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Mating, the core of it all

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 10 February 2017


I did a lot of reading over the holiday period, partly because my January  has been consistently hot — not at all with 40 degrees plus — but day after day of around 33 degrees, which gets the ambient heat of our house right up, forces me to put on the air conditioning, and inclines us to sit and read. This essay is the first of a pair, each looking at what seem to me to be the core aspects of human social life, from which everything else hangs. This one is about mating.

We human beings rarely have memories extending before being five years old. But thereafter memory becomes an important part of our knowledge. We discover our parents and their styles and moods. We discover other children, our peers. We discover the necessities of life — food, shelter, safety. We get some kind of education, a lot of it from our parents, and then from peers, perhaps at school, if there is one. We learn by using our sight and hearing. We enter the world of work, early or late, but we enter it eventually. Most of us find a significant other, and mate: we are hard-wired to do so. The mating usually results in children, and we look after them. Our children grow up, we grow older, we give up work, are looked after, and then die. In the meantime, our children are going through the same stages as we went through ourselves. All societies are built around these processes, but they are built in different ways to deal with them

Tribal societies provided, and still provide, a particular context for a human life, one which is guided by elders, has strong rules and offers emotional security. Theocratic societies, like Iran, provide a different context. There are strong rules there too, and the society runs on assumptions about the meaning of life and the proper way to behave, even to think. Western industrial and post-industrial societies provide a much more anonymous and individualistic context. They offer much more freedom than in other societies, but with less belonging and emotional security.

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But in all of them, to repeat, the real and sometimes hidden engine of social life is the production of children and their maturation into adults. Societies that live close to the bone in terms of food will invent rules and customs that prevent there being too many children for the available food supply. Indigenous Australians in the desert regions did so. So did the Inuit in the frozen north of Canada. The society needs food for its members and particularly for the children, who are dependents. It needs security for them. Tribes organise these tasks in different ways to modern industrial societies.

Much of human history is illuminated, it seems to me, by searching for causes in the interaction between these social needs and changing weather patterns. A long period of warm temperatures and good rainfall in the Roman period led to the rapid growth in population of what had been tribal groups in what we now call Russia and Central Asia. One theory is that the older ones in the tribe told the young ones to move out and find new land, a process that may have gone on for several hundred years. In time the wanderers encountered settled societies that had learned farming. They saw its advantages, did it themselves, and in time created villages and then towns. The Roman Empire tried to keep the Rhine and Danube rivers as its natural and established borders, but the growth of population to the east meant that the last period of the Roman Empires was one of a cycle of resistance and acceptance of the new arrivals, who wanted to cross the rivers and enjoy the benefits of a much wealthier and more settled society. At the end, the last group of wanderers simply over-ran the Empire , which came to its end. The same process of population movement is going on today, for different reasons, as people leave the turbulent Middle East to find shelter and a stable life in other countries, including our own.

Periods of cold and bleak weather in Europe in the early modern times were ascribed to witches. There had to be a cause, and since urban societies lived somewhat precariously in terms of available and stored food, two bad seasons could be disastrous. Earlier tribal societies had seen the cause of poor seasons in the anger of the gods.  In the last half-century the relative abundance of food means that we have no experience of the consequence of a long run of poor harvests, though those in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa know it all too well.

Western societies have changed quite a lot since I was young, in ways relevant to this story. The postwar economic boom pushed Australia to attract new people to come and work here, at first from societies like ours, until finally anyone with skills (even just money), wherever they came from, would be welcomed. That caused a demand for housing that is still unsatisfied. Our birthrate in the 1950s and early 1960s was quite high, and we young ones married early, but the demand for workers and the arrival of the contraceptive pill meant that more and more women felt able to go to work, reduced the numbers of children they had, and postponed the time at which they would have them. The same seems to have been true across Europe, even Catholic Europe. That process reduced the availability of women to do the voluntary work that made the established churches viable as elements of social order. Few Australians now go to church as a matter of course. It is also much less important now than it was when I was young that people actually married when they cohabited. There are all sorts of actual couplings today, including those of people of the same sex. Once consequence is that single-person apartments, almost unknown in the 1960s, are now quite common, standard fare for developers and builders.

For a generation or two after the Second World War the great demand was for the building not just of houses but also of primary schools, then secondary schools, then institutions of higher education. It meant an enormous demand for teachers, which has come to an end. The postwar economic boom meant also a demand for managers to deal with all the new demands for infrastructure,  salaries, working conditions. They are still with us, in large numbers.

Advances in wealth, medical knowledge and technology mean that in Western societies many people will live to well past threescore years and ten, and that has disturbed the traditional balance between the numbers in each broad age-group. The increasing average age of the population worries those who wonder who is going to do the work to support all these oldies, and offers the possibility that many of us will work long past what was once considered the ‘retiring age’ of 65. There was, as I remember, a pronounced uptick in deaths among men in their 66th and 67th year, thought to be a sign of the importance of work as a social setting. Their wives, who for the most part had not been in the paid workforce since their youth, if at all, lived on much longer. But now a boy baby is likely to live to his late eighties and a girl baby into her early nineties.

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The focus of building has now shifted from schools and universities to retirement villages, old people’s homes and extensions to hospitals, while the managers now concern themselves with medical and pharmaceutical benefits, pensions, superannuation, euthanasia and fitness, matters which were of little consequence in the 1960s.

The central point of this essay is that the seven ages of man outlined by Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It provide the framework within in all societies, not just Australia, organise themselves. What some see as really important political issues, like the NDIS, or more beds in hospitals, or more day-care centres, or higher pensions, stem from the progress of life for a society at a given time. The issues change over time, but they flow, finally from the patterns of mating at an earlier time.

In a later essay I’ll look at the contrast between two ways of organising societies that you can see in contemporary Australia. In one, we accept that governments are imperfect and that societies can never reach an ideal state, forcing us to recognise and support self-reliance. In the other the search for perfection, for the reality to words like ‘equality’, ‘justice’, and ‘fairness’, is the over-riding point of politics.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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