If you haven’t seen the link making its way through social media, I highly recommend Rosemary Joyce’s piece Ask An Anthropologist about Marriage. It’s an excellent anthropological analysis of the empirical claims made in the oral argument over proposition 8 in the US Supreme Court. In addition, it does a good job of linking back to earlier public statements by anthropologists about this issue.
Joyce is exactly right when she writes that
Stable societies have been based on many different kinds of social relations that provide for the birth, care, and education of children, as well as the many other activities that marriage covers in modern US society: joint property ownership, joint medical and end of life care, joint taxation, none of which– contrary to the somewhat bizarre, reductive view of marriage argued before the Supreme Court– are about “procreation”
She also cites the AAA’s public statement that
The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.
There may be many good reasons based on one’s personal opinion, religion, or what have you that gay marriage is wrong and should be outlawed. But the claim that monogamous heterosexual marriage is written into our biological constitution is plainly false. Anthropologists have shown this again and again. On one end of the spectrum, the postmodernists challenge the idea that the body can ground gender identity at all. On the other end of the spectrum, you have hard-core sociobiologists who have shown that our species is so successful because pretty much anyone will raise pretty much any child – you can just pop them out of one relationship and into another. It’s because they are so damn cute — Sarah Hrdy calls babies “sensory traps” designed to make you be all snuggly with them. A study in 1971 by Barry and Paxson using HRAF and a ridiculously scientific methodology found that in a controlled sample 186 societies, 54% of infants were not raised primarily by their mother. By the time they’re out of the larval baby stage, that number increased to 80%.
What is human nature when it comes to raising kids? The old anthropological lesson applies here as well: there is no one form of marriage or family that is natural to humans. There are a wide variety of possible forms, and we have not finished experimenting with new forms yet. It’s that simple.