Dear Black Lives Matter: What is the alternative to the nuclear family?

If Black Lives Matter were actually about protecting and enriching black lives, then it would be a praise-worthy organization—but it’s not. BLM’s stated goals have little to do with black lives and more to do with social revolution. One of the movement’s founders, Patrisse Cullors, once described BLM’s members as “trained Marxists.”

Indeed, they are. Consider this goal as stated in Black Lives Matters’ foundational document: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.” Marx and Engels had no qualms about similar aspirations in The Communist Manifesto: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists. … The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.”

This is wrong and amounts to little more than an ideological supposition. The nuclear family is not a “Western-prescribed requirement,” or no more than a “bourgeois institution.” Anthropologists have long documented a wide array of kinship and social patterns of organization: matrilineal clans, patrilineal clans, moieties, phratries, milk relations, fictive kinship, etc. But, underneath that immense variety, the nuclear family is a universal institution. In the 1940s, George Peter Murdock completed a comprehensive comparative study of societies around the world and came to a not so uncertain 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.” Predictably, any deviation from the nuclear family is likely to become highly dysfunctional.

The universality of the nuclear family strongly indicates that it is humanity’s natural inclination. But Marxists often think otherwise. In 1884, after Marx’s death, Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In that book, he posits that the nuclear family is not natural; that in our species’ primordium, there were promiscuous hordes practicing sexual communism. This theory reflects Victorian phantasies about the past, and it soon collapsed under the weight of further anthropological evidence.

Yet, the theory made a comeback in 2010, with Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn. The authors argue, mostly on the basis of bonobo behavior, that monogamy and the nuclear family are unnatural to the human species and have doomed it to failure. The only way to live happier lives, so the authors claim, is to embrace a “free love” ethos and raise children communally.

Apart from the ethnographic evidence that suggests the nuclear family is universal, evolutionary theory provides additional reasons as to why monogamy and the nuclear family are natural to our species. Jealousy, a result of parental uncertainty, is powerfully built in males. Since males can never be sure that the offspring they are raising actually carry their genes, they become possessive of females in order to prevent other opportunistic males from sharing their mate, competitors who would otherwise divulge their genes without having to provide scarce resources. For that very reason, polyandry (a mating system in which a woman mates with various men) is rare among humans, and when it does happen, it is usually in the adelphic variety (i.e., a group of brothers share a wife).

Polygyny (a mating system in which a man mates with various women) is more common, but it poses problems of its own. Human infants require huge parental investment—pair-bonding makes this possible. If a male has a harem, he usually neglects the care of children and does not concentrate his parental efforts enough. That is why, as a general rule, those species that require greater parental effort tend to be monogamous. In that regard, humans are more similar to birds than to bonobos. Bonobos do engage in the type of promiscuous lifestyle that Ryan and Jethá are so fond of. But this comes at a price: since bonobo males lose any parental certainty in their promiscuous mating system, they do not invest in raising their offspring, as they do not know if such offspring carry their genes. Admittedly, humans are not strict adherents to monogamy or the nuclear family and occasional escapades are frequent. Yet, by and large, monogamy and the nuclear family are the norm as a natural feature of our species, not as a result of bourgeois institutions.

Marx and Engels were by no means the first philosophers to rebel against monogamy and the nuclear family. There is a long history of utopian thought that aspires to some sort of communal life, and in such utopias, the institution of the nuclear family is frowned upon. Most of these utopian projects have been disastrous.

In The Republic, Plato proposed to have a “community of women,” in which no man would have a particular wife and children would be raised communally. Plato’s project never came to be, but Aristotle already knew this would be folly: in Aristotle’s view, that which belongs to everyone really belongs to no one, and is therefore neglected.

In the 19thcentury, some Christian utopians were also enthusiastic about such projects. The Oneida Community came to practice “complex marriage,” in which members of the community were discouraged from pair-bonding and children were raised communally. Unsurprisingly, all sorts of problems arose (jealousy, sexual abuse, neglect of children), and the community collapsed by 1878.

Even the seemingly successful experiment of the kibbutz movement in Israel has its share of problems. As anthropologist Melford Spirodocuments in a longitudinal study of kibbutzim, members of these communities were unsatisfied with the sort of communal organization that was prevalent and often demanded a return to typical (i.e., nuclear family) social structures.

With these antecedents, it is unlikely that Black Lives Matters’ aspiration to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” and its utopian desire to support “each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children,” will lead to any good outcome.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report on the lack of coherent organization in the African American family in 1965, it was met with suspicion. The number of broken African American homes was difficult to deny, but critics asserted that the African American family organization was unfairly compared to a “white” family model that is culturally arbitrary and not the most desirable. Yet, the test of time has proven Moynihan correct. The absence of a paternal guardian (regardless of race) is predictive of lower academic achievement and a higher incarceration rate.

If Black Lives Matter is to gain serious intellectual credibility, it must refocus its priorities. The struggle against racism is a noble ideal. But the appeal to utopian tropes that rely on faulty anthropological premises hamstrings BLM’s cause. To save and enrich black lives, Black Lives Matter must recognize the overwhelming contemporary evidence which proves that deviations from the nuclear family are detrimental to children—not revel in the pride of being “trained Marxists.”

Image: Soman, Public Domain


2 thoughts on “Dear Black Lives Matter: What is the alternative to the nuclear family?

  1. There is a far, far more serious problem with black lives matter than their desire to dispense with the nuclear family. They are a marxist organization. If they get their way, all families (not just the nuclear ones) will suffer greatly. Private enterprise will be a thing of the past limiting family economic growth. State control of all aspects of family life will be the norm. Parents will no longer have a say in what their children learn or are exposed to. The history of marxism and its affects on society at large makes the focus on their distain for the nuclear family seem rather minor.

  2. The alternative to a nuclear family framework, the kind practiced successfully by earth bound humans whose color exceeds whiteness by some several billions, has seen over the past 50 years two and a half generations totaling some several millions of young black boys arriving at manhood (if they make it that far) burning under the stigma of fatherlessness, for reasons of death, disinterest, and incarceration.
    I have always been curious about how and why it is that their lives’ experience, their issues, their lonliness, heartbreak, shame, and their anger – have no real voice that draws attention to their lived experience.
    It could very well be that there is a 4th reason for fatherlessness to add to the list above – one that is never discussed. Perhaps because it is a reason that would discount the first three, if there came a power shift in black communities.
    It is a telling thing really, that a political group as powerful as BLM makes no mention, let along any demands for this kind of stability. As if viewing the world through a paradigm of upheaval, anarchy, and rebellion for its own sake.
    Is it any wonder that one of the longest lasting communist regimes (CPPC) has bred a modern culture of absolute familial stability? They’ve been there and done that, and know the difference. But nobody listens to them. Which is another one of those telling points.

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