Thursday, September 16, 2010

Family, Ritual, Evolution, and Literature

In the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Arjuna observes that, "In the annihilation of the family, its time-honored rites are destroyed; and when these rites perish, lawlessness overpowers the entire family."

This got me to thinking about family structures.

There are many ways one can structure a family. In the West we have settled on the "nuclear family" of husband, wife, and children, but throughout world history there have been families with many wives, those with extended family living under the same roof, etc. The nuclear family has the benefit of being highly mobile, which is beneficial in a rapidly changing, highly mobile society like the U.S. If both the husband and wife work, it's hard enough to make the decision to move -- if a man is married to ten women, and they all have jobs, that decision is going to become nearly impossible. Why move just because one of you got a better job? The same argument could be used if your household consists of a husband and wife, their children, and their children's children. More people in the household certainly makes for a more psycho-socially healthy atmosphere, but it really narrows your economic options.

The idea of family rites, or rituals, also made me think about what happens when two people get married. I certainly had certain family rites and rituals I was raised with, and which I have taken into my own family. The same is true of my wife. When we decided to get married, we talked about what rites and rituals we wanted to have (naturally, we didn't say, "Hey, honey, let's talk about what rites and rituals our family should have," though that was what we were doing). We talked about how we wanted to raise children, what kind of lifestyle we wanted, etc. In marrying each other, we brought together the rites and rituals we were raised with, used some, rejected others, came to compromises, and even added some we weren't raised with at all. Neither of us were raised going to the opera or ballet or to museums (though I probably went to a few more museums than she did, neither of us had ever gone to the opera or ballet growing up), but these activities are certainly a part of our lives now, and will become a part of our children's lives. Bringing together different family rites and rituals is what really drives cultural changes, and it is what almost certainly drove the evolution of different cultures throughout the world as families migrated across the face of the earth.

My wife one day wondered why it is that most of the novels, plays and poetry in my library were written by men, and why it was that historically men were the storytellers. Where were the women? I asked her: who do you think came up with all the fairy tales and other stories told to children? The Grimm brothers only collected the stories -- it was women who came up with the stories and told them to their children, passing them from generation to generation. Over time, the stories were changed, developed, made more complex, simplified, etc. until written down. Many of our stories are based on folk and fairy tales, and it's likely both men and women contributed to their telling and development. For some reason, men tend to dissociate things from the family more than women do, so that may be why literature written for others (outside the family) have tended to be written by men. I would guess that this is because prehistoric women gathered food with family, but men hunted with men from other families. This tension between staying close to family and seeking help outside the family is likely what drove the creation of larger tribes, etc. until we get to the much larger cooperative-competitive international communities we now see.

Naturally, literature oftentimes deals with family structures and rituals. We oftentimes see the breakdown of family and rituals. If we return to the quotation above, what implications might there be for this insight from a Darwinian perspective? What examples can we see from literature?

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