About Last Night: Why society is no longer driven by purely animal instincts 08-10-17

October 11, 2017

Q: We are animals. Sexual desire exists to encourage reproduction. Every species has evolved strategies to ensure that their DNA continues. Human females raising infants are vulnerable. The male stays with the female to protect his genes. As humans developed complex civilisations, with religions, marriage was formalised. Crudely put, the male agrees to encumber himself with a family on the condition that he is raising his own offspring. Also, he ensures that any wealth accumulated is passed on to benefit the continued existence of his DNA.  The concept of same-sex marriage is nonsense.

A: Yes, we are animals whose instincts play a significant role in many of our behaviours. This does not mean that we are slaves to biological determinism. Your argument has a certain logic, but it is reductive, and inadequate to fully encompass the human experience.

The concept of marriage has evolved, even if some attitudes to it has not. Illustration: Reg Lynch

The concept of marriage has evolved, even if some attitudes to it has not. Illustration: Reg Lynch

Whatever evolutionary changes happened in the human brain were profound. Some explain our leap into self-consciousness in metaphorical or religious terms. The Judeo-Christian/Islamic tradition has Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Human beings began to experience life as much more than the survival of the fittest.

Altruism, compassion, empathy, selfless love and self-sacrifice make little sense in a dog-eat-dog world. We no longer leave our elderly under a bush while the tribe moves on, or expose newborns on mountainsides. Instead, we take care of the weak and vulnerable in order to make life worth living for its own sake.

History has shown that attempts to base society on purely scientific and evolutionary principles create dystopias, not utopias. Nazi eugenics, and Soviet-forced collectivisation resulted in human misery. Science and nature are indifferent and humans need love.

Society is constantly changing. The fundamentals evolve, including our attitudes about marriage. Originally, women and children were property, a herd to be husbanded. Marriage had little to do with falling in love. Twelve-year-olds could be married by proxy for the sake of political and financial contracts.

As late as the 19th century the husband owned his wife, and children, as well as his wife’s property. It was not until the 1880s that this changed, and women’s rights were considered.

The 20th century saw massive shifts in attitudes towards women, marriage, gender roles, and what constitutes a family. However, by mid-century, married women still were not expected to work, and married nurses and teachers lost their jobs. Extramarital sex was taboo, unmarried mothers were outcasts, their babies were “bastards”, and divorce was both difficult and shameful. When I was a teenager, there was a social revolution. Feminism, reliable contraception, and a willingness to question moral certainties changed marriage forever. Homosexuality was made legal, no-fault divorce enabled unhappy couples to separate, sex was no longer restricted to marriage, and the very need for marriage was questioned, leading to a huge increase in de facto relationships.

Some might, and do, argue that these changes have been for the worse. That is debatable, but the fact is that change is inevitable and unstoppable.

Gender wars dominated the last century. Men and women continue to struggle, but my hope is that we can move beyond gender in the 21st century, interacting with one another on a soul-by-soul basis. We must acknowledge and honour difference, but we need not be locked into rigid gender roles.

This is not the first fight for marriage equality.

There was a time when interracial marriage was unacceptable, and genuinely loving couples and loved children were persecuted. Today, many same-sex couples model a level of courage, love, perseverance, commitment, and strength that we can all learn from. Marriage is evolving into a form of human connection that goes way beyond gender.

If marriage is threatened it is not by same-sex couples. It is from the commercialisation of weddings, and unrealistic expectations fostered by the media. If many of us feel disillusioned or disappointed it is not because of our partner’s gender.

My hope is that marriage equality is made law, and we can move onto far more important debates about how to make good marriages, that bring us, and our children, joy and fulfillment

Email your questions to abtlastnight@gmail.com

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