Marriage is not just a social construct, but a cultural universal.

How evolutionary biologists acknowledge that male-female bonding in lasting pairs was the critical step in human evolution and is something built into us by nature...

Marriage reinforces and disciplines human biology, in the interests of society.

Marriage in Australia is defined in law as “The union of one woman and one man, voluntarily entered into for life”. That is the time-honoured understanding of marriage for hundreds of generations of our ancestors.

However, marriage goes much deeper than any legal convention or social tradition: it is a social response to a timeless biological reality. The biological pair-bond of man and woman is nature’s foundation for human life – as with other mammals – and is not a social fad to be cut to shape according to the fashion of the day. Marriage is given to us in nature; our law simply reflects reality.

Society has a vested interest in stable marriages, because human young require prolonged nurturing. The cultural phenomenon of marriage is present in every society from the earliest recorded history (with rare aberrations that merely prove the rule) while the notion of ‘homosexual marriage’ is a uniquely post-modern illusion. All cultures take the biological ‘given’ of the natural pair-bond and reinforce it with customs and ceremony to achieve the social goal of a stable family unit.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss calls marriage “a social institution with a biological foundation”. He notes that throughout recorded history the human family is “based on a union, more or less durable, but socially approved, of two individuals of opposite sexes who establish a household and bear and raise children.”

The timeless anthropological purpose of marriage is to bind a feral-by-nature male to his mate and his child – so necessary, historically, for the protection of the pregnant woman and vulnerable children, and for the economic viability of the family unit. Marriage exists in all societies at all times because infants from ancient Egypt to modern Ecuador need the passionately patient love and labour of both their mother and their father.

Marriage mattered to the earliest recorded human societies, because marriage creates order out of chaos: it goes some way to civilising male sexual behaviour, protecting women, ensuring stable nurturing of children, and knitting society together through kinship’s ‘blood and belonging’.

Ancient legal codes – like the laws of Hammurabi in Babylon around 1750 B.C., or Dadusha in the same region a century earlier – elaborate the social conditions for valid marriage, and for justice in the event of violating the marriage vows. King Dadusha, for example, specifies the social requirements of formal celebrations and a public contract, and even obtaining consent from the in-laws…

The elaborate historical customs around marriage are every society’s way of elevating mere mating behaviour amongst mammals to the dignity of a vital vocation – the honoured and indispensible life-task of forming a new family.

Marriage is a social institution, not just a private relationship.

Marriage is not simply a private arrangement.

It is also a social institution. As mentioned, no other form of relationship – friendship for example – is given the status of an institution.

When we describe marriage as a social institution we mean that it receives certain rights, benefits, obligations as well as recognition that are unique to it.  It is these that make it an institution.As mentioned, the marriage of a man and a woman receives this status because marriage is uniquely pro-child.

Marriage as a social institution has evolved mainly for the benefit of children.

This is not the same as saying that marriage exists only for children, or that people marry simply in order to have children.

People marry because they love each other. But children are the main reason why marriage receives special support and even though some married couples can’t or won’t have children, the vast majority of married couples will have at least one child during their lives together.

Giving marriage special status is not discriminationThe principle of equal treatment says that similar situations should be treated in similar ways, but that it is acceptable to treat different situations in different ways.

In fact, it would be irrational to treat situations that are different in the same way and contrary to good public policy.Because of its uniquely pro-child nature it makes sense to treat marriage in a unique way.

Both logic and the facts require it. A further word on the meaning of discrimination as commonly understood is in order here.

When people complain of discrimination, they mean unjust discrimination. It is unjust to treat similar situations differently, for example, to refuse a suitably qualified person a job simply on the basis of their race or sex if their race or sex is irrelevant to that job.

However, everyone would agree that an 80 year old couple would be unsuitable candidates to adopt a child. No-one would suggest that they be treated the same as a 30 year old couple who also wanted to adopt.

The reason is obvious.

The age of the 80 year old couple is relevant in this situation.

A 30 year old couple is young enough to adopt a child whereas an 80 year old couple is not. This difference justifies treating the 80 year old couple and the 30 year old couple differently. This is not considered unjust discrimination by anyone.

Applying this principle to marriage, the reason, for example, that marriage and cohabitation are not given the same treatment in Irish law is because they are different in relevant and pertinent ways.

A cohabiting couple is normally deliberately avoiding making a formal, public commitment to one another, as is their business.

In addition, cohabitation is much less stable than marriage. According to the British Millennium Cohort study one in four children of cohabiting parents witnessed the break-up of their family before the age of five, compared with one in 10 children of married couples.

Therefore it is not discrimination to treat marriage and cohabitation differently. Likewise it is not discrimination to treat the marriage of a man and a woman differently from a samesex relationship. Crucially, a same-sex couple cannot give a child a mother and a father.

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