In listening to Santorum / Gingrich / Romney / Catholic bishops, it is fun to measure just how far back they want to go. Santorum and the obvious culture warriors proclaim that it was the 60s that led everyone astray. Many seem to want to reinstate the pre-Depression rules for banking and the stock market. Some venture into the Jim Crow era, which started the day the Civil War ended. Many of their policies and attitudes hark back to the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons and seem to welcome Dickens level poverty (are there no workhouses?).
But at their core what they want is a return to the agriculture based society, which is dead and buried throughout the Industrial and post-Industrial world.
Let’s back way up and let me crib from Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Before agriculture, humans and pre-humans (hard to draw a line) lived as hunter-gatherers. We know quite a bit about such societies. Europeans encounters them in the Americas and elsewhere in historic times and observed them with disgust. Women don’t “belong” to a particular man. Children end up calling a lot of men uncle and sometimes no one father. No one owns much, since everything must be portable enough to carry to the next temporary site. Food is shared, since you never know just who is going to kill an animal or find some berries.
It turns out that the millenniums of evolution fit humans for this niche. Without going into the details of sexual dimorphism (male and female humans are nearly the same size, unlike harem keeping species), frequency of sex (especially sex acts per birth), female orgasm (just why would making a lot of noise when vulnerable be a survival trait?) and other things humans have physically evolved, the evidence suggests that pre-agricultural humans were what we would call promiscuous. Females have great power in such societies. It is, to a great extent, who we are as a species.
Then agriculture (I am counting the domestication of plants and animals both here) comes along. Suddenly (over the course of several hundred years minimum), people have houses, own land, have animals that belong to them, build up surpluses that see them through lean times and marriage gets invented. Not that hunter-gatherers don’t establish pair bonds, it is just that they seemed so unlike agricultural marriage (AM) that when Europeans saw them, they were certain that these primitive people didn’t practice marriage at all.
One of the important things to recognize about AM is that it is: Biblical marriage, Roman marriage, Hellenistic marriage, Chinese marriage, Christian marriage and so forth. These all have more in common with each other than they do with hunter-gatherer relationships. At the top of AM is the free male, who operates in the place of god(s). Next come his property: his wife (wives, concubines), his children and his slaves in that order. A man had duties to his wife usually, but fidelity was rarely one of them. Now a proper man exhibits self-control and mastery by his moderation. Don’t beat your wife too much. Stay away from other men’s property / women. One of the main points of the Ten Commandments.
Women in AM are property, pretty much plain and simple. They will marry who and when their father tells them too. Unfaithful (unfaithful to their father’s orders) girls were stoned at their father’s doorstep, as a reproach to him. That’ll teach him. A wife who was unfaithful was another reproach to a husband, who should rule his wife (just ask Santorum et al.) Widows were very suspicious characters. If they had sons, then they belonged to their sons. If not and they had property, then the brothers/brothers-in-law would arrange a suitable marriage so that the property would not be uncontrolled (i.e. controlled by a woman). Divorce meant a man getting rid of a woman, while keeping the children, just as if he had rented a field and kept the crop.
Sons were also property, but of a higher variety. With luck, they could start their own family. But the Bible and Roman law both let fathers put a son to death for disobedience, which could cover just about anything. It is in this light that the Parable of the Prodigal Son takes place.
Slaves (servants as we translate it in most of our Bibles) were a lower form of property. Yes, there were a few valued and educated slaves. But slaves also filled the brothels of Rome and Greece – men, women and children. Slaves worked in mines where life expectancy was measured in months. Household slaves were available for whatever kind of sex was initiated by the free male. Let’s just skip over eunuchs.
And this was how most of the agricultural world operated for thousands of years. Note that this is not long enough for much in the way of physical evolution. This was all cultural evolution. That becomes obvious in just how much of the culture was dedicated to forbidding / controlling what human bodies were built for.
But that is all going away now. Slowly but surely, the agricultural society weakened and is dying. Certainly the Enlightenment was a milestone. Same with the end of chattel slavery. Then the start of treating women like they were independent people. Divorce (and not just to get rid of an unlucky wife). Gay rights go from unthinkable to mild acceptance. Birth control didn’t start with the pill, but that certainly accelerated it. Children defying their parents, which used to always end in tragedy, now is more of a comedy or farce.
No wonder the culture warriors are upset. This really is all about overturning just about all of human history, without any clear guide about what we will do next. It looks like chaos, disorder and the worst kind of wrong. One they can feel in their guts and are more certain of than anything else.
The way forward is unclear, because we can’t go back to hunting and gathering or to an agricultural past. No matter what the culture warriors want, there is no way to revive AM. What we are struggling through is the creation of a new cultural norm, replacing one that lasted for basically all of human history. Our bodies are not a good guide to what kind of culture to build. Progress will be halting. The future will be unevenly spread. Without a doubt, some will go down dead ends and prophets will end up crucified. We live in interesting times and will continue to do so for many generations. It’s the end of the world as we know it and...well, you can finish that lyric right?
I especially welcome recommended reading and will start with one. Unprotected texts : the Bible's surprising contradictions about sex and desire / by Jennifer Wright Knust, which was also used in the preparation of this post.
Wed Apr 04, 2012 at 6:01 AM PT: Thanks for the responses. From the feedback. Not saying that agriculture marks a clear line that creates a specific cultural path, as any cultural evolution like that takes centuries to develop. Specific situations (Ireland as a semi-large, semi-isolated island) bring out specific responses. Think of this as punctuated evolution for the culture. As for our current situation, I think we are a couple centuries into re-imagining marriage and it has already changed significantly and in ways that would have astonished people in 1812 or 1712. For something that is the basis of society for much of the world, this is lightning speed. Much of the change is happening at the top of the food chain, where marriage is pretty much a dead letter. Culturally, we get to choose where we go next. Serial semi-monogamy like Newt? Long term / lifetime relationships as an ideal but not a requirement? A hooking up culture that people grow out of later in life? None of us will be around to see where this will stabilize.