Sex and society (2): The rise of the nuclear family

by · May 15, 2015

Before the rise of the plough, society in Egypt was matriarchal

Before the rise of the plough, society in Egypt was matriarchal

Simon Copland is a freelance writer specialising in sex, culture and the environment. This is the second post in a six-part series examining the history of sex and the family. The first post can be found here. These posts and other work from Simon are available on his blog:

How did nuclear families become the norm?

In last week’s post I discussed our prevailing modern story about sex and the family. This story tells us that both monogamy and the patriarchy are inherent to our nature. They are as old as society itself. Yet, as I showed, many anthropologists and biologists strongly argue the evidence suggests something different. In fact during prehistoric times families were largely polyamorous and in lots of societies women had a high level of authority and control.

So how did we get to where we are? That is the topic of this week’s post.

The prehistoric polyamorous and egalitarian societies we discussed last week were disrupted primarily through one invention: agriculture.

Agriculture has probably had the greatest impact of any invention of human society. It fundamentally changed the way we lived. Hunter-gatherer societies lived largely or completely by subsistence. Different societies lived in different ways, but people primarily lived in small roaming clans, rarely settling in a single place for too long. Constantly on the move, we humans had no means, nor need, to hoard resources. We gathered berries, roots and other vegetable growth, or hunted and fished; working only for a few hours per day to gather what we needed to survive.

Agriculture changed all of this. With its development, particularly as processes became more intensive (through the use of the plough and irrigation) humans were suddenly able to extract significantly more resources. We started to accumulate surplus, or what we now call wealth. As Sharon Smith argues:

This was a turning point for human society, for it meant that, over time, production for use could be replaced by production for exchange and eventually for profit – leading to the rise of the first class societies some 6,000 years ago (first in Mesopotamia, followed a few hundred years later by Egypt, Iran, the Indus Valley and China).

Instead of roaming in small clans we settled in towns and on farms to accumulate wealth. We no longer lived by subsistence but instead started trading resources with those around us in order to survive. In turn we had to produce more and more so we could have more resources to trade.

The impacts of this were obviously huge, but not necessarily in a positive way. Scientist and author Jared Diamond for example called this shift “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. Agriculture brought with it, he said, “the social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism, that curse our existence”. Evidence suggests agriculture resulted in an intensification of work for what ended up being a less varied diet. In turn the health and average life span of communities dropped dramatically.

The egalitarianism of the past disappeared as well. Agriculture led to greater specialisation of labour, creating new social roles. This division created the first social hierarchies — the owning classes who managed resources and the working classes who worked on farms. With the potential for individual economic gain some families became wealthier than others, creating the first stage of our modern class system.

These social changes were felt most deeply within the family. Engels argues that with the development of agriculture men’s roles moved away from hunting and towards looking after the farm. Since men were largely in charge of sourcing protein during hunter-gatherer societies it made sense they continued this role by looking after the domesticated animals of the farm. Moreover, since it was difficult for women to complete heavy agricultural tasks while nursing a child this job landed in male laps. This is a very important shift. The farm or, more specifically according to Engels, domesticated cattle, was the first real private property. Farms and domesticated animals were owned by individuals, rather than belonging to the entirety of the community. Through taking control of agriculture, therefore, men also took control of private property. Men took control of the vast majority of wealth in a society.

This impact was compounded by the fact that agriculture required a greater focus on reproduction. In hunter-gatherer societies families were kept small, with people only reproducing in order to replace existing community members. In fact, the authors of Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacila Jethá, argue there is evidence that hunter-gatherer societies practiced a high level of infanticide — killing off babies that were seen as excess to the needs of the community. This was now all turned on its head. Agriculture required significantly more labour than hunting and gathering, therefore requiring more human resources. Families needed children to help look after their farms. This is why we see a significant increase in population after the development of agriculture. While men were playing a greater role in production, therefore, women’s roles turned more towards reproduction. It was now women’s role to reproduce, to produce workers for the farm.



And here, Engels argued, is how we saw a shift in the power relations of the family. With men now taking control of the production of resources they needed someone who they could pass these resources onto. They needed someone who could inherit the wealth they had built. But in the polyamorous families of the past men had no avenue to do this — they did not know who their children were and, in turn, who they could pass their wealth onto. Hence the new demand for monogamy. Men now demanded monogamy in return for looking after (i.e. providing resources for) women and children. That way they could have a guarantee that the children they were passing their resources onto were their’s. This slowly led to the defeat of the matrilineal society. As men took control of production so did they take control of the family, and then so came the introduction of patrilineal descent. Engels described it like this:

The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; shebecame the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. . . . Inorder to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she isdelivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is onlyexercising his rights.

What’s important here is that the sexual division of labour did not actually change significantly from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Men were still largely in charge of the “outside world”, women were still in charge of reproduction and the household. But as class society developed power shifted significantly away from the household, and so the relative influence of the genders shifted as well. In the book Toward an Anthropology of Women Karen Sacks argues:

Private property transformed the relations between men and women within the household only because it also radically changed the political and economic relations in the larger society. For Engels the new wealth in domesticated animals meant that there was a surplus of goods available for exchange between productive units. With time, production by men specifically for exchange purposes developed, expanded, and came to overshadow the household’s production for use… As production of exchange eclipsed production for use, it changed the nature of the household, the significance of women’s work within it, and consequently women’s position in society.

That is the story. Monogamy and the patriarchy are not natural, they are part of a particular economic development — the rise of agriculture, private property and a class based system.

In our next post we will explore this a little more by looking at capitalism and the modern patriarchy. There have been many critiques of Engels, which we will explore. But we will also look at the evidence that back these theories up, asking the question how have these gender roles continued to this day?

Filed under: Featured, gender, Marxism, sexuality