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What is Marriage? – Biological Basis

Marriage has become a hotly debated topic within the last few years as the issue of recognizing homosexual marriage by the state has come to the forefront. Both in initiatives to outlaw it and to legalize it by various groups on both sides.

But the arguments focus on two main areas: legal definition of marriage and the biblical classification of homosexual sex as a sin. Homosexual groups tend to focus on the inequality of the former, while religious groups focus on the latter. Meanwhile, few seem to be asking what marriage really is. Not purely based upon legal questions, or purely based upon Biblical prohibitions, but on a holistic approach that takes all aspects that define marriage into consideration.

To that end, I am going to do a series of posts about marriage. This will not be a complete historical run down, but will involve the following main topics:

  • What is Marriage?
  • Alternate Forms of Marriage
  • Divorce, Remarriage, Adultery
  • Healing Marital Devaluation

Some of these topics will overlap, but I think they can lay the groundwork to a fuller understanding of these controversial issues by all sides, as well as other issues that are often ignored by our culture and the Church. So let’s tackle the first topic:

What is Marriage?

Marriage is defined by biology and culture. For the Christian, also by biblical theology. The later will only matter to Christians directly, but if understood in context, syncs nicely with biology and can inform the cultural aspects. Non-Christians may appreciate understanding its basis if they can get past preconceived ideas about the topic.

In this installment, I’ll examine:

The Biological Basis for Marriage

Often people will survey the structure of “husband and wife” in the animal kingdom to prove the diversity of marital and familial makeups on display. For sure, there are many. All the way from a mate eating the other directly after sex to lifetime partners. However, what often isn’t focused on is the similarities.

Sex. In one form or another, it always involves the sharing of DNA for the purpose of conception. Sure, there may be an off beat example out there, but the basic biological purpose of two entities coming together in a sexual union is for procreation. Without that purpose, there would be no basis for a marriage or family structure, however that might play out in any individual species.

From species to species, the purpose of sex, the purpose of forming a husband/wife relationship, is to ensure the propagation of the species. If an activity cannot potentially create that outcome, whether it does or not, there is no biological marital union.

Look at it this way. There are countless activities that we share with each other, many of them pleasurable. Whether it is eating together, going to a movie, or enjoying a game of tennis, none of those activities are seen as creating a marriage or union.

Meanwhile, our society views sex as just one more enjoyable activity to share with someone you like. No more bonding than sharing a bowl of ice cream. Yet, when one considers the biological foundation of marriage, it boils down to sex. For practically every animal, sex and the creation of offspring is the foundation of that union.

If you think about it logically, it should be obvious. Take a husband and wife. Let’s suggest they appear married in every way. They live together. They spend quality time together. They share their intimate lives together. They have a legal paper saying they are married. Even a wedding. Yet, neither has ever had sex with the other. Answer this question. In what way is this living arrangement any different than best of friends sharing living expenses under a mutual contract?

The obvious answer is, it isn’t any different. I could easily set up a living arrangement with my best male friend or even a woman who wished to live a celibate life, and duplicate the same scenario. If all marriage involves is mutually shared living arrangements and friendships, then how is that deserving of any special recognition? Anyone can create a contract to set up such an arrangement.

But add sex into the mix, and one has a totally different animal. Then DNA is shared, and potentially merged, creating a union of the two into a new person. Once you have that potential, the marriage of the two species takes on purpose. Because only that act creates a family structure. Without sex creating a union, you have two good friends living together, and sex is just one among many pleasures that are shared but means nothing more than going out to watch a movie.

Mammals. While in the animal kingdom at large, how “marriage” and families are structured varies widely, in the sub-classification of mammals, less so. In fact, one of the characteristics of this class is the care for children within a family structure of a father and mother. Can you find exceptions? Yes. Yet the vast majority of mammals, of which humans are one, have a father and mother living together to care for the offspring produced by having sex. The fact humans for over at least 6000 years of our known history do this, is one reason we are classified as a mammal.

What does this prove? Very simply, this. At its foundation, the basis for a family structure, and therefore the basis for two people to be married, is sexual union in a way that potentially produces offspring. All other marital characteristics flow from this fact. Even Jesus, as we will see, acknowledges this reality.

This physical union turns the “water into wine.” Living together is changed into familial bonds. Legal contracts are turned into sacred vows. Pleasure is transformed into loving bonds. Man and woman are united as husband and wife.

What is marriage biologically? It is the sexual union of two people to form the core of a family. I’ve heard many say, “Oh, we’re just living together. We’re not married.” I say, “Oh yes you are. If you’ve had sex, you may not be legally married, but in reality, you are.” Just have either one of you cheat on the other, and tell me you won’t react just as strongly about it as any “married” couple would.

Why? Because sex creates a marital union between two people. It is a biological reality that’s been with us since creation.

Next time, the Biblical basis for marriage.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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10 Responses to What is Marriage? – Biological Basis

  1. Hi Rick,
    You have a typo, “a woman who wished to live a celebrate life”

    Good article.
    I agree sexual union makes a greater union, but 2 small quibbles’
    1, After WW1 there were a whole generation of women doomed to spinsterhood, because of the number of men dead in the trenches. When I was young it was recognised that many of them ended up living together, either because they were sisters, or as sisters. My {name} was one such. There is no hint of any lesbian relationship, but it was a real and faithful relationship. I would argue on that basis that other forms of “family unit” do exist, but that sexual union is a closer union, not just in amount, but in its fundamental nature.

    2, I agree that procreation is the vital spark that drive sexual union. Biologically, in general, for the species, that’s clear. But what about people who come together as man and wife after menopause? Or what about a person who is infertile?
    The mechanism of sex, the whole mechanism, physical, emotional, spiritual, as designed by God is tied up with procreation, but that cannot mean that in the cases where the procreation aspect has failed, there can be no valid Christian sexual love.

    I’m looking forward to your next article. My greatgreat grandfather got married by eloping over the border to Scotland. I’ve got the marriage certificate in the safe.

    It says that I (the person living in the first house over the border) testify that Robert Cowen and Robertina Carruthers declared themselves in my presence to be married persons.

    No minister, no state official, just two people publically declaring themselves married.

    Go further back and you find this case in the church court of York.

    Made Shippen v Robert Smith, both of Bolton Percy
    Alleged marriage on 17 Oct 1355
    Church Court, York Minster December 1355

    Witness Testimony
    I Margaret Thacker was in the basement of Robert Smith’s house and I saw through the door Robert pushing and pulling Maud into the cowshed where he tried to know her carnally.
    Maud had said “God forbid that you should know me carnally unless you will marry me.”
    So Robert answered, “Behold my oath. If I take anyone to be my wife I shall you if you will yield to me.”
    And so Robert took her in his arms and threw her to the ground and knew her carnally.

    Maud claimed Robert had agreed to marry her, Robert said no he had not.
    What neither knew was that there was a witness (a Peeping Tom). On her evidence the church court found for Maud, that a valid marriage had been contracted and consumated.
    That’s what the Church view of marriage was in those days.

    We covered this in more detail recently at church. I’ll try and dig out the notes and post them on my blog, http://www.ebook.cowensw.co.uk.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Typo corrected. Thanks.

      I would argue on that basis that other forms of “family unit” do exist, but that sexual union is a closer union, not just in amount, but in its fundamental nature.

      I see what you are saying. But I would argue any friendship relationship, no matter how close, if it doesn’t involve sexual relations, is still a very close friendship. Those friendships can be closer and more intimate than many marriages, for sexual intimacy isn’t the only kind of intimacy. That said, the only reason we might even think to call that a “family unit” of any kind is due to the similarities of living together of the real family cohesion created biologically, we wouldn’t call or think of it any more than two friends living together. If we multiplied in a form that didn’t require the two joining to create new life, there would be no concept of family. And any sex not designed to produce children would be not much different in nature of sharing a good time together with other activities, and mean about the same as bonding goes.

      Of course, I’ll be getting into some of this more in the coming articles, primarily dealing with cultural. Your examples are spot on. In the Church, there are examples of couples joined in marriage by the Church, but they livee as “brother and sister.” There is in that case a union of the two by God, but it is not the fullness of marriage in that it lacks a biological union, and is still not any different than friends sharing living arrangements together. Maybe very close friends, very bonded in other ways moreso than many biologically married people, but still not the fullness of marriage biologically. Two different unions.

      But what about people who come together as man and wife after menopause? Or what about a person who is infertile?

      This is why I said an activity that is designed to potentially create children. There can be no argument that the biological purpose of sex is procreation. That it doesn’t always cause procreation is irrelevant. By preforming that action, two people are in fact committing themselves to unite to that person with the potential of creating family unit. We’ll get into the pill and other issues, but even in those cases, there is the potential to have a child, even if greatly reduced. Likewise, it is possible for people to have children after menopause. And infertility can often be circumvented either by medical science or by God.

      With sexual intercourse between a man and woman, there is always the potential the act will create a child. Because biologically it is designed to do that. Other forms of sexual expression, however, can never produce a child, and so have zero potential. Consequently, cannot unite two into one. We’ll get into that in alternate marriage arrangements.

      So it matters not whether a couple ever has a child through sexual union, or die childless. They are still united into a biological marriage because the act is designed to create that family unit, thus forming them as the core. As St. John Chrysostom said, it is the mingling of seed being fused by great pleasure that causes the two to become one.

      Good examples on marriage. In Texas, a common law marriage is one where a couple publicly presents themselves as married. By state law, they are considered married. If I divorced my wife tomorrow, and found a willing woman, I could be “married” the next day legally by simply appearing at a public function and presented her as my wife, and she as her husband. Done and legal. Another issue we’ll get into later.

  2. Pingback: What is Marriage? – The Biblical Basis | R. L. Copple's Blog

  3. Thanks Rick,
    Good points. I suspect we are “differing” only in the form of words or in emphasis.
    Interesting point you make about Texas law. There was a case about 20 years ago in Scotland where a couple applied to the Procurator Fiscal ( State Official = Coroner) for a declaration that they were married. Not a declaration that they were married from now on, but a declaration that they were and had for some unspecified time, been married, because that’s how they had lived. (They repealed the law since.)

    My biggest worry in the present UK setup, which may apply elsewhere, is that we have 3 concepts called marriage.
    1, State marriage: defined by Acts going back to 1752 (so they well apply in USA). A status created by a state official, governed by law, and dissolved by a court.
    2, Popular Culture marriage: A big party where the bride gets to wear a posh frock, there’s a big celebration, costing £lots, and rings, and it’s dead romantic, but there’s no concept of promises of faithfullness for life, and the sexual coming together was done months ago.
    3, Christian marriage: tying sexual union with promises of faithfullness and loyalty and care made before God and the people.

    These three concepts all have the same name, but they are not the same.
    I’d reluctantly accept the need for (1), id only the state hadn’t mucked about with it so much. I definately don’t believe in (2). And I passionately believe in (3).

    But how do you separate them in practice?

  4. Pingback: What is Marriage? – Cultural Basis | R. L. Copple's Blog

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  6. Pingback: What is Marriage? – Myths of Divorce, Adultery, and Infidelity | R. L. Copple's Blog

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  8. I’ve asked to correct an error in my first posting here.

    “After WW1 there were a whole generation of women doomed to spinsterhood, because of the number of men dead in the trenches. When I was young it was recognised that many of them ended up living together, either because they were sisters, or as sisters. My {name} was one such.”

    I got it wrong, it was another elderly relative. {name} was married with 2 children. My error – could you please correct it, preferably by removing the name from the original post and from this one as well.

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