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Right Now | Propelling Social Change

Technology, Paternity, Patriarchy

March-April 2019

Illustration by Michael Paraskevas 


Illustration by Michael Paraskevas 

“All the decisions we make in our most intimate lives…about who to marry, how to have children, how to have sex, and how to think about love, romance, and families, are driven, and always have been driven, by technology,” contends Debora Spar. A Baker Foundation professor at Harvard Business School, Spar was president of Barnard College from 2008 to 2017, and has previously written books about the economics of in-vitro fertilization technologies, the social impact of inventions such as the Internet, and changing roles for women at home and at work. Now she is at work on a new book, “The Virgin and the Plow,” in which she argues that social changes, from the creation of marriage at the dawn of agriculture, to the rise of feminism in the twentieth century, to the legal establishment of same-sex families in the last decade, are driven less by social preference or acceptance, as most people believe, than by technological innovation. And given the dramatic pace of contemporary technological innovation, she suggests that more profound social changes lie ahead.

“Marriage as we know it—a largely heterosexual, monogamous, death-do-us-part type of marriage—was a creation of the plow-enabled agriculture that emerged during the Neolithic transformation of around 8000 b.c.,” Spar said in a December talk at Harvard. That is when the first farmers, transitioning from a communal hunter-gatherer society, began to acquire private property: land, grain, storage. With farms came the need for children to work in the fields, and ultimately to inherit them. Once men needed to know who their children were, the nomadic lifestyle in which men and women living in groups of 30 to 40 people had mated in non-permanent unions faded. For farmers, the only way to guarantee paternity was to “mate with a virgin and make sure she remained loyal to you for the rest of her reproductive life,” Spar pointed out. Most traditional marriage ceremonies are “basically a real-estate deal,” she said, in which a woman, guaranteed to be a virgin, is given to a man and “becomes his property because he must know who his children are.” With property, itself a creation of technology, come the “norms of marriage: that women are adored as virgins, married young, and sworn to monogamy for the rest of their days.” Quoting her book (forthcoming this year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux), she said, “The quest for paternity leads to the establishment of the patriarchy, and it was the plow that made it happen.”

“The Virgin and the Plow” argues that social changes have always been driven by technology.

With a second technological revolution—industrialization—work moved to factories, where it was eventually dominated by men, and led to the “mythology of the housewife” that rose around the idea of women who stayed home. The first major blow to this patriarchal social structure came from feminism, which—Spar explained in an interview—was enabled by three technologies of the twentieth century: the automobile, household appliances, and the Pill. Cars gave women unprecedented freedom, particularly in rural areas where they could start independent businesses selling commodities like eggs and butter. Washing machines and other household inventions freed women’s time. And more than any other factor, reliable, discreet contraception that let women have sex without the burden of an unwanted pregnancy, said Spar, was what allowed them to enter the workforce.

Now different reproductive technologies, including in-vitro fertilization (IVF), are having unexpected, seismic social effects. Originally intended as a way to help infertile heterosexual couples have children, the market for IVF technology has expanded, she explained, and is increasingly used by people who aren’t biologically infertile. The technology allows women who freeze eggs to have children far later in life; same-sex couples use it to have children who are biologically related to one of the parents. Spar argued that this use of IVF technology led courts to legalize same-sex marriage much more rapidly than they would have otherwise. In the United States, Scandinavia, and England, “the courts started to find in favor of same-sex marriage” once they could argue that it was in the interests of the children to create a stable family structure. Now, a developing technology called in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG) could eventually allow two gay parents to have a child who is biologically related to both of them. Three or four housemates or friends, likewise, could decide to have a baby. The social ramifications are unexplored.

“We think generally of marriage as some kind of a natural structure that humankind is just destined to follow,” she continued. “We think of feminism generally as something that was created by activists—the Betty Friedans pushing for change.” Same-sex marriage, likewise, can be seen as driven by advocacy. “To some extent that is true,” Spar acknowledged, “but history’s arc is also driven, and may perhaps be primarily driven, by much larger and more sweeping technological shifts” that enable new patterns of behavior and social interaction: the shift to agriculture or the industrial economy; the creation of computers and artificial intelligence. “We acknowledge these developments as technological change, but rarely do we trace their effects into the social and personal realm.”

As she works on her conclusions, Spar hints at some of the technologically driven social changes that may lie ahead. In an age of Tinder and OkCupid, when 30 percent of marriages originate online, people are becoming more comfortable with relationships that occur through devices. “If your relationship with someone is almost entirely on a phone,” as in the rising number of long-distance romances, then “if they were to die and there were something”—an AI, perhaps—“that could mimic that relationship, it might not feel all that different.”

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