Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is the family a recent invention?

In a recent debate about families, one of my liberal opponents ("atomic parrot") argued that there would be no negative effects if we deliberately created fatherless families:

Different cultures have been raising kids in different ways for ages - the nuclear family is a pretty recent development, for most cultures throughout most of history children have been raised more communally with fathers, uncles, cousins etc all providing some "maleness" to the mix.

So, what would change? The ridiculous notion of a family as one woman and one man and their 3 children? Fine - thats only been around for some 100 years, and it hasn't worked very well.

I've heard this argument before, although every time I hear it the era in which the nuclear family was "invented" moves forward. We've now reached the stage at which Atomic parrot confidently declares that the nuclear family of husband, mother and children was invented in the year 1910.

I wish I knew more anthropology. It would be a helpful field for traditionalists to study and do research in. But even with my amateur knowledge of the subject I believe I can raise at least a few objections to Atomic parrot's argument.

First, the debate about family structure in England is about the extent to which families were nuclear or extended. An extended family is still based on the unit of father/mother/children, but perhaps with an additional generation of the family living in the home, or related families co-residing in a particular area and cooperating together. In other words, the extended family is not diametrically opposed to the nuclear family but is an extension of it.

Having said that, there is evidence that in England the family structure of 1560 was just as much based on the nuclear family as that of 1960. The historian Peter Laslett studied parish records with these results:

Laslett studied family size and composition in pre-industrial England. From 1564-1821, he found that only about 10% of households contained kin beyond the nuclear family. This is the same percentage as for England in 1966. Laslett found no evidence to support the view that the classic extended family was widespread in pre-industrial England. He claims:

"There is no sign of the large extended co-residential family group of the traditional peasant world giving way to the small, nuclear conjugal household of modern industrial society."

The earliest evidence for the existence of the nuclear family goes all the way back to the year 2600BC. Skeletons found buried in a number of graves in Germany were dated to this time. Scientists believe that members of a tribe had been killed in a raid and were later buried in separate graves by the survivors. In one grave, two adults were buried clasping the hands of two children. DNA was obtained from each skeleton and this confirmed that a father, mother and their two biological children had been buried together this way.

"Their unity in death suggests a unity in life," writes lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe - to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far," he writes.

The other interesting evidence from the skeletons is that it was the women who left their area of origin to live with the men, which again shows continuity with the modern Western family.

Atomic parrot is correct, though, that the nuclear (or elemental) family is not the only kind of family structure that has existed in human history - though it seems to have been especially strong in the West.

Most people are aware that polygamy has been widespread in various parts of the world. There are tribes too in which men are connected more closely to their sisters' children than to their own. This makes sense, I suppose, if you aren't certain of your paternity. It can't be doubted that you are related to your sisters' children, but it's possible to doubt that you are related to your own.

The Mosuo tribe in China are an example of such an alternative system. In this tribe there is a certain kind of matriarchal system. Women are given their own room when young and choose which man will visit them secretly at night (with the matriarchs of both families having considerable say over the pairings).

Not surprisingly, fathers don't play an everyday role in the lives of the subsequent children (it's even claimed that there is no word for "father" in the Mosuo language). The men continue throughout their lives to reside in the house of their mother and sisters:

Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little responsibility for his offspring. "It is the job of men to care more for their nieces and nephews than for his own children"

The Mosuo have found a low-key way to motivate men in society: men look after the nieces and nephews they are related to. But it's not a great way to encourage a high level of male investment in society. A Mosuo man may only get to see his wife and child once a week and all his earnings will go to his mother rather than to his own immediate family. There's not a great deal of incentive, therefore, to work to accumulate property to support a wife and family or to pass on to your own children.

So when Atomic parrot claims that the nuclear family "doesn't work," he is not really taking the larger, historic view. The societies which have had most success in creating advanced civilisations have generally had Western style family structures, rather than polygamous or matriarchal ones.


  1. Also, even more fundamentally, the alternative of having uncles and cousins and so on assisting with the child raising is also not feasible in the current reality, where mobility has separated many people from their extended families, transplanting them in communities of strangers. So the real issue isn't "intact father" vs. "uncles, cousins and other male relatives to provide some 'maleness' to the mix" but rather "intact father" vs. "doing it by yourself" -- hence the idea of the "single mother". She typically isn't raising her kid(s) in a clanlike setting, but really on her own with the help of non-relative paid assistance like child care or state-subsidized support. That is a model that is truly unprecedented on the scale that it is currently taking place.

    But in any case, the other side is now openly peddling propaganda masquerading as "studies" to the effect that children of lesbian parents do better than children raised by intact hetero couples.

    The war on men and fatherhood continues apace.

  2. The astonishing thing is that Atomic Parrot pretty much has all the information he needs in his own argument. Irrespective of how old the nuclear family is, it and various other social structures have been and are being tried in other places around the world.

    What do societies with these alternative, or from one point of view more traditional, family structures look like? They are dumps.

    I read an article about a year ago, I can't remember where although I think the source was American, in which a female journalist was rejoicing because various parts of the US were becoming essentially matriarchal but missed an important point.

    What are these matrirachal enclaves like? Here's a tip if you visit one; keep your windows rolled up, doors locked and DON'T STOP.

  3. I think that you made a tactical error in answering "atomic parrot". You should have asked him to support his claim that the nuclear family is only 100 years old, and held your own evidence for later. You see, by producing evidence countering him immediately, this allowed "atomic parrot" to start picking away at the data. Far better to scoff at him, and challenge him to prove the claim; then you could attack any feeble evidence he offered (likely there would be none, just chest-puffing and assertion). After a few exchanges, then producing the evidence you have would further demolish his position.

    Don't get me wrong, you did good work, it's just that in any debate it is poor planning not to challenge the obviously wrong premises offered.

  4. Novaseeker, the "clan" of the single mother is the government and any neighbors. Since the government refuses to offer any positive masculine role models, children will imprint on whatever is available, including thugs on the street. The single mother with her child(ren), dependent to some degree on government, is not stable in the long run if for no other reason than she and her brood are unlikely to generate the tax revenues needed to support other single mothers with children.

    Such a system is also brittle in a crisis.

  5. I've heard fems prattle about how great and "natural" the Mosuo system is, but I haven't noticed any of them emigrating over there...

    Wonder why?

    Could it be because it's a society with zero incentive for men to achieve and create and therefore provides nothing in the way of comfort or prosperity? No medicine, no sanitation, no technology of any kind other than what they've managed to import from the evil patriarchal West? Not even a written language.

    I say let them put their money where their mouths are and go live this "nature" that's so terrific. I for one have got no use for it. I like civilization.


  6. Anonymous, please note that to the best of my knowledge the rulers in the Mosuo region do not engage in the peculiar family structure. Only the common people. I find that highly suggestive. It's also worth noting that the Mosuo are apparently a niche within China, their ways have never spread.

    To a materialist, Darwinist point of view, the Mosuo are a kind of "living fossil", while the male-headed nuclear family isn't. A century from now, the Mosuo may still exist, but only as a niche. It remains to be seen what Europe and North America will look like...

  7. "Anonymous, please note that to the best of my knowledge the rulers in the Mosuo region do not engage in the peculiar family structure."

    That's true. Just like the rulers don't engage in it much here, either. Otherwise they'd no longer be the rulers, of course.


  8. The USA has already done this experiment. It's called the Black Community. Or Detroit, South-Central, Cabrini-Green, etc. We fully know the effects.

  9. The USA has already done this experiment. It's called the Black Community. Or Detroit, South-Central, Cabrini-Green, etc. We fully know the effects.

    Yes, but the chattering classes are almost in unison that the issue is cash, not family arrangements. That's because (1) most of the people with a lot of cash who marry have low divorce rates due to the risk of loss and (2) the single moms who have a lot of cash have only slightly adverse impacts on the kids, because they can afford substantial assistance (rather than crap govt assistance). So they live in a bubble where they do not personally see the negative impacts of the trends in their own demo. Where they *do* see it, they attribute that to economics. Instead, they should realize that THEY are the odd men out, and that almost everyone else is getting screwed by the current system, but that would be asking for true objectivity, which we know the elite left is incapable of.

  10. We have enough historical records to know that the nuclear family was standard in England from at least 1200 AD, but it may go back much earlier among the Germanic and possibly Celtic peoples.

    By contrast, we know that upper class ancient Romans lived in somewhat extended families, although they were monogamous, and the Greeks seem to have been similar.

  11. Some of my recent ancestor were Cherokee and Miami (two aboriginal nations in the US). One of the first parts of their cultures they ditched upon contact with the superior European and (white) American cultures was the extended matrifocal family, replacing it with the superior patriarchal and nuclear model.

    And (by now) that was centuries ago.

  12. On the Mosuo, unless there is yet another minority culture in China with a similar social structure, as I understand it, everything is owned by the women, most of the work is done by the women, and the men (cough!) spend their days at play and attempting to attract the sexual favors of women, rather than doing productive work.

    You know, the common pattern for matriarchal societies (including that of my ancestors).

  13. Going back even further, Tacitus' "Germania", written 98 AD, details the family structure of the Germanic tribes(including Angles & Saxons.) He writes about the importance of monogamous marriage and chaste wives for the "Germans." The Romans held this same ideal which they likely got from the Greeks. Married men were allowed dalliances but they had one wife who bore legitimate children to the m only.

  14. Tacitus' descriptions of the German tribes are frequently dismissed on the grounds he was trying to shame licentious Romans into behaving better.

    I tend to doubt this dismissive attitude, but I hope someday to determine the facts for myself.

  15. But, even if that were what Tacitus were doing, it shows that he was calling his fellow Romans to live up to an ideal to which they already sunscribed.

  16. One thing the feminists have got right is that the nuclear family is intimately associated with patriarchy.

    It's worth pointing out that the Roman leadership class were called patriarchs. There would be no need to distinguish this if there were not a more matriarchal system in place elsewhere. The patriarchs took over because they were more successful.

    Whatever one thinks about the Romans (and I tend to think "thug" most of the time) they were successful and sophisticated by the standards of the day. This feeds back into my earlier comment that matriarchal societies are less sophisticated, less ordered and less prosperous that patriarchal societies. You don't need to argue whether the nuclear family is new innovation or not - although it very clearly isn't - you just have to point out that it works better than anything else.

  17. Hey Mark...

    Frank Salter posted a good article in Quadrant magazine.

    (especially the part about the asians taking over)

  18. "Could it be because it's a society with zero incentive for men to achieve and create and therefore provides nothing in the way of comfort or prosperity? No medicine, no sanitation, no technology of any kind other than what they've managed to import from the evil patriarchal West? Not even a written language."

    Richard, there are far more primitive societies in existance today that are PATRIARCHAL. In contrast, the Musuo are only one of a few handful of matriarchies that have survived. You can't blame the Musuo men or their way of life for the lack of modern conveniences without questioning why there are primitive patriarchal societies that lack those same modern conveniences you seem to covet so much. Your comment on Musuo men/culture reveals your level of ignorance.

  19. Well Antonia, of course not every patriarchy leads to advanced civilization. But wherever you do see advanced civilization, you'll certainly see patriarchy. It's no accident.

    Nice little dig about "seeming to covet" modern conveniences. I am "seeming" nothing: I openly admit not to coveting (since we obviously already possess them) but appreciating them greatly. Am I to take your comment to mean that you don't? If so, why then are you taking pot shots at me via the internet rather than off in Asia trying to help the Mosuo eke out a living from their primitive culture?