By Bill Muehlenberg

Revised, March 2010


The family is one of the most basic and universal of human institutions. And from a biblical point of view, it is one of the most crucial. Indeed, it is the first and most important institution created by God. It precedes the state and all other divinely ordained institutions. But it is not just religion that praises marriage and family. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once remarked that the family is “one of nature's masterpieces”. Indeed, it has been enjoyed by millions of people around the world for many centuries. The family unit is a major force of social cohesion and stability, the ideal means to raise and nurture children, and the best means of dispensing social services, such as education, health and welfare. No social invention comes close to comparing with the institution of the family, and its close companion, the institution of marriage.

Because of its central importance in the divine scheme, and to much of “bourgeoisie” history, it is perhaps to be expected that it should be subject to continued attack. Indeed, the family today is undergoing a radical assault from a number of quarters. This battering that is almost unprecedented in recent history. It seems that the institutions of marriage and family have come under exceptionally heavy fire, with hostile salvos coming from all sides.

Many social commentators have noted this all-out attack on the family. Consider the many books which have appeared lately – from secular and religious publishing houses alike - with titles such as, The War Against the Family,[1] The Family Under Siege,[2] In Defense of the Family,[3] The Assault on Parenthood,[4] The Marriage Problem,[5] Utopia against the Family,[6] Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged,[7] The Family on Trial,[8] The Broken Hearth,[9] The War Against Parents,[10] and The War Over the Family.[11]

A few representative quotes can help to set the stage. The battle over the family can especially be found in the intellectual and political arenas. As Philip Abbott has put it, “The attack on the family in modern political thought has been sweeping and unremitting. Although the critiques vary in their intensity, dissatisfaction with the family is nearly universal in modern political thought”.[12]

James Q. Wilson echoes these thoughts: “Since the Enlightenment, the dominant tendency in legal and philosophical thought has been to emancipate the individual from all forms of tutelage – the state, revealed religion, ancient custom – including the tutelage of kin. This emancipation has proceeded episodically and unevenly, but relentlessly. Liberal political theory has celebrated the individual and constrained the state, but it has been silent about the family.”[13]

Yet as sociologist Robert Nisbet has remarked: “It should be obvious that family, not the individual, is the real molecule of society, the key link in the social chain of being. It is inconceivable to me that either intellectual growth or social order or the roots of liberty can possibly be maintained among a people unless the kinship tie is strong and has both functional significance and symbolic authority. On no single institution has the modern political state rested with more destructive weight than on the family. From Plato's obliteration of the family in his Republic, through Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, and Marx, hostility to family has been an abiding element in the West's political clerisy.”[14]

And as Nisbet remarks elsewhere, governments are often the source of greatest danger to the family: “From Burke on it has been a conservative precept and a sociological principle since Auguste Comte that the surest way of weakening the family, or any other vital group, is for the government to assume, and then monopolize, the family's historic functions.”[15]

The fact that the family is under attack seems pretty clear. The reasons why this is the case are less certain and more complex however. There are many variables in the equation.[16] One can argue that the secularization process in the Western world is a leading factor.[17] Changing economic conditions, resulting in the mass employment of women in the workforce is another factor.[18] Changing social and cultural values also have their role to play. The counter culture of the 60s and 70s is a case in point,[19] with the rise of feminism,[20] gay liberation,[21] the sexual revolution,[22] and other radical social upheavals. Changes in the legal world, especially with introduction of no-fault divorce, have also contributed.[23] The rise in mother-headed households, and the disappearance of fatherhood could also be explored.[24] And the general devaluation of marriage is also an important consideration.[25]

While other factors could be mentioned, and each could merit its own discussion, I want to focus on just one part of the equation. This has to do with the tendency amongst many of our intelligentsia (educators, social commentators, media personalities, politicians and the like) to try to attack the family from a social/historical angle. That is, by seeking to alter the facts of history, they hope to convince many that the family is simply an historical aberration. They want to us believe not only that the natural family[26] is a recent invention, but that very few people in fact live in setting of the natural family. Thus there is a concerted effort to undermine the family both in terms of its historicity and its universality.


The Historicity and Universality of the Natural Family

The remainder of this paper will argue that the natural family has been a constant of human history. Most cultures throughout most of human history have organised their lives around the family unit – both nuclear and extended. To make this argument is not to deny the many permutations and variations of the family unit which can be found amongst the world’s cultures, both past and present. Yes families have come in different shapes and sizes. And such differentiation is to be expected. However, the “fact that family has varied from time to time and place to place does not prove that family is a recent historical invention, or that it has not existed in all societies.”[27] Indeed, this paper will demonstrate that as a general rule, with many obvious exceptions, the natural family has been the norm of human history, and that the institution of marriage has played a major role in this family structure.

Critics of the family claim that marriage and family are repressive, patriarchal, selfish, inward-looking and enslaving. Some critics go even further, alleging that the traditional family is basically dead, that few people live in traditional families any more, and that the traditional family was just some invention of the 1950’s. Indeed, how often do hear today from anti-family spokesmen that those of us who seek to promote family values are just trying to turn the clock back to the fifties? It is as if the family was born in America some time in the fifties, and died a few decades later.

This claim that the traditional family is only a recent “invention”, something which is no longer relevant, has been made by many detractors of the family. Various feminists, homosexual activists and civil libertarians have repeated this claim, and repeated it so often, that now it has almost become the accepted wisdom.

Take for example a speech given during the International Year of the Family in 1994 by a Professor of anthropology from Charles Sturt University, Albury campus, in New South Wales. The Professor said that today's nuclear family is an “aberration” left over from the 40s and 50s. “It's not functional now, and it never has been. That is why this type of family is surrounded by so much legislation and moral discourse. It needs propping up because it's not a natural unit.”

“It has not arisen from biology or an imperative from human nature,” she continues, “but was structurally created to promote gender, sexual and racial order.” Even in its prime form in the 50s, it was only a minority, she claims. “No other society that I am aware of has ever tried it . . .it was basically a white middle-class Anglo-celtic family that was part of the new postwar economic and gender order.”[28]

Other examples could be produced. For example, lesbian commentator Susan Mitchell wrote an opinion piece tearing into the notion of the natural family, saying the “narrow legal definition of family as illustrated by that fragile unit known as the nuclear family has been the most destructive influence on all our human relationships. Such a notion of family is all about who is excluded, not who is included. . . . [A]ny notion of family being defined by direct biological links is a nonsense. The reduction of a family to a mother, a father and two children was a result of economics and the demands of a shifting workforce”.[29]

Or consider these remarks by Dr Warwick Hartin, former director of Marriage Guidance Australia: “The ‘50s were the golden era of the nuclear family. It wasn’t the way it was before or the way it has been since. It’s an historical blip, an aberration”.[30]

We get more of the same from a Melbourne University academic who argues for lesbian access to assisted reproductive technologies. She speaks of “the continuation of outdated 1950s family values that are deeply homophobic and fearful of women raising children without men”.[31]

Just one more. Feminist writer Fiona Stewart took me to task in a column entitled, “Beware the back-to-the-kitchen brigade.” She complained about “conservative groups such as the Australian Family Association” who imagined “doomsday thoughts” concerning the changing fortunes of the family. She claimed we exist to “rail against social change, particularly where women are concerned.” She clinched her argument with the now-standard throwaway line: Our concerns are “born out of nostalgia for the 1950s version of the nuclear family with the stay-at-home mother.”[32]

Perhaps these critics need to become more widely read: the historical, anthropological and sociological record gives a much different picture. The traditional family unit, cemented by marriage, is not just a 1950s social construct. It has in fact been the predominant form of family life in most cultures throughout history. The evidence is all too plain for anyone without ideological blinders to see.


The Family in History

Just a few examples will suffice to show that the family is clearly not a recent ‘invention,’ nor is it a localised institution. Late Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman’s historical overview of the family shows that the nuclear family is the heart of society. He demonstrates that when families break down, so do societies.[33]

Boston University sociologist Peter Berger has said, “Recent research into the history of the family, both in Western Europe and in northern America, shows that the nuclear family, far from being a product of modernization processes (such as urbanization and industrialization), antedates these processes by centuries”.[34]

Indeed, the family antedates the state as well. Writing two and a half millennia ago, Aristotle put it this way: “Man is by nature more inclined to live as a couple than to associate politically, since the family is something that precedes and is more necessary than the State.”[35] 

The family not only spans the centuries, but it extends across cultures as well. Bronislaw Malinowski was the first great anthropologist to live among primitive peoples. After years of research and painstaking observations of the daily habits of these people, he came to see that the family was a universal institution:

“Indeed, at first sight, the typical savage family, as it is found among the vast majority of native tribes . . . seems hardly to differ at all from its civilized counterpart. Mother, father, and children share the camp, the home, the food, and the life…. Attached to each other, sharing life and most of its interests, exchanging counsel and help, company and cheer, and reciprocating in economic cooperation . . . the individual, undivided family stands out conspicuous, a definitive social unit marked off from the rest of society by a clear line of division.”[36]

Another important anthropologist, Robert Lowie, notes that communal arrangements in sexuality and child-rearing are the exception, whereas families are the universal norm: “Sexual communism as a condition taking the place of the individual family exists nowhere at the present time; and the arguments for its former existence must be rejected as unsatisfactory . . . we are justified in concluding that regardless of all other social arrangements the individual family is an omnipresent social unit…. [T]he one fact stands out beyond all others that everywhere the husband, wife and immature children constitute a unit apart from the remainder of the community.”[37]

Anthropologist George Murdock's exhaustive investigation into 250 human societies revealed this elementary conclusion: “The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light in the 250 representative cultures surveyed for the present study. . . In no case have we found a reliable ethnographer denying either the existence or the importance of this elemental social group. . . The nuclear family is always recognizable and always has its distinctive and vital functions.”[38]

More recent research by Peter Laslett of Cambridge University has confirmed Murdock's claims, that the nuclear family is universal.[39] Says Laslett, “In England and elsewhere in Northern and Western Europe the standard situation was one where each domestic group consisted of a simple family living in its own house, so that the conjugal family unit was identical with the household . . . in spite of the important differences which comparison reveals . . . this standard situation seems to have obtained to a remarkable extent everywhere else.”[40]

Elsewhere Laslett says that “the distinguishing feature of the family in the Western tradition, in so far as it is discernible to the sociological historian over the last two or three centuries at least” has been the presence of several characteristics, the first of which is the “shape and membership of the familial group. In the West this has been confined for the most part to the parents and children themselves, what is called the nuclear family form or simple family household”.[41]

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni has put it this way: “There never was a society throughout all of history . . . without a family as the central unit for launching the education of children, for character formation, and as the moral agent of society.”[42]

Harvard University’s James Q. Wilson concurs: “In every community and for as far back in time as we can probe, the family exists and children are expected, without exception, to be raised in one. By a family I mean a lasting, socially enforced obligation between a man and a woman that authorizes sexual congress and the
supervision of children. Its style and habits will vary greatly, of course, but nowhere do we find a place where children are regularly raised by a mother who has no claims on the father.”[43]

And again, “The family is not only a universal practice, it is the fundamental social unit of any society”.[44]

And this seems to be the constant pattern of history. As the Times Literary Supplement Editor, Ferdinand Mount has commented, “The family is not an historical freak. If the evidence we have put together is correctly interpreted, the family as we know it today - small, two-generation, nuclear, based on choice and neither a novelty nor the product of unique historical forces. The way most people live today is the way most people have preferred to live when they had the chance.”[45]

Michael Levin, professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, puts the case even more forcefully: “Human beings have always been reared within ‘traditional’ families. It is true that in many cultures children are raised after infancy by communal groups, but these groups are generally composed of mothers who know each other. Not only has there never been an open, democratic society not based on the family, there has never been any society of any sort not based on the family. In every society a child’s upbringing has been the responsibility of close blood relations, with his daily care a female task and his protection a male task.”[46]

Given all these claims, one has to ask, why should there be any doubt that the traditional family is the norm? As suggested earlier, there are those who simply are pushing an agenda, and will not let the facts stand in their way. Many social scientists are hostile to marriage and family and are quite happy to ignore or skew the historical and record and the social data. But not all of them are.

One anthropologist from Boston University is worth quoting at length in this regard:

Anthropology – hometown to cultural relativists and all-night diner for disaffected intellectuals – may not be where you would most expect to find good reason to defend traditional American family values. But anthropology, in fact, guards a treasure house of examples of what happens when a society institutionalizes other arrangements…

The Leftist political convictions of many of my fellow anthropologists tend to keep them silent about some of the scientific findings that have accumulated over 150 years or so of systematic enthnographic study. But these findings strongly suggest that the family is a bedrock institution and that the kinds of modifications to the family advocated by gays, feminists, and others who speak in favor of relaxing traditional restrictions on sexual self-expression will have huge consequences.[47]

Thus in spite of the ideological musings of some intellectuals, the family unit is the preferred way of living for most people. It is also the best. No other social relationship comes close to the family unit. It is in the family that all other social relationships are learned and developed. Without the family, social cohesion would be much more difficult to achieve. As late Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin has said, the family is the “first fundamental form of social relationships”.[48]


Marriage the Norm

Marriage is also an historical given. Commentators old and new have noted this fact. Back in 1725 Italian philosopher and social theorist Giambattista Vico wrote his monumental treatise, The New Science. In this wide-ranging work, Vico argued that marriage was an essential characteristic of civilisation. Having made an exhaustive study of ancient history, he declared marriage to be the “seed-plot” of society.

In an important article written by J D Unwin of Cambridge University, marriage is seen as the crucial element in the development and maintenance of healthy societies: “Marriage as a life-long association has been an attendant circumstance of all human achievement, and its adoption has preceded all manifestations of social energy. . . . Indissoluble monogamy must be regarded as the mainspring of all social activity, a necessary condition of human development.”[49]

Writing in 1938, Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman opened his book on marital happiness with these words: “Marriage is one of the most nearly universal of human institutions. No other touches so intimately the life of practically every member of the earth’s population”.[50] And more recent studies arrive at similar findings. Dr Helen Fisher, anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, puts it this way: “Marriage is a cultural universal; it predominates in every society in the world.”[51]

American sociologist Kingsley Davis concurs: “Although the details of getting married – who chooses mates, what are the ceremonies and exchanges, how old are the parties – vary from group to group, the principle of marriage is everywhere embodied in practice. . . . No matter how bizarre or peculiar the marriage customs of a given society, they are still recognizable as marriage customs. In any particular society there may be individuals, couples, or even groups who reject marriage as a norm, but these, being in the minority, do not determine the norms of the whole society. Other people may fail to marry because of conditions beyond their control, but the institution of marriage is present in the society.”[52]

He goes on to note that “the unique trait of what is commonly called marriage is social recognition and approval … approval of a couple’s engaging in sexual intercourse and bearing and rearing offspring”.[53] And these aspects of marriage are both universal and historical. They are not unique to just a few cultures, nor are they found sporadically in history: “compared to most other aspects of human society, marriage has changed surprisingly little. As an institution, contemporary wedlock bears an indubitable likeness to marriage three centuries or three millennia ago. It still has the same essential character that it had then.”[54]

Indeed, monogamy, not communal or group relationships, has been the long-standing norm. As Mount says, “Anthropologists have firmly denied that group marriage was the rule in primitive society. . . .Westermarck in his History of Marriage (1891) asserts that, on the contrary, monogamy is the rule almost everywhere; even where polygamy or any other variant of sexual, parental and social relations is found, monogamy continues to be the normal rule of life.”[55]

American social commentator Karl Zinmeister goes so far as to put it this way: “The preference for monogamy thus seems to be a kind of Iron Rule of human culture. Even in today’s hyper-liberated America, the instinct retains a powerful grip on us: The data … show that the proportion of married people having sexual relations beyond the marital boundary is only a few percent a year.”[56]

A major purpose of marriage of course is the regulation of human sexuality. Cultures that do not tame this most basic and uncontrollable instinct ask for, and get, trouble. As Brandeis University anthropologist David Murray put it: “Cultures differ in many ways, but all societies that survive are built on marriage. Marriage is a society's cultural infrastructure, its bridges of social connectedness. The history of human society shows that when people stop marrying, their continuity as a culture is in jeopardy.”[57]

James Q. Wilson also emphasises this point: “In virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman. Even in societies where men and women have relatively unrestricted sexual access to one another beginning at an early age, marriage is still the basis for family formation. It is desired by the partners and expected by society. Marriage, in short, is not simply a way of legitimizing sex, and so it cannot be dispensed with just because sexual activity need not be made legitimate. Marriage exists because people must take responsibilities for child care and assume economic obligations. Marriage, and thus the family that it defines, is a commitment.”[58]

Writing a decade later, Wilson finds the evidence just as strong: “Marriage, broadly defined, is a universal feature of all societies and apparently has been since records first were kept.”.[59] Blankenhorn concurs: “Marriage as a man-woman bond is fundamentally a natural and social institution – what Claude Levi-Strauss calls ‘a social institution with a biological foundation’ – that exists in all or nearly all human societies.”[60]

Finally, a further word from Zinmeister. He argues that the historical record is quite clear on the existence and importance of the institution of marriage: “History suggests marriage is the oldest and probably most indispensable of all human institutions. It varies in name, and sometimes in detail, but as anthropologist David Gilmore says, ‘all societies have marriage – there are none that do not.’ And the reason is simple: marriage regulates sex. And sex, as everyone knows, is humanity’s original impulse.”[61]


Marriage is natural

Some radical feminists and other critics however want to argue that marriage is just an artificial social construction, as is the nuclear family. They seek to downplay marriage by claiming that it is socially constructed by male rulers to dominate women and keep them in their place.

However, the evidence points in the opposite direction. As family law expert Lynne Marie Kohn has stated, “Marriage was not invented, codified, or planned by human government. Rather, human government gave the stamp of approval to a design already manifested, honored, maintained, and flourishing.”[62]

Indeed, the claim that marriage is a simply a flexible and changing institution, and has originated as the result of government decrees and transient laws is not borne out by the historical evidence. American professor of law William Duncan puts it this way: “marriage preexisted the state and is recognized (not created) by the state because of its intrinsic value. This is not a theological point. Whether one understands that marriage preexisted state recognition as a matter of religious belief or whether one believes that marriage has developed from the machinations of a ‘selfish gene,’ one thing is clear – marriage did not come into being by statute. . . . It is not, therefore, wholly malleable.”[63]

Emory University (Atlanta) Professor of Law and Ethics, John Witte, admits that an appeal to the historical record is not in itself sufficient: “History alone, of course, is not reason enough to maintain traditional marriage laws. But history must be an essential part of any serious arguments for the maintenance of traditional marriage.”[64]

Thus in his essay on the “tradition of traditional marriage” he notes how marriage and its importance can be traced back to writers in antiquity, long antedating the Christian church. He concludes with these words: “For all of its theological and philosophical diversity, therefore, the West has had a long and thick overlapping consensus that marriage is good, does good, and has goods both for the couple and for the children.”[65]

Mind you, the marriage spoken of here is not same sex-marriage, as some are now pushing, but the traditional male-female form. Even the evolutionary biologists, like C. Owen Lovejoy have acknowledged that the paleo-anthropological evidence makes clear that male-female bonding in lasting pairs was the critical step in human evolution.[66] And other evolutionists acknowledge that this long-term male-female bonding is not some social construct, but is built into us by nature itself: “There is one big difference between human beings and chimpanzees and that is the institution we call marriage. In virtually all human cultures, including hunter-gatherer societies, males monopolise their mates, and vice versa. Even if he ends up with more than one wife ... each man enters a long-term relationship with each woman who bears his children. . . . Long-term pair bonds are not a cultural construct of our particular society; they are a habit universal to our species.”[67]

Boston University anthropologist Peter Wood argues that the ethnographic and anthropological data on this are quite clear: “The anthropological evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that large social consequences follow from a society’s decisions about which sexual practices are legitimate. The rules that govern marriage and sexuality are, directly and indirectly, the basis of family life and have enormous influence over the formation of good (or bad) character in children. Marriage channels the primary relations between the sexes and the generations, and it is the template for most other relations in society. This is true not just in the United States. It is true everywhere.”[68]

Indeed, the argument for same-sex marriage and adoption rights ignore the historic, sociological and anthropological evidence. Families always have been defined by the male/female relationship, and children have almost always been raised within that unit. Few exceptions can be found. As Bronislaw Malinowski put it, “I know of no single instance in anthropological literature of a community where illegitimate children, that is children of unmarried girls, would enjoy the same social treatment and have the same social status as legitimate ones. The universal postulate of legitimacy has a great sociological significance ... It means that in all human societies moral tradition and the law decree that the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is not a socially complete unit. The ruling of culture runs here ... it declares that the human family must consist of a male as well as a female.”[69]

The raising of children has in most cultures taken place within that male/female relationship. This was one of the discoveries made by Margaret Mead: “When we survey all known societies, we find everywhere some form of the family, some set of permanent arrangements by which males assist females in caring for children while they are young.”[70] Not any old relationship will do here. As Wilson puts it, “A family is not an association of independent people; it is a human commitment designed to make possible the rearing of moral and responsible children. Governments care – or ought to care – about families for this reason, and scarcely for any other.”[71]

And the raising of children involves more than just maternal involvement. Fathers play an equally important role. As Rutgers University professor of sociology David Popenoe, a leading expert on families, puts it: “Across time and cultures, fathers have always been considered by societies to be essential – and not just for their sperm. Indeed, until today, no known society ever thought of fathers as potentially unnecessary. Biological fathers are everywhere identified, if possible, and play some role in their children’s upbringing. Marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father, and children – are the most universal social institutions in existence. In no society has nonmarital childbirth been the norm. To the contrary, a concern for the ‘legitimacy’ of children is another cultural near universal: The mother of an illegitimate child virtually everywhere has been regarded as a social deviant, if not a social outcast, and her child has been stigmatized.”[72]

Malinowski puts it this way: “Through all societies there runs the rule that the father is indispensable for the full sociological status of the child [and] that the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is sociologically incomplete and illegitimate…. The most important moral and legal rule [in primitive societies] is that no child should be brought into the world without a man – and one man at that – assuming the role of sociological father, that is guardian and protector, the male link between the child and the rest of the community. . . . This is by no means only a European or Christian prejudice; it is the attitude found amongst most barbarous and savage people as well. . . . I think that this generalization amounts to a universal sociological law”.[73]

Not only is marriage and family defined by the male/female relationship, but by a life-long commitment as well. Says Mead: “No matter how free divorce, how frequently marriages break up, in most societies there is the assumption of permanent mating, of idea that the marriage should last as long as both live. . . . No known society has ever invented a form of marriage strong enough to stick that did not contain the 'till death us do part' assumption.”[74]

Marriage is important for a variety of reasons, but one main reason historically has been the need to bind fathers to the mother-child relationship. Marriage, simply put, helps to civilise young men and refocus their energies into productive and committed relationships. This is a common understanding in the findings of anthropology. As Margaret Mead once said, “The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men”.[75] Or as George Gilder more crudely puts it, marriage is all about “taming the barbarians”.[76]

Gilder makes the case in startling terms: “Biology, anthropology, and history all tell the same story. Every society, each generation, faces an invasion by barbarians. . . . These barbarians are young men and boys, in their teens and early twenties. If the truth be known, all too many of them are entirely unsuited for civilized life. Every society must figure out ways to bring them into the disciplines and duties of citizenship.”[77]

Gilder is right in this regard: men simply need extra incentives to get married and stay married. As David Popenoe explains, “biology was never enough to hold a father to the mother-child bond. That’s why every society has set up the institution of marriage – virtually every society – and they did it for this purpose of holding the father to the mother-child bond. They realized that the outcome for the children would be better.”[78]

At this point some might argue that polygamy in its various forms has been a notable feature of many cultures throughout history. The short answer to this objection is both yes and no. Polygamy has certainly existed, but it appears to be the exception, not the rule. Philosopher Stephen Post puts it this way: “Historically, men have a reasonably strong record of monogamy. When polygamy has existed, it has been almost entirely the result of the sheer power of despots over men and women.”[79] Or as Matt Ridley notes in his book on sex and the evolution of human nature, “even in openly polygamous societies, most men have had only one wife and virtually all women have only one husband”.[80]

Levin unites these various truths in this way: “Some societies have favored polygamy, a few polyandry; in some societies a number of married couples live together under a communal roof, while in others each of the basic units live separately. But no society has tolerated reproductive units with more than one member of both sexes, a temporary bond, or sex outside the reproductive unit.”[81]

Matt Ridley likewise offers this summarising perspective: “The harems of ancient despots ... cannot have been typical of the human condition for most of its history. . . . In many ways modern people probably live in social systems that are much closer to those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors. . . . No hunter-gatherer society supports more than occasional polygamy; and the institution of marriage is virtually universal. People live in larger bands than they used to, but within those bands the kernel of human life is the nuclear family: a man, his wife and children. Marriage is a child-rearing institution: wherever it occurs the father takes at least some part in rearing the child even if only by provision of food. In most societies, men strive to be polygamists; but few succeed. Even in the polygamous societies of pastoralists, the great majority of marriages are monogamous ones. It is our usual monogamy, not our occasional polygamy, that sets us apart from other animals, including apes.”[82]

Marriage and the nuclear or extended family, therefore, appear to be the norm throughout human history. And children are almost always raised by their biological parents. However, at this point someone may raise the issue of the kibbutz in Israel. Therefore, let me deal with it here. Very briefly, the experiment was been tried and found wanting. Many references could be cited here. Let me offer the words of sociologist Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University: “Israeli kibbutzim are rapidly dismantling their collective child care centers and returning children to live with their families – because both the families and the community established that even a limited disassociation of children from their parents at a tender age is unacceptable”.[83]

Zinmeister, in his article assessing the downside to the kibbutzim, summarises: “Today, nearly all kibbutzim have overthrown the communal childrearing practices that were once at the very heart of their efforts. Infant care has shifted back to parents. Children’s houses are disappearing. Single family dwellings have sprung up, and the private family dinner has returned. Parent-child intimacy and closeness are enjoying a great revival.”[84]

Moreover, not only has the kibbutz movement stopped collectivised child rearing, but recent allegations of widespread rape and child sexual abuse in the kibbutzim have sparked outrage in Israel.[85]



Modern legal and political documents have always – at least until recently – acknowledged the importance of marriage and family. Consider but four statements:

“Marriage is defined as the civil status, condition or relation of one man and one woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.”[86]

The family has been acknowledged by the United Nations in its Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society entitled to protection by society and State.”[87] Also, “Men and women of full age, without limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and found a family.”[88] Marriage is defined by the Marriage Act (1961) and the Family Law Act (1975) as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life”.

The faulty use of historical fact by the Charles Sturt University Professor is not all, however. Indeed, one is left wondering which is greater, her capacity to mislead and misinform, or her intense dislike of “traditional” families. She says “While some privileged people can look back to a happy childhood or a fulfilling career in motherhood during the 1950s, for many others that same family structure produced and hid violence, isolation, depression, despair and the truncation of opportunity for the women so central to them.”

The fact is, however, for the overwhelming majority of Australians, the nuclear family is the norm, a source of great joy and warmth, not the dysfunctional mess that the Professor makes it out to be. One can only speculate as to why she seems to hate the family so, but we have a clue when she goes on to discusses "alternatives to the idealised nuclear family," including "same-sex partner families". Perhaps it is this agenda - this attempt to redefine the family to include various "alternative lifestyles" - that explains her apparent disregard for historical and social fact, and her loathing of traditional family life.

But of course she is not alone in this attempt to redefine the family. It has been tried by many others. But as the brief remarks above indicate, the traditional family is not so easily disposed of. It remains an historical and social reality, which will not easily succumb to its enemies. The truth is, of course, it is not the family which is an aberration. The real aberration is the various groups who seek to denigrate and/or overthrow the family.

Yet as we noted in the introduction, the family has been under sustained attack. But as James Q. Wilson comments, “What is remarkable is how well the family has survived this process. Were the family the mere social convention that some scholars imagine, it would long since have gone the way of cottage industries, and the owner-occupied farm, the inevitable victim of the individualizing and rationalizing tendencies of modern life. But, of course, the family is not a human contrivance invented to accomplish some goal and capable of being reinvented or reformulated to achieve different goals. Family – and kinship generally – are the fundamental organizing facts of all human societies, primitive or advanced, and have been such for tens of thousands of years.”[89]

The words of Simon Leys offer a fitting summary: “The family has stood as the most enduring and successful experiment in the entire cultural history of mankind. . . .In the history of the civilised world, no substitute has ever been found for the family. Any society that allows it to disintegrate, or endeavours actively to destroy it (as we are now doing here) does it at its own horrific risks and costs. . . . That such a matter of common sense could become now a subject for challenge and debate is a telling sign of the times. Chesterton said it well: when common sense ceases to be common, a society is in terminal decay.”[90]


[1] William Gairdner, The War Against the Family. Toronto: Stoddart, 1992.

[2] George Grant, The Family Under Siege. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1994.

[3] Rita Kramer, In Defense of the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

[4] Mack, Dana, The Assault on Parenthood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 1997.

[5] James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families. New York: Harper Collins, 2002, p. 24.

[6] Bryce Christensen, Utopia Against the Family. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

[7] Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1977.

[8] Philip Abbott, The Family on Trial. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

[9] William Bennett, The Broken Hearth. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

[10] Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West, The War Against Parents. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

[11] Brigitte and Peter L. Berger, The War Over the Family. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983.

[12] Abbott, Ibid., p. 4.

[13] James Q. Wilson, “The Family Values Debate,” Commentary, April 1993.

[14] Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority. Oxford University Press, 1975, 1981, p.260.

[15] Robert Nisbet, Conservatism. University on Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 104.

[16] For some excellent general discussions of the many aspects to the family crisis, see Allan Carlson’s Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1988; and George Gilder, Men and Marriage. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1986.

[17] See for example the many volumes by Peter Berger on the processes of modernization and secularism.

[18] See for example, Carl Anderson and William Gribbin, eds., The Wealth of Families. Washington, D.C.: The American Family Institute, 1982. Alan Tapper, The Family in the Welfare State. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990.

[19] See: Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the 60s. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989; and Mryon Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

[20] See: Michael Levin, Feminism and Freedom. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1987; Nicholas Davidson, The Failure of Feminism. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988; Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Touchstone Books, 1994; and Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Feminism. Sydney: Matthias Media, 2001.

[21] See: Thomas Schmidt, Straight & Narrow: Compassion & Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995; Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996; and Stephen Green, The Sexual Dead-End. London: Broadview Books, 1992.

[22] See: Maggie Gallagher, Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution is Killing Family, Marriage and Sex and What We Can Do About It. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989; Patrick Dixon, The Rising Price of Love: The True Cost of the Sexual Revolution. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995; Tom Minnery, ed., Pornography: A Human Tragedy. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1986.

[23] See: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. New York: Hyperion, 2000; Barry Maley, Marriage, Divorce and Family Justice. Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1993; and Robert Whelan, ed., Just a Piece of Paper?: Divorce Reform and the Undermining of Marriage. London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1995.

[24] See: David Blackenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

[25] See: Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage. Washington: Regnery publishing, 1996; Bryce Christensen, ed., The Retreat From Marriage: Causes and Consequences. New York: University Press of America, 1990.

[26] By “natural family” or “traditional family” I mean in a simple sense, mum, dad and the kids. In a more considered definition, I mean that the natural family comprises any group of people related by blood, marriage or adoption.

[27] Moira Eastman, “Myths of Marriage and Family,” in David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtan, and David Blankenhorm, eds., Promises to Keep. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996, p. 38.

[28] Julie Marcus, “The Heritage of the Australian Family,” a paper delivered on 12 October, 1994.

[29] Susan Mitchell, “Let love determine who’s part of a clan,” The Australian, 5 June 2000, p. 13.

[30] Quoted in Anne Crawford, “The Australian nuclear family could be extinct by the end of the century. True,” The Age, 7 August 2000, Today, p. 3.

[31] Kristen Walker, “1950s family values vs human rights: In vitro fertilisation, donor insemination and sexuality in Victoria,” Public Law Review, v. 11, Dec. 2000, pp. 292-307, at p. 307.

[32] Fiona Stewart, “Beware the back-to-the-kitchen brigade,” The Age, 6 April 2002, p.11.

[33] Carle Zimmerman, Family and Civilization. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947.

[34] Peter Berger, The War Over the Family. New York: Anchor Press, 1983, p. 87.

[35] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 12.

[36] Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927.

[37] Robert Lowie, Primitive Society, London, 1929, pp. 59, 63.

[38] George Peter Murdoch, Social Structure. New York: The Free Press, 1949, pp. 2,3.

[39] Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, eds., Household and Family in Past Time. Cambridge University Press, 1972.

[40] Ibid., p. 40.

[41] Peter Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations. Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 13.

[42] Cited in Cultural Conservatism. Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, 1987, p. 32.

[43] James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families. New York: Harper Collins, 2002, p. 24.

[44] Ibid., p. 66.

[45] Ferdinand Mount, The Subversive Family. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982, p. 153.

[46] Michael Levin, Feminism and Freedom. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1987, pp. 283-284.

[47] Peter Wood, “Sex and consequences,” The American Conservative, 28 July 2003, pp. 8-12, p. 8.

[48] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics. American Book Company, 1957, p. 445.

[49] J. D. Unwin, “Monogamy as a Condition of Social Energy,” The Hibbert Journal, vol. 25, 1927, pp. 662, 663.

[50] Lewis Terman, Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1938, p. 1.

[51] Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, p. 65.

[52] Kingsley Davis, “The Meaning and Significance of Marriage in Contemporary Society,” in Kingsley Davis, ed., Contemporary Marriage: Perspectives on a Changing Institution. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1985, p. 5.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., p. 19.

[55] Mount, Ibid., p. 49.

[56] Karl Zinmeister, “Marriage matters,” The American Enterprise, vol. 7, no. 3, May-June 1996, pp. 4-6, p. 6.

[57] David Murray, “Poor Suffering Bastards: An Anthropologist Looks at Illegitimacy,” Policy Review, Spring 1994, p. 9.

[58] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press, 1993, p. 158.

[59] Wilson, Marriage Problem, p. 54.

[60] David Blankenhorn, The Future of Marriage. New York: Encounter Books, 2007, pp. 159-160.

[61] Zinmeister, Ibid., p. 6.

[62] Lynne Marie Kohm, “Marriage by design,” in Lynn Wardle, et. al., eds., Marriage and Same-Sex Unions: A Debate. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003, pp. 81-90, p. 82.

[63] William Duncan, “Imposing the same-sex marriage template on state constitutional law: the implications for marriage, constitutional theory, and democracy,” in Lynn Wardle, et. al., eds., Marriage and Same-Sex Unions: A Debate. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003, pp. 297-308, p. 301.

[64] John Witte, “The tradition of traditional marriage,” in Lynn Wardle, et. al., eds., Marriage and Same-Sex Unions: A Debate. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003, pp. 47-59, p. 48.

[65] Ibid., p. 57.

[66] C. Owen Lovejoy, “The Origin of Man,” Science, 211, No. 4480, 1981, pp. 341-350.

[67] Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue. London: Penguin Books, 1997, p. 92.

[68] Wood, p. 12.

[69] Malinowski, Ibid, p. 213.

[70] Margaret Mead, Male and Female, New York: Dell, 1949, 1968. p. 188

[71] Wilson, Moral Sense, p. 249.

[72] David Poponoe, Life Without Father. New York: The Free Press, 1996, pp. 3-4.

[73] Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex, Culture and Myth. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962, pp. 62-63.

[74] Mead, Ibid., p. 200.

[75] Mead, Ibid., p. 168.

[76] George Gilder, Men and Marriage. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1986, p. 39.

[77] Ibid.

[78] David Popenoe, in Katherine Anderson, Don Browning and Brian Boyer, eds, Marriage: Just a Piece of Paper? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 182.

[79] Stephen Post, More Lasting Unions: Christianity, the Family, and Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 24.

[80] Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. London: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 171.

[81] Levin, Ibid., p. 284.

[82] Ridley, The Red Queen, pp. 203-204.

[83] Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community. London: Fontana Press, 1983, 1985, p. 59.

[84] Karl Zinmeister, “Villages are lousy at raising pre-school children,” The American Enterprise, vol. 7, no. 3, May-June 1996, pp. 52-54, p. 54.

[85] Sam Kiley, “Uproar over kibbutz sex crime claims,” The Australian, 23 January 2001, p. 8.

[86] Black's Law Dictionary.

[87] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Article 16, no. 3.

[88] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Article 16, no. 1.

[89] Wilson, “Values”, Ibid.

[90] Simon Leys, “Teetering on the brink of barbarity,” The Age, July 4, 1995.

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