My Marriage Evolved Away

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.


  1. 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.

    How many scientific studies back this up?

  2. The short answer is that, science-wise, the jury is out. While many researchers conclude “no effect” in their studies, others point out several methodological flaws in the studies. (Notice also that I said “rear children as well as a mother and father can,” not “always do.” I recognize there is a range of parenting quality.) If you’re interested, read Richard N. Williams, “The Effect on Children of the Sexual Orientation of Parents: What the Research Doesn’t Say,” Invited Address to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 2000. I can email you a copy if you’d like.

    But that’s not really the question. The question is whether science can judge how well children are being raised. That is not a scientific question; it’s a moral one. In any of the studies mentioned, the criteria for “better” involves non-moral criteria such as health of children, academic achievement, or odds of accepting and exploring homosexuality themselves. Scientific studies could, for example, detect that children raised by two lesbian partners are more likely to accept and explore homosexuality (they have). But whether that is good is a moral judgment.

    Since when did any scientific study justify a moral claim? Science can never say that one thing is “better” than another; it can only detect differences, and it is up to us, as moral agents, to determine whether those differences are good or bad. And if your criteria for good or bad has only to do with health, academic achievement, or social life (being accepting of people who are different is often a psychological criteria for a healthy social life, so of course children of same-sex parents score higher by that standard), then it will be easy to demonstrate “scientifically” that children of same-sex parents are just as well off, if not better off.

    We do not need to justify moral claims with scientific studies. I believe it is morally better to have two parents of the opposite gender, and morally questionable to have a same-sex couple be parents. That is because doing so would contradict Heavenly Father’s plan for his children, and any time we ignore his affirmations of right and wrong, we sin and set ourselves up for misery and unnecessary pain.

  3. In that case we’re clearly not going to see eye to eye on this one, so let’s not try to go down that route 😉

    I’m hesitant to place too much faith in anything put out by NARTH (they have something of a ‘dubious’ history when it comes to this stuff) but I’ll certainly read what you sent me. What worries me is that people who do studies like this tend to come out with the result that they want to see – in other words, a researcher working for NARTH is almost inevitably going to find one thing while a secular, pro-homosexuality researcher is inevitably going to find the opposite. I’m not suggesting that anyone is faking the results, just agreeing that this stuff isn’t easy to track scientifically.

    I’m not religious, so I obviously don’t lend any weight to religious arguments, but I can see where religious people are coming from – the Bible (or your sacred text of choice) is pretty clear on homosexuality. But I’m wondering, would you vote for or against a law enabling gay couples to become parents (we’ll say through adoption rather than something like IVF)?

  4. I would vote against a law enabling same-sex couples to adopt. My primary reason is that it feels very wrong to me, and I think that’s a valid reason to decide with when casting a vote.

    But I also believe that Heavenly Father’s commandments make sense and are designed to make us all happy, even if we don’t always immediately see the reasons why. So I expect that investigation eventually renders reasonable his commandments, especially if we’re searching in the right way. It often takes time, though.

    One way that I think gay adoption isn’t right is that it inherently deprives a child of either a father or a mother. Children are entitled to both a father and a mother; its a natural right. Gay adoption denies them that right by design, not by incidence (as would be the case when, for example, a husband dies before his wife gives birth).

    By the way, VitaminBook, I’ve perused your blog. You have a great writing style, and you seem pretty level-headed and thoughtful. I appreciate you talking things over like this. 🙂

  5. VitaminBook: People who do studies like this tend to come out with the result that they want to see. … This stuff isn’t easy to track scientifically.

    You’re right, that’s so true on both sides. We all need to be more thorough in social research. To me, it’s one more indicator that many of these issues are not questions best left to science.

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