Why do we need families? Think about it? Many animals lead solitary lives. Then why do so many people find the idea of a lonesome life so disturbing? Needless to say many people have thought of this question in many different ways. Let us look at some of them.

In the animal kingdom, animals herd together for mutual defense and to insure against starvation. A colony of ants can forage for food far more effectively than one ant ever could. A pride of lions or a troop of baboons band together to search for food and also to protect and raise their young. It is quite probable that ancient man had similar needs. After all, a single man could trap a rabbit for his supper but a big clan could bring down a mammoth large enough to feed them for days.

A troop of baboons foraging and caring for their young

But what happened once this need reduced. The historian and philosopher Will Durant studied this in his book Lessons of History. He noticed that over time, as man’s environment changed, his social structures changed too. The family ideal that lives to this day seems to be a product of the agricultural revolution.

Earlier nomadic hunter gatherers had relatively egalitarian societies where a person’s status was determined by his own prowess in hunting. Agriculture meant that people had to remain on the same piece of land for a long period of time. Individual initiative was less important than stability. Wealth was measured in terms of land and the transfer of land rights over generations was an important factor in the evolution of the family. Morals changed too. Ideals evolved to support the social structure best suited to the times. Laws replaced clan feuds. Over the span of centuries a new order evolved.

To date, traces of this change can be seen in myths and tales preserved from ancient times. The most ready example I can think of is the Greek play by Aeschylus, Eumenides. This is a play about the Furies, ancient Greek deities who hounded sinners and extracted vengeance. In the prequel to this work. King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover. His son, Orestes avenges him by murdering both his mother and her boyfriend. But for this act of murder of his own mother, he is tormented by the Furies. He runs to Athens where a new system of justice by law rather than retributive vengeance is created and the ancient Furies are absorbed into it relieving the young man.


Oresetes Pursued by the Furies by William Adolphe Bouguereau

This is not just a play about a bloody and sordid family saga but about one social order giving way to another. In ancient Indian mythology, the difference in clearly visible in the virtues expressed in the Vedic religion with its myths of Indra and the later mythology evolved around divinities like Ram and Krishna.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, people had to become more mobile. The large sprawling family gave way to the nuclear family of two or possibly three generations in one home.

Another way of looking at this was like a social contract. Families existed to nurture the young and care for the old. Children were seen as an investment and a form of wealth in the long run. The thinking persists in many cultures to this day.

The early 20th century saw many attempts to artificially change the family structure with the state stepping in. At one end this took the form of relatively benign compulsory education and healthcare. At the other extreme was the Orwellian vision of all children being cared for by the state and owing all allegiance to the state. The trauma of such extreme interventions live with us till today in our cultural memories from the Hitler Jugend to The Cultural Revolution.

Similarly like so many superficial theories of utility, the ideas of social contract and economic utility sound reasonable and logical. But they are a model. It is dangerous to confuse them with reality. To my knowledge, no model can capture the joy felt at meeting a loved one after many years even though we may not see them again. There is no explanation for the hours and days of vigil at a dying person’s bedside.

People are not rational actors and it is degrading to think of them as such.

Think for yourself, what is most important about your family. For me, the single most important thing is that they be there and they care.


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