Happy Families

When moralists and social conservatives claim that the family is the foundation of society, they are obviously correct, in the sense that the alliance of a man and a woman – or some similar combination – to engender and bring up a child is clearly what human beings are programmed to do. Whatever different family structures we may invent, the extreme helplessness of human infants and the consequent necessity of an alliance among adults with some personal stake their survival is something we are stuck with.

Where the social conservatives run quite off the rails, however, is in their assumption that this thing we call the family is necessarily or naturally “happy”. There is no particular reason why it should be.

The whole basis of gender differentiation is the specialisation of one gamete, the sperm, to free-ride on the nutritive resources invested in the other gamete, the egg. On the macro level, too, each parent naturally endeavours to induce the other to invest the maximum economic resources in the common child while minimising that parent’s own contribution; when we say that women are exploited, what we really mean is that this trick is more difficult for them than for men.

There is exploitation and competition between the generations, too; a female has a lifetime energy budget, and in adverse circumstances it pays her to terminate her offspring, before or after birth, in order to have children later under more favourable conditions. Some species can even re-absorb their foetuses. The novel The Girl in the Swing implicitly portrayed such a lifetime calculus in a modern human woman. Such husbandry (unfortunate term) is obviously not in the interests of the infant in question, who is therefore programmed to manipulate its mother’s behaviour by the neural hack we call “smiling”, precisely in the hope of averting such a rational economic decision. Next, the child is in competition with all its brothers and sisters for parental, and subsequently social, resources, a competition in which the parents are rarely neutral. The ferocity of this sibling competition is balanced by the altruism programmed into us via sharing of genes, a counterbalance that naturally weakens with the degree of kinship. As the Arab proverb has it, “Me and my brother against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world”.

To these biological dooms and necessities we can add the “family romance” analysed by Freud and his successors. We are such complicated animals that we can exploit one another not only for physical survival resources, but also for emotional satisfactions, some of which are highly unpleasant for the person providing them. The laws of economics hold good also in the emotional arena; we want as much as we can get, for as little as we can get away with, and anything possessed by another is a resource to be expropriated for our own purposes.Human beings appear to have countless reasons for having children, none of which can logically have any relationship to the happiness of those children, as they have not yet been conceived; until it can be proven that a theoretical or potential child is unhappy, no motive for conceiving it can possibly be about its interests. The unborn child is thus an emotional mine from which the ore of future adult satisfactions can be extracted.

Literature has always known about the scrabbling mayhem of family politics, its fraternal and generational hatreds, and usually appeals to ethical principles in the hope of limiting and softening them. Of course, all ethical principles thus formulated are immediately hijacked by the players to serve as their own competitive resources; at least one of these players will then start preaching about “the harmony of the happy family”, by which he means whatever is in his own interests. Most of the world’s television shows are about these processes; the daytime drama, for example, appears to be a crash course in intra-family manipulation techniques, teaching the viewers both how to perform them and how to see through them.

The odd man out in such artistic endeavours would appear to be the sentimental family shows beloved by the social conservatives. Rather than portraying, analysing and suggesting solutions for the inherent viciousness of human family life, these loudly deny that there is any problem. The family is naturally “happy” unless and until it is attacked by liberals, socialists, communists, terrorists, homosexuals, atheists and eggheads. 

Posted on March 25, 2009 at 20:54 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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