumer society alters the background pressures and shifts the fitness landscape on its head).

But why do people enter into love marriages in the first place? This is where Geoffrey Miller's ideas come into play, he argues that loose short-term pair bonds were the ancient norm. I'm skeptical as to his whole thesis on this issue (see David's review), but there is compelling biological evidence that "love is natural," at least in some form. Even societies where arranged marriages are the norm have myths and fables which allude to love marriages, and its persistent draw. I have argued before that in some ways the culture of the modern West is a throwback to pre-Neolithic times, when smaller scale societies were dominant, and powerful super- patrilineages which logically led to the creation of top-down authoritarian states were likely not as pervasive a factor in human life. So, one reason that there is a fitness peak for marriages with a strong pair bond is because I think they are more "natural" in some ways than the arranged marriages that were common in "advanced" civilizations (where the pair bond was enforced in terms of sexual fidelity on the part of the woman, but was psychologically weak for both male and female). The relative distance of North Indian men, or ancient Athenians, or traditional Chinese men from their wives and association with patrilineages or male social clubs might be excessive in terms of what our psychology is outfitted for. In the context of the inputs and influences of the mass society around them it was a natural tendency of the cultural median because centralization of power and decision making was the norm, and strong husband-wife relations might have diminished the succcess of males in the patrilineage molded rat race. With the decentralization of power, the rise of republican deomcracies, and economic productivity freeing people from want and the need to pool resources and draw from parental-communal capital, it makes sense to me that individuals would begin to opt out of familially dictated marriages. They are doing what comes naturally.

In short, there are many ways to arrange a society, but the options are stable only with certain preconditions (and those preconditions vary). Biology is important because it leads to a psychology which is amenable only to a finite number of concepts and arrangements, though there is variation around the median. Additionally, the background conditions are always shifting as culture evolves in a complex feedback loop onto itself, always working with the same basic cognitive units as foundations (though those cognitive units vary from person to person, and, perhaps population). Interestingly, there are theorists who argue that sex evolved over time via a step wise process where the changes were structually favored only in one direction, ergo, multicelluar complex organisms are "boxed" in by their evolutionary history and by the fact that selection has only a narrow window of consideration (I am skeptical of this theory, bdelloids are asexual). Similarly, the particular historical contingencies which led to the rise of the Western love marriage might now be irreversible, even though they were unlikely in the first place (at least as any particular time).

Addendum: Coontz points out that Ireland was subject to a peculiar lag in terms of marriage norms in relation to the rest of the Western Europe. When divorce was banished from most of the Catholic world, in Ireland it was a common feature of life. When divorce was once more common in the rest of the West, Ireland remained tied to older Roman Catholic norms. Similarly, the demographic transition and rise in age of marriage that occurred with the transition toward a more "modern" economy was not to be found in Ireland until the 19th century. But, during this period a revived Roman Catholic Church campaigned for a social transformation which resulted in sharp increases in the age of marriage and a rise in the number of life long singles who were absorbed by convents or remained bachelor uncles. The speed at which this occurred is chronicled in the second chapter of American Catholic. Similarly, there was a sharp drop in the age of marriage throught the West in the 1950s, as men and women were marrying earlier than they had for many centuries (the age of first marriage is now back up of course).