Nathan Richardson

In a previous post (The Essence of Marriage), I responded to a book review about the definition of marriage. The reviewer concluded that “marriage has no essence,” and therefore we need not be upset or concerned that some groups are vociferously trying to radically alter its legal definition to include, for example, genderless marriage (the union of two men, or of two women). We are to consider such sweeping changes at worst harmless, and at best beneficial. The reviewer appears to draw comfort from an analogy by F. A. Hayek:

This shouldn’t come as any surprise to readers of F.A. Hayek, who in The Mirage of Social Justice spoke of evolved rules and institutions that “serve because they have become adapted to the solution of recurring problem situations. … Like a knife or a hammer they have been shaped not with a particular purpose or view but because in this form rather than some other form they have proved serviceable in a great variety of situations.” Institutional evolution, like its biological counterpart, is opportunistic: A structure that serves one function at one stage may be co-opted for a very different function at another stage.1

In other words, don’t worry about any change in an institution (such as marriage), because change happens in biological organisms, too.

This metaphor is ironic because the reviewer completely ignores the fact that evolutionary biology identifies a universal purpose underlying structural evolution in every time and place: perpetuation of the species. If a biological adaptation didn’t fulfill the purpose of perpetuating a species, it would either cripple or kill the organism, or else the structure would disappear.

I do not believe the purposes and processes of marriage can be adequately described with an evolutionary biology metaphor. But let’s humor the reviewer and take his metaphor to its logical conclusions. If the reviewer truly adhered to the comparison of marriage to a biological organism, he would have to acknowledge an underlying purpose that must be met. With all its variation of use, one constant underlying function or purpose that is implied but ignored in the book is the bearing and rearing of children. Taking the reviewer’s analogy to its full implications, if marriage didn’t serve the purpose of bearing and rearing children, it would have crippled or killed a society, or else it would have disappeared. If it ceases to serve that purpose in the future, marriage will disappear.

Same-sex “marriage” cannot serve the purpose of bearing children, and with all the unique ways fathers and mothers fulfill differing needs in their children, two “parents” of the same gender can never rear children as well as a mother and father can. Just as genetic change within a biological organism is not necessarily good (e.g., cancer, genetic diseases), change within a social institution is not necessarily good. Comparison to biology does not make me blasé about marriage.

Notice that I didn’t say that the historical purpose of marriage is perpetuation of the species. Marriage itself was revealed by Heavenly Father, as are its high and holy purposes. But surely an author who thinks of institutions like marriage as secular things that evolve like organisms should have a concomitant concern that that “evolution” perpetuate something. At the very least, from his perspective, the historical purpose of marriage is perpetuation of the civilization. The species can perpetuate itself just fine without institutional help. But civilization can and has died in the past. Like its biological counterpart, his “institutional evolution” must serve the universal underlying purpose of perpetuation of the civilization. If an institution ceases to serve that purpose, it will cripple or kill the civilization or it will disappear.

I do not believe the sole purpose of marriage is perpetuation of civilization, although that is definitely one of its greatest purposes. There is much more to marriage than historical analysis can ever reveal. But even someone who sees marriage as an invention of man should have reason to hesitate when people propose such drastic changes.


1. Julian Sanchez, “Marital Mythology: Why the New Crisis in Marriage Isn’t,” Reason Magazine, 1 Jun. 2006.