Love And Marriage
The ultimate fear of the cultural nationalists is that modernisation will undermine traditional mores concerning marriage and the family. The resistance to the purported cultural pollution coming over the satellite channels and the shenanigans concerning the Miss World contest reflect this fear. But is it justified?
Since Marx and Engels there has been the view that with modernisation the traditional extended family identified with pre-industrial societies is doomed. Modern families will become more and more like western families: with love marriages, nuclear families and a cold-hearted attitude to the old.
There are others who maintain that as the western style of family seems to go back at least to the Middle Ages in northern Europe. This family pattern was not merely the consequence but the cause of the western industrial revolution.
Research by the Cambridge anthropologist, Jack Goody, (The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive) cast serious doubts on both these positions.
First, as historical evidence shows, the western family revolution predated the industrial revolution. Clearly, the latter could not have caused the former. Second, as Goody shows, the purported advantages of the western system, leading to a greater control of fertility, were to be found in many other Eurasian family systems which, however, did not deliver industrial revolutions.
But that the western Christian world, particularly in its north-western outpost, deviated from what had been the traditional family pattern in Eurasia from about the late 6th century seems undeniable. The major difference was that in the West, the Church came to support the independence of the young: in choosing partners, setting up households and entering into contractual rather than affective relationships with the old. They promoted love marriages. But why did the Church promote love marriages?
It has been thought that romantic love, far from being a universal emotion, was a western social construct of the age of chivalry in the Middle Ages. Recent anthropological and psychological research, however, confirms that this erroneous-romantic love is a universal emotion. (Jankowiak (ed): Romantic Passion; and Fisher: Anatomy of Love) Moreover, it has a biological basis.
Neuro-psychologists have shown that it is associated with increased levels of phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-related compound. Interestingly, the same biochemicals are also to be found in other animal species like birds. However, it appears that this emotion is ephemeral.
After a period of attachment, the brain's receptor sites for the essential neuro-chemicals become desensitised or overloaded and the infatuation ends, setting up both the body and brain for separation i divorce. This period of infatuation has been shown to last for about three years. A cross-cultural study of divorce patterns in 62 societies between 1947-1989 found that divorces tend to occur around the fourth year of marriage.
A universal emotion with a biological basis calls for an explanation. Socio-biologists maintain that in the primordial environment, it was vital for males and females to be attracted to each other to have sex and reproduce and also for the males to be attached enough to the females to look after their young until they were old enough to move into a peer group and be looked after by hunting-gathering band.
The traditional period between successive human births is four years -- which is also the modal period for those marriages which end in divorce today. Darwin strikes again! The biochemistry of love, it seems, evolved as an "inclusive fitness" strategy of our species.
The capacity to love may be universal but its public expression is culturally controlled. Given its relatively rapid decay with settled agriculture, the evolved instinct for mates to stay together for about four years and then move on to new partners to conceive and rear new young would have been dysfunctional.
Settled agriculture requires settled households. Not surprisingly, most agrarian civilisations sought to curb the explosive primordial emotion which would have destroyed their way of making a living. They have used cultural constraints to curb this dangerous hominid tendency by relying on arranged marriages, infant betrothal and the like, restricting romantic passion to relationships outside marriage.
The West stands alone in using this dangerous biological universal emotion as the bastion of its marriages as reflected in the popular song: "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage".
The reason for this western exceptionalism goes back to the earliest period of the Christian Church, which from its inception had grown as a temporal power through gifts and donations - particularly from rich widows. So much so, that in July 370 the Emperor Valentinian addressed a ruling to the Pope that male clerics and unmarried ascetics should not hang around the houses of women and widows and try to worm themselves and their churches into their bequests at the expense of the women's families and blood relations.
The Church was thus from the beginning in the race for inheritances. The early Church's extolling of virginity and preventing second marriages helped it in creating more single women who would leave bequests to it.
This process of inhibiting a family from retaining its property and promoting its alienation accelerated with the answers that Pope Gregory I gave to some questions. Four of these nine questions concerned sex and marriage. Gregory's answers overturned the traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern patterns of legal and customary practices in the domestic domain.
The traditional system was concerned with the provision of an heir to inherit family property and allowed marriage to close kin, marriages to close affines or widows of close kin, the transfer of children by adoption, and finally concubinage.
Gregory amazingly banned all four practices. Thus, for instance, adoption of children was not allowed in England till the 19th century. There was no basis for these injunctions in Scripture, Roman law or the existing customs in the areas that were Christianised.
This Papal family revolution made the Church unbelievably rich. Demographers have estimated that the net effect of the prohibitions on traditional methods to deal with childlessness was to leave 40 per cent of families with no immediate male heirs. The Church became the chief beneficiary of the resulting bequests.
But the Church also had to find a way to prevent the social chaos which would have ensued if the romantic passion its greed had unleashed as the basis for marriage had been allowed to run its course in a settled agrarian civilisation. First, it separated love and sex, and then created a fierce guilt culture based on Original Sin.
Its pervasive teaching against sex and the associated guilt it engendered provided the necessary antidote to the "animal passions" that would otherwise have been unleashed by the Church's self-interest in overthrowing of the traditional Eurasian system of marriage.
But once the Christian God died with the scientific and Darwinian revolutions, these restraints were finally removed. The family became sick in the West, as the western humanoids reverted to the "family" practices of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.
However, there is no reason whatsoever for the rest of the world to follow this peculiar and particular western trajectory. It is not modernisation but the unintended consequences of Pope Gregory I's family revolution which have led to the death in the West of the Eurasian family values.
The author is James S Coleman Professor of International Development Studies at the University of California, LA.
Thursday, January 8, 1998