The Importance of Marriage
Six million years ago a severe drought gripped the continent of Africa forcing a group of chimps to move out of the trees and make new habitats on the woodland floors. The new environment caused these chimps to start walking upright. Walking upright freed up their hands, which led to the development of gesturing and tool-making. Tools led to weapons, which equalized combat among males and made it difficult for a single alpha to maintain a large harem of females. Thus all males began to settle for a single female whom they would guard fierecely. These chimps evolved into the dominant species on the planet — humans. They accomplished this because they had discovered something very powerful: Monogamy.1
Monogamy did a lot of good things for early humans. It reduced infant mortality and improved children’s mental development. Under the old paradigm of tournament style mating, most males never got the chance to reproduce. Monogamy changed that, allowing lower status males the chance to have families and, crucially, giving them an incentive to work and support the tribe. Monogamy allowed females to raise children more easily with the protection and material support of a male guardian. This led to the extension of child and adolescent development time, which helped increase human brain sizes over thousands of years.
Monogamy evolved into what we today call ‘marriage,’ an institution with thousands of years of history. One of marriage’s astounding features is its universality. Every major human civilization independently established the institution of marriage. This should not be too surprising in light of our understanding of the evolutionary advantages of monogamy. Out of the jungles and in modern human societies, marriage still offers three crucial benefits to human beings.
Firstly, it gives the vast majority of men and women the opportunity to have children and rear them successfully. Secondly, it offers people a chance for a profound sense of fulfillment not possible in any other human endeavor. Thirdly, marriage is a stabilizing influence on society that improves everyone’s standard of living.
Most humans seek to have children eventually. The polygynous mating system of our primate ancestors made this nearly impossible for most men and difficult for females as well. In these one-male-many-female mating systems most men do not get to reproduce. We can see the legacy of this in the fact that humans today have twice as many female ancestors as male ones. This type of mating is also not great for females. The alpha male is unable to invest much in each of his children since he is mating with so many females. Thus children are denied having a father to help their development, and females are not as well protected and supported in rearing their offspring.
Monogamy required compromise on the part of both men and women. Women had to be less hypergamous; they could no longer all mate with just alpha males. They had to seek a partner on their same social level. Men also needed to make sacrifices. The alphas could no longer freely spread their seed around to all the females in the tribe. They had to pick one and stick with her. Meanwhile the majority of non-alpha males, happy to now finally have the opportunity to pass on their genes, had to protect and provide for their child and its mother.
The word ‘happy’ is used intentionally here. Few things can compete with the joy of raising a family. Even in the darkest of times, very few people ever actually regret having children. Children give profound meaning to our lives. They connect us in a bloodline of ancestors millions of years in the making and extend us into an infinite and mysterious future. The existential insight and superlative sense of satisfaction derived from family is literally ineffable; It cannot be communicated to people who have not experienced it. Having a family gives one a legacy and a sense of purpose incomparable to anything else.
Marriage and family are not only valuable to individuals, but also societies. Families are the cornerstone of successful civilizations. Both the Chinese and Soviet communists learned this the hard way when they tried to undermine the importance of marriage and family. The slow-motion unraveling of nuclear families in the develped world has led to a wide range of degenerative effects. The increase in out of wedlock births has brought with it a number of social maladies. It is not even all that controversial anymore to point out that children are better off in households with a married mother and father. Reduced marriage also correlates with reduced fertility, which leads to an aging society and economic and cultural stagnation.
Communities made up of stable marriages and families are, generally speaking, healthier, safer, longer lived, and wealthier than others. People are of course free to live as they wish and not pursue marriage or children if they do not wish to do so. However the data makes it clear that if we want clean streets, safe neighborhoods, quality schools, a healthy culture, and a strong economy, then we would do well to encourage marriage as a social norm.
Monogamy is quite literally in our DNA. It is the very institution that allowed us to become human in the first place. So long as we live as humans, we should seek to protect and practice it. Two questions naturally follow: Why exactly is marriage in decline, and how can it be saved?
We will address both questions in future articles.
(1) A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade. 2015 Penguin Books.