Terrence Deacon’s classic work, The Symbolic Species, is a very interesting synthesis of 1) Peircean semiotics, 2) a socio-anthropological account of morals and 3) a very traditional understanding of marriage. It is thus quite surprising to me that this confluence of symbols, morals and marriage within a text as widely cited as Deacon’s has gone almost entirely unnoticed within the LDS community. Starkly put, if ever there was a naturalistic and historical argument to be made for the sanctity of marriage, this is it.
Since my goal is primarily to explicate rather than appropriate Deacon’s ideas, the quote-to-exposition ratio in this post will be quite high. Before getting to those quotes, however, let me first summarize Deacon’s account, if only to provide a roadmap for what is to come:
All and only humans have been able to combine 1) cooperative hunting, 2) male provision of offspring and 3) sexual exclusivity. The means by which this unstable combination is maintained is marriage. Marriage is a uniquely human practice that is totally different in kind from the pair-bonding found in other species. By way of analogy, pair-bonding is to associative thought as marriage is to symbolic thought: While the former are concerned with the regularities that an individual can predict to hold between two objects (smoke and fire), the latter involve a collective assignment of meaning or prescription of status upon both A) an object with respect to many other objects and B) those many objects with respect to it.
Thus, while pair-bonding can be understood as a negotiation of child-rearing responsibilities between the male and female (and them alone), marriage involves the collective ascription by an entire community of not only these roles and responsibilities but also those toward an entire social network that crosses kinship lines. Stated differently, in the same way that a change in the symbolic meaning of one sign also changes the symbolic meaning of and between 20 other signs, so too a change in the moral/marriage status of one person also changes the moral status of and relations between 20 other people. Deacon’s theory, to summarize, is not merely that symbolic thought closely parallels marriage relations; rather, it is the much stronger claim that the latter was the evolutionary origin and cause of the former.
It is absolutely worth pointing out that while Deacon insists that his is the original definition of marriage, there is nothing in his account that prescribes this model of marriage for us today. I cannot emphasize this point enough, so I will reemphasize it again at the end of this post. Indeed, I think that, historically speaking, libertarian ideals have been at least as great a threat to this original form of marriage as progressive or socialist ideals have been. That said, let us now move on to the quotes (all bolding is mine)…
Deacon begins with the claim that marriage is not a contract that solely pertains to two people in isolation from the wider community. Marriage was never a private choice for the simple reason that its primarily aim was the social allocation of reproductive roles and responsibilities across kinship lines:
[A]dult males and females are assigned (sometimes by their kin and sometimes by their own choosing, with the consent of the larger social group) to specific mates, often for life, and … this entails explicit exclusion of sexual access by other group members…. Marriages everywhere have reproductive rights and obligations as their central content, and so specify the reproductive status of the marriage partners within the parameters of the wider community, both family and nonfamily. Marriage is more than a reproductive arrangement, because it additionally establishes new rights and obligations for the larger kin groups to which marrying individuals belong. (Pg. 385)
The all-too-human combination of 1) mixed-sex social groups, 2) male investment in child-rearing, and 3) monogamy is extremely rare in nature. The reason for this, argues Deacon, is because such a combination is extremely unstable:
[C]ooperative, mixed-sex social groups, with significant male care and provisioning of offspring, and relatively stable patterns of reproductive exclusion, mostly in the form of monogamous relationships… is not found in exactly this pattern in any other species… This pattern of social-sexual organization is rare because it tends to undermine itself in the course of evolution. The combination of provisioning and social cooperation produces a highly volatile social structure that is highly susceptible to disintegration. (Pg. 388)
He then moves on to suggest that marriage cannot be reduced to a merely habitual kind of pair-bonding between two, private individuals. It is not a prediction but a prescription of future interactions not only between these two people but within the larger community as well. For these reasons, sexual access – which had always been intimately intertwined with reproduction and, consequently, marriage – is not morally neutral:
Sexual access and a corresponding obligation to provide resources are not just habits of behavior; they cannot be … just predictions of probable future behaviors. Sexual access is a prescription for future behaviors. No index or memory of past behaviors can represent this… The pair-bonding relationship in the human lineage is essentially a promise, or rather a set of promises that must be made public. These not only determine what behaviors are probable in the future, but more important, they implicitly determine which future behaviors are allowed and not allowed; that is, which are defined as cheating and may result in retaliation. (Pg. 399)
He then articulates the sharp moral difference between human adultery and non-human “promiscuity” – this difference being that only the former involves condemnation and punishment from the entire community for having violated a moral norm:
Though philandery, cuckoldry, and desertion are common consequences of reproductive competition in other species, adultery is more than this. It involves betrayal, and there can be no betrayal without prior explicit or tacit agreements. In nearly all societies, there are not only personal reprisals associated with sexual infidelity but also consequences imposed by the community. The prevention of cuckoldry is partially supported by the potential of punishment from the entire social group. In no other species is there such direct involvement by the larger community in the maintenance of sexual exclusivity between individuals. (Pg. 400)
Marriage, then, is not a private agreement or “contract between consenting adults” regarding the future distribution of sex and economic resources between them and them alone. Rather, it is a means by which the larger community becomes socially and symbolically integrated:
As anthropologists have recognized for generations, marriage is not the same as mating, and not the same as a pair bond… [I]t is also not just a reciprocal set of promises between two individuals regarding sexual access and economics. As the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and many others have emphasized, it is also the establishment of alliances: promises and obligations that link a reproductive pair to the social groups of which they are a part, and often a set of promises and obligations between the kin groups from which they arise. Marriage contracts establish both vertical lineal symbolic relationships and horizontal affinal symbolic relationships. Marriage, in all its incredible variety, is the regulation of reproductive relationships by symbolic means, and it is essentially universal in human societies. It is preeminently a symbolic relationship, and owing to the lack of symbolic abilities, it is totally absent in the rest of the animal kingdom. (Pg. 400)
Language-use is universal and exclusive to human communities because symbolic thinking is universal and exclusive to them. Symbolic thinking, in turn, is universal and exclusive to human communities because marriage is universal and exclusive to them. No other species evolved marriage, symbols or language because they never (for whatever reason) combined 1) cooperative, group hunting, 2) male provision of offspring and 3) sexual exclusivity:
Establishing such social-sexual relationships cannot be accomplished by indexical communication alone, that is, by systems of animal calls, postures, and display behaviors, no matter how sophisticated and complex… [W]ithout symbols that refer publicly and unambiguously to certain abstract social relationships and their future extension, including reciprocal obligations and prohibitions, hominids could not have taken advantage of the critical resource available to habitual hunters. The need to mark these reciprocally altruistic (and reciprocally selfish) relationships arose as an adaptation to the extreme evolutionary instability of the combination of group hunting/scavenging and male provisioning of mates and offspring. This was the question for which symbolization was the only viable answer. (Pg. 401)
The pressure to combine social hunting with male provision explains why brains, tools and a reduced sexual dimorphism all evolved at the same time in our species. None of these traits explain the other two, for all three lie causally downstream from a completely new and social reorganization structured around symbolic (albeit, originally non-linguistic) thought:
The near synchrony in human prehistory of the first increase in brain size, the first appearance of stone tools for hunting and butchery, and a considerable reduction in sexual dimorphism is not a coincidence. These changes are interdependent. All are symptoms of a fundamental restructuring of the hominid adaptation, which resulted in a significant change in feeding ecology, a radical change in social structure, and an unprecedented (indeed, revolutionary) change in representational abilities. The very first symbols ever thought, or acted out, or uttered on the face of the earth grew out of this socio-ecological dilemma, and so they may not have been very much like speech. (Pg. 401)
The symbolic thought that reorganized human communities was not linguistic, but ritual in nature. Public rituals not only systematically transform the social roles and duties that flows that marriage is meant to create, but does so in a way that makes this transformation in each person’s ascribed status common knowledge:
Ritualized support is also essential to ensure that all members of a group understand the newly established contract and will behave accordingly… [D]emonstrating that these relationships exist and providing some way of marking them for future reference so that they can be invoked and enforced demand the explicit presentation of supportive indices, not just from reproductive partners but from all significant kin and group members. (Pg. 406)
The symbolic roles created through public rituals such as marriage are mutually defining as well as mutually prescribing. In this way, people and the relationships between them were the first symbols from which all others (including spoken language) would later follow. People rather than words were the original symbols:
The symbol construction that occurs in these ceremonies is not just a matter of demonstrating certain symbolic relationships, but actually involves the use of individuals and actions as symbol tokens. Social roles are redefined and individuals are explicitly assigned to [individuals]. A wife, a husband, a warrior, a father-in-law, an elder – all are symbolic roles, not reproductive roles, and as such are defined with respect to a complete system of alternative or complementary symbolic roles… As with all symbolic relationships, social roles are defined in the context of a logically complete system of potential transformations; and because of this, all members of a social group (as well as any potential others from the outside) are assigned an implicit symbolic relationship when any one member changes status. (Pg. 406)
This is not a social contract theory (although Deacon does use its language at times). Social contract theories suggest that the planning and calculation of isolated individuals leads them to enter into social relations. Deacon’s account is the exact opposite in that our social relations not only pass on the tools of thought and calculation, but are the genesis of such thought and calculation:
[T]he theory of symbolic origins I have outlined is not just a new twist on Rousseau’s “social contract” theory. It is not a theory of the origins of social behavior, but of the translation of social behavior into symbolic form. More important, it is not a scenario for how our intelligence triumphed over our reproductive competition, but rather how unique demands of reproductive competition and cooperation created the conditions that led to our unique form of intelligence. (Pg. 408)
Symbols are primarily and intrinsically social in nature; they are only secondarily and derivatively about the interactions of the isolated individual with the natural world. This, to me, suggests that the metaphysics and morals that positivists are so willing to dismiss as “meaningless” actually have a deep social meaning that can never be reduced to that which the isolated lab technician could ever observe or calculate in his/her lab:
Though symbolic thinking can be entirely personal and private, symbolic reference itself is intrinsically social. Not only do we individually gain access to this powerful mode of representation through interactions with other members of the society into which we are born, but symbols themselves can be traced to a social origin. Our uniquely human minds are, in a very concrete sense, the products of an unusual reproductive challenge that only symbolic reference was able to address – a concrete internalization of an ancient and persisting social evolutionary predicament that is uniquely human. (Pg. 410)
Before concluding, I would like to point out several aspects of Deacon’s account that I think are worthy of deeper thought:
- Marriage is essentially about two things: reproduction and social integration across kinship lines. The modern definition of marriage as a private contract between two individuals is a challenge to both of these claims.
- Marriage allowed men to go hunting as a group while mitigating the evolutionary threat of bringing home provisions for some other male’s offspring. The modern welfare state, by contrast, provides sustenance for all offspring, regardless of paternity. It thus makes marriage expendable, thus closing off a major source of social integration.
- Perhaps the most potent challenge to this model of marriage was the invention of private property:
- By making the home private property, the wife’s behavior (with other men) is no longer exposed to public regulation.
- More importantly, by privatizing the home, the husband’s behavior towards his wife (and other women) is no longer exposed to public regulation.
- Whereas previously, both men and women were (in some sense) both public property, privatizing the home in a way that grants nearly all property rights, income and social connections to the husband essentially turns his wife into his own private property.
- Marriage allowed men to leave the communal nest with the socially reinforced confidence that he and only he had sexual access to his wife. This confidence is challenged by two modern practices:
- Mixed gender workplaces challenge this confidence simply by increasing the number of opportunities to violate it.
- The division of labor also fragments and dissolves the shared community that would have provided this confidence, as both husband and wife become unequally integrated with different and (at best) partially overlapping communities.
- Women have good reason to leave the private property of the home, but integration within a shared, church community would be much closer to Deacon’s model than integration within a separate, mixed-gender work environment.
- Since linguistic meaning was the evolutionary consequence of social status, this strongly suggests (to me) that traditional authority cannot be conflated with or reduced to any combination of words, claims, equations or empirical data that commonly constitute “expertise”.
- This model also strongly suggests a highly socialized analysis of truth/meaning as social relations that hold primarily between persons and only derivatively between an individual and the non-social, natural world.
In conclusion, it bears repeating that Deacon’s account is not a straightforward prescription of any definition of marriage within today’s society. Deacon is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and I’m sure he would have strong objections to any person using his account to oppose SSM. Indeed, my reading is that libertarian capitalism presents a greater threat to the sanctity of marriage than SSM probably does – not that the later isn’t also a threat. Thus, while this is not a knock-down argument against SSM by any means, it is a compelling counter-argument to the modern definition of marriage that is very often presupposed by those who push for SSM. Plainly put, the sanctity of marriage that Mormons defend is much closer to Deacon’s understanding of that institution than the modern, classical liberal understanding of it.