Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Marriage equality as evolution

By Rosemary Joyce

How quickly things have evolved.

Three years ago this month, I was in Campeche, Mexico, participating in an international congress about the archaeology of the ancient Maya. And I was keeping an eye on the Supreme Court, waiting to write an op-ed that I hoped would be a celebration of an extension of the right to marry to men and women throughout the US.

I feared that I would end up having to write yet another demonstration that anthropology and history do not support limiting marriage based on some kind of "traditional" or "natural" stability of marriage.

But in 2013, and again today, the Supreme Court heard arguments against extending the right to marriage to same sex couples, rooted in claims of human universals, and judged them for what they are: attempts to artificially hold back a cultural change that is inevitable: evolution.

We will need time to read the opinion and reflect on it. In 2013, I underlined one phrase from that Supreme Court decision: "A dignity and status of great import." The court understood that marriage, as a social recognition of a commitment made based on love, is a matter of human dignity.

The legal debates about marriage equality, in California, in other states, and in Washington, have consistently highlighted the indignities that anti-marriage equality arguments introduced, not just for same sex couples but for anyone who is married and childless, or adopted into a family. In a post on the Berkeley Blog in 2010 after Prop 8 was struck down, I reflected on some of the arguments offered unsuccessfully in that case:

Anthropologists who have written about American kinship have long noted a tendency in US society to equate kinship with blood identity. Yet at the same time, in US society, adopted children are not supposed to be differentiated from children born of the biological union of their parents. Both today and historically, children have been incorporated in families through a variety of means. The idea that biological kinship is more authentic than kinship through fostering, feeding, care, and history would be offensive to many, I would hope most, people in the US today.

Reflecting on the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court, I noted that

proponents of the restriction of marriage to male-female couples claimed that "redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes." As Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer made clear in their questions, this formulation would seem to define childless couples as unfit for marriage as well.

Both in 2013 and in the case decided today, the Supreme Court considered arguments based on claims of historical precedent. In the 2013 decision, the majority wrote "Marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and its role and function throughout the history of civilization."

That invocation of "the history of civilization" is something my discipline, anthropology, has the expertise to assess. In 2004, the American Anthropological Association issued its statement on marriage:

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.

Writing as an archaeologist, in 2012 I noted that people who want to define marriage in a singular way ignore histories, including those of Christianity, showing that attitudes toward marriage and practices about it have varied. In oral arguments leading to the decision issued today, Ruth Ginsburg sharply contradicted claims that marriage should stay the same, noting that

"Marriage today is not what it was under thecommon law tradition, under the civil law tradition .... Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to asubordinate female."

In my own writing, my point has not been to find precedents for same sex marriage in history or a stable "human nature", but to show the amazing variety of ways human societies have arranged social, affectionate, and reproductive relationships.

As I wrote in 2012, arguments against extending marriage equality to same sex couples "ignore the one real universal about our species: we are human, and humans evolve to fit their times and circumstances".

And that is what happened today. Evolution.