The Physics of the Natural Family: Why Families Don’t Fall Down
By Paul T. Mero
Paul T. Mero is
president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think
tank in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Mero is the co-author
of The Natural Family: A Manifesto, published by Spence Publishing.
He presented a version of this essay at The World Congress of
Families IV, held in Warsaw, Poland, May 11-13, 2007.
The science of physics governs
the integrity of all structures in the known Universe, including family
From a very young age, most of us learned an important lesson about how
physics govern structural integrity through the folk tale of the Three
Little Pigs. You might recall that the Three Little Pigs
lived initially with their mother (and, it may be reasonably conjectured,
with their father for some time) in a comfortable brick home safe from the
evils that faced them out in that Big Bad World. Of
course, Mother Pig eventually told her sons that it was time for them to
leave home to become the pigs they were meant to be. All
in agreement, the Three Little Pigs confidently left the safety of their
childhood home and set their sights on building homes of their own.
all know where the story takes us from there. Each
Little Pig built himself a house. But while the first
Two Little Pigs chose to indulge their passing fancies with merriment rather
than focus on the fundamentals of home building, their brother, the one
unselfish Little Pig, made the arduous sacrifice necessary to build a home
like the one he left behind. When their neighboring Big
Bad Wolf came huffing and puffing, only the house built like the old family
structure withstood the torrent of abuse leveled against it.
Clearly, the structures of the other two houses were ill-prepared for
what awaited them in the Big Bad World.
Naturally, people who form families are challenged to turn houses into
homes. Some parents choose to build houses made of
straw—structures easily destroyed by challenges of the Big Bad World.
Other parents, perhaps parents with a little more self-control and
focus, or even the added help of that second parent, build themselves houses
made of sticks—structures a bit more sturdy, a tad more protective, but
ultimately not much more resistant than straw homes to the world’s
destructive forces. Still other parents build houses
made of brick, safe havens wherein individual family members can be nurtured
successfully and successfully resist the universal, common, tragic and often
devastating abuses of a turbulent world.
Anyone can throw together sticks and straw. Building
with sticks is easy and quick. It doesn’t require much
self-sacrifice. And as the First Little Pig
demonstrated, a straw house allows even more time to pursue worldly
interests. Fluff it, snip it here and there, and voila!
It looks like a real house. It has a roof and a
doorway and window openings. The façade is reassuringly
familiar. But without a solid foundation and lacking
substantive building materials, this house will end up inside out beneath
the gusts of the first good strong wind. The Little Pigs
should have known this, for the home in which they were reared was a sturdy
one, resistant to even strong gales. But the First Two
Little Pigs chose to create cheap imitations of the structures in which they
had been reared and which they could have recreated if they had just made
home building their highest priority.
Building Real Homes
The brick house of the Third Little Pig was irrefutable evidence of his
commitment to the safety and security of family. It took
much more work than the houses of straw and sticks.
Bricks are rough, hard, and heavy to handle. Bricklaying
is back-breaking work that requires endurance, precision, and planning.
It takes time and real personal commitment.
Because of his sacrifice and preparation, the Third Little Pig built himself
and the rest of his siblings a safe haven to last a lifetime.
the experience of the Little Pigs illustrates, there are natural reasons why
structures fall down or stay standing. Every physical
structure is governed by laws of nature, and its existence can be explained
through the science of physics. Family structures are no
exception to any of these laws or science. There are
scientific reasons—quantifiable and empirical—why certain types of family
structures fall down while others stay standing.
be sure, when we think of families, we rarely think in terms of their
physical makeup or how they are structured. All of us
simply do what we can to survive day to day. Human
relationships are so heartfelt and emotional that to consider them in terms
of structure seems to dehumanize them. So when families
fail, and society is left to pick up the pieces and clear the rubble, we
don’t often analyze what has happened by applying scientific reasoning to
the structures of the failed families. Nor do we often
apply such scientific logic when analyzing the success of other families.
In our generally unscientific perspective on family failure and
success, we are perhaps not so different from medieval masons, carpenters,
and shipwrights who saw in physical structures that remained intact the
mysterious hand of God, keeping their work standing or afloat.
Such sentiments led to ceremonies, sometimes celebratory, sometimes
superstitious, such as the christening of a ship with a bottle of champagne
or the laying of a cornerstone by the chief citizen of a community.
Ceremony and sentiment do not explain science. Buildings
stand, ships float, and airplanes fly for specific reasons accessible to
science. So, too, do family structures survive or fail
for reasons that science can again identify. As
difficult as it might be for non-scientists to study physics, that part of
physics dealing with structures has proven essential in erecting the vast
cities in which we live and in which most of the world’s relationships are
transacted. Yet for emotional reasons, we prefer not to
think of families in the honest and objective terms so important to the
structural engineers who build our cities. In any case,
analyzing the structures of our families objectively is an often tiring and
painful exercise. It requires introspection when
families fail and humility when they survive. It
requires learning from our mistakes and honesty in our reflections about the
natural human experience. And just as ceremony and
sentiment do not explain the survival of physical structures, neither do
ideologies explain (or excuse) the physics of natural family structures.
Because it can cause damage to buildings and bridges, we might wish away
gravity. Indeed, we might create a whole political
movement toward that end. But such an effort would be a
futile rebellion against the laws of nature and science.
Ideology is defenseless against truth, and ideologies denying the strength
and durability of the natural family structure are as delusional and
arrogant as the Babylonian effort to build a tower to heaven.
understand the physics of the natural family we begin by understanding the
scientific intersection of both structure
We cannot talk about the one without talking about the other, and we
can limn no clear-cut dividing boundary between the two, though we know that
both must be considered. Remembering the Three Little
Pigs, we recall how the integrity of the structures they built was largely
determined by the materials—the straw, stick, and brick—they used.
The same is true in families. Even the best
family structures can fail to sustain the load of life when its materials
(its family members) are too weak. On the other hand, we
know of problematic family structures that defy the odds primarily because
they incorporate exceptional human material. Still, if
an unconventional family structure does survive, it will do so only within
certain bounds and limitations and, probably, only up to a certain point of
duress. So whether assessing a skyscraper or a family,
we must look at both material
and structure—the two go
hand in hand.
The next thing we must understand is that structures, such as the natural
family, are never indestructible—that is, no structure can possibly
withstand all the forces that might be unleashed against it.
Nature at times manifests forces that can topple, spill, or break any
structure. When we speak about structures—their
strength, integrity, or endurance—we must be very careful to specify that we
are not speaking of attributes that make failure impossible.
We are, in fact, speaking about such structures’ relative ability to
carry a load, handle stress and strain, maintain resiliency under pressure,
and bend, but not break. The power of the natural family
is just this: it is not impervious to all the forces set against it, natural
and man-made, but it resists those forces better than can any other family
structure of which we have knowledge.
The Truths of Physical Law
The analogies between physical structures and family structures are numerous
and often exact. We tap into the power of such analogies
when we begin to ask questions, such as, Why don’t people fall through
floors? But before enumerating answers to this question
by drawing on our family structure analogy, perhaps we should reflect on the
meaning of physical law. All engineers recognize the law
of physics that explains why a speaker standing at the lectern does not
suddenly drop through the floor. The structural strength
of the floor exerts an upward force that is equal and opposite to the
downward force of the speaker’s weight. It is no small
point of fact that the floor would give way to the speaker’s weight if the
downward pressure that that weight applied to the floor were even one pound
of force more than that with which the floor pushes up in return.
If a speaker weighs 200 pounds and the floor can push upward with
only 199 pounds of force, then the speaker will disappear through the floor!
other words, for a speaker to stand at a lectern comfortably and continue to
address an audience, he must be sustained by a complementarity between the
downward force of his weight and the upward force of the floor.
Natural family structures share a similar complementarity between a
man and a woman within the bonds of marriage. The
successful outcome of this complementarity, or balance, in marriage—it must
be remembered—requires many things, including the right combination of human
material within the marital structure. But what if a
conjugal structure comprised not a man and a woman, but instead two men or
two women? Without the requisite complementarity of
human material in the marital structure, we can hardly expect it to stand up
to the external forces applying pressure to it.
the absence of the requisite complementarities, not only would a speaker
fall through the floor behind his lectern, but an alternative family
structure would also fall victim to the full load of pressure against it.
The complementary nature of the natural family structure, assuming
the best materials, provides a stronger, more durable structure than does an
alternative family structure lacking such complementarity.
All structures and materials change shape to deflect forces when they are
called upon to bear a load. When an apple tree is laden
with fruit, or with heavy, wet snow, its limbs bend. In
physics, this effect—called elasticity —accounts for the way structures deflect
forces that could destroy it. The apple tree deflects
the force of the weight of its fruit or snow by bending—and by bending it
goes on to live and produce fruit for another season.
The natural family structure is highly elastic.
Single-parent homes are not very elastic. That is, the
natural family structure can bear tremendous loads of force by bending, but
not breaking. A single-parent family structure is not
equipped for the heavy loads of force life will impose upon it.
And we can discern the effects of elasticity (or its absence) not
only in individual family structures, but also in entire communities of
families. The materials that constitute structures are
stretched or contracted constantly. Larger, more tightly
knit families reaching across generations are able to bear heavier loads.
A community of such families will be stronger than a community of
families comprised of alternative structural materials and non-complementary
structures. On a much larger scale, this same science of
elasticity works as well for nations or civilizations.
Highly elastic family structures will endure the ages; less elastic family
structures will die off over time.
Elasticity is important in the physics of structures. A
highly elastic structure will recover its original shape after bearing a
heavy load. This is a highly desirable, if not
essential, characteristic for a family structure. We
want to be able to bear the burden of the loss of a loved one, or of a
serious illness or financial hardship. We want to be
able to withstand the adverse forces to which any successful enterprise will
be exposed, and then we want to be able to reclaim the balance and stability
of our original family structure. Of course, some
natural materials such as plastic or putty have innate properties that do
not allow them to return to their original form after exposure to pressures.
Likewise, the character of some people is like putty under pressure:
they never recover from the pressures of hardship, thereby threatening the
integrity of the whole family structure to which they belong.
The vulnerability of some individuals to hardship may remind us that we can
analyze structures not only by looking at the whole, but at discrete points
within that whole. So, rather than surveying the entire structure, we can
look at specific points of stress and strain in the materials constituting
Stress & Strain
Stress is a very human experience. The pressures of the
day can create so much stress within us that we can actually become sick as
a result. Those who study structures and materials
measure a stress by measuring how hard a material is pushed together or
pulled apart by external forces. It is interesting to
note that stress actually can bring structural elements closer together—of
course, it is not always love that brings us together in response to stress,
but such union under stress can still ultimately be constructive.
Like stress, the phenomenon of strain requires attention from structural
analysts. To assess strain we determine how far things
are pulled apart or how close they are pushed together.
We can see both stress and strain in a piece of chewing gum.
If we pull the gum from both ends, the material will stretch.
If we pull hard enough, the material will break.
The amount of force we apply in stretching the gum is called stress; the
distance we pull the gum without breaking is called strain.
For us humans, stress results from the daily forces that stretch us,
while strain manifests the inner strength we have to stretch without
snapping. Though related, stress and strain are two
different phenomena. The former is external to us; the
latter is internal to us. What is most relevant for our
analogy to family structures is that the good structures are those
constituted of materials that can handle the most stress and bear the most
strain of daily living. Families deal with many
stresses. They might face financial stress when a member
of the family loses his job. Families often cope with
stress created by modern cultures that subvert the values being inculcated
within our homes. And then we strain as families to
counter these stresses by trying to reinforce our family structures.
When we speak of the strength of
any structure, we are simply describing the load it can bear.
On the other hand, the strength of any material is equivalent to the
stress required to break it. What we learn from the
science of structures is that the best ones will be flexible and strong.
They will bend, but not break, and they will return to
their true form after being tested or stretched. The
human experience tracks closely with the analogies offered by this science.
But why discuss family structures using such analogies?
We discuss stress and strain, elasticity and strength, as a means of
reaching a much-desired end: understanding how to make successful
structures. Just as we study the principles that ensure
success in constructing buildings, ships, and airplanes, we study family
structures because we seek the safest and most effective families we can
design. Champions of the natural family conclude that
nature is a much better engineer than man or the state because nature
provides more give, more latitude, within its structures than do any of the
substitutes devised by man or the state. It is thus within the natural
family that we can live our lives in the best manner possible.
It is nature, not man or the state, that builds elasticity into
structures and flexibility into materials. Nature is the
best architect. It routinely works to maximize the
ability of structures to carry the biggest loads.
Man, ironically, often forfeits the real advantages of the natural family
because of his mad penchant for perfectibility. It is no
small coincidence that in the social sciences we refer to these mad
visionaries as “social engineers.” It is interesting to
note that the ability of a structure to carry a load is largely dependent on
two factors: the uses made of it and the forces it has resisted over its
lifetime. A tendency among some engineers seeking to
maximize efficiencies is to tamper with the very characteristics of
structures that keep them safe and strong over the long run.
Curiously, these engineers may begin stripping structures and
materials of the very qualities that make them strong because they believe
that they can devise perfect structures, completely unbending and
immoveable. Structural disasters can frequently be
attributed to engineers seeking theoretical perfectibility while ignoring
the empirical science of structures derived from nature.
Those who use nature’s laws to assess the integrity of all structures and
materials are not surprised by the flaws in unnatural man-made structures
and materials. Of course, humans do love to drill holes to tie materials
together—and, if they are men, the more holes the better!
The only problem is that holes and creases and cracks come at a
price—they can create irregularities. All building
materials have what are called “stress trajectories,” lines of strength that
pass stress from one molecule on to the next to enable a structure to bear a
load. It does not require great imagination to
understand what happens to a stress trajectory when a builder punches holes
in a building material.
Families have their stress trajectories as well. Punch a
hole in a family—that is, take one family member out of the natural family
structure, or preclude intergenerational bonds or the complementary
constructs of supportive public institutions—and that structure will be
weakened. We can attempt to patch up our familial holes,
but as physics informs us, adding materials to weak points can actually
concentrate stress. In other words, an artificial patch
can be very dangerous, because it gives the appearance of safety without
remedying the original structural weakness. The
operating rule is that “partial strength produces general weakness.”
This is because a patch does not relieve the breach in a stress
trajectory nor does it solve the problem caused when stress concentrates. In
other words, a patch is never as strong as the original material.
This survey of the science of structures will not be complete, however,
until we attend to one last aspect of this science, an aspect called “strain
energy.” It is not enough to know how and to what effect
structures and materials are exposed to stress and external forces.
We need to know how to manage and withstand that stress and those
forces. As was mentioned earlier, analysts measure
strain by determining the amount of pressure a structural element can
sustain before it fails. Yet engineers have identified strategies for
successfully managing the energy that produces strain, strategies that
prevent a structural element from cracking or even exploding.
As part of our own family structures, we want to dissipate the energy
that produces strain in our structures before it, too, breaks us.
know that a certain amount of stress can break us, but it can only do so if
we let it by allowing strain energy to build uncontrolled.
Consider, for example, the way a bow can be broken without ever
shooting an arrow. An archer can actually break a bow
by not putting it to good use. A bow stores kinetic
energy, energy typically released every time the bow shoots an arrow.
When a bow sits idle, some of its stored kinetic energy is released
over time through small cracks within the material of the bow itself.
Left idle long enough, the bow will be rendered useless.
The fate of the unused bow offers a lesson applicable to all elastic
substances. Humans are elastic, yet when we do not fill
the measure of our creation or act according to our nature, we, too, can
crack or break without the application of any external force.
Thus, the sometimes stressful exercise of building a natural family
enables individuals to avoid the self-destructive influences of unused
energy. In the culture of individualism, we see a
narcissism that is as destructive to humans as disuse is to non-human
elastic structures. If a person is not striving to
create a natural family structure, that person may well become
self-destructive. In Utah, a popular saying has it that
an unmarried man over the age of 30 is a menace to society.
This local saying translates into human significance the lesson of
the unused bow.
The Overlap of Joints
Nature has offered us a solution to strain energy: if we transfer energy
throughout a material, we keep stress from concentrating at a single point.
In the architecture of our physical structures we can do this by
creating joints to transmit load from one part of a structure to another.
For us humans, joints seem to do their job best when their bonds at
the point of contact are substantial. The “overlap” of
the joints is not as significant as the point of contact between the joints.
Humans establish stress-dissipating points of contact within the
institutions of civil society, such as churches, local neighborhoods,
voluntary charitable organizations, and the free market.
The fact that families overlap with these other civil institutions is not
quite so important as is the bond that families form with each of them.
If the bonds (or joints) are significant enough, these civil
institutions can help families share the load of daily stresses thrust upon
this context, it is worth noting that governments—unlike voluntary civic
organizations—are about as helpful to families as they are to those trying
to build good structural joints in physical structures.
Author James Gordon shares a story of government involvement in ship making:
The great skill of the old
shipwrights and millwrights lay in somehow combining sufficient strength for
safety with the modicum of flexibility needed to allow for the ‘working’ of
timber. The older shipwrights erred on the side of
flexibility, and, though their ships were often excessively leaky, they
seldom actually broke at sea. It required the
administrative abilities of modern war-time governments to produce wooden
ships which really did fall to pieces.
Troubles with joints in ships and
aircraft were a fairly prominent feature of both the World Wars.
During the first war the Americans built a large number of wooden
ships, both steam and sail, frequently by unorthodox methods; and many of
these ships broke up. In the second war they produced
even greater numbers of welded steel steamers, of which an even higher
proportion broke, either at sea or in harbor. (J.E Gordon, Structures: Or
Why Things Don’t Fall Down [New York,
New York: De Capo, 1978], 135.)
Yes, our natural family structures can be as “leaky” as the product of old
shipwrights, but they have proven to hold together on the open seas.
Government ship projects, built “frequently by unorthodox methods,”
rarely hold together when needed most.
But whether looking at ships or at families, we find that flexible joints
are not the only solution to the problem of strain energy.
A second way to transfer energy throughout a material, thereby
mitigating its stress concentration—is through relying on that material’s
“resiliency.” A fascinating principle of structural
science reveals that the same force that can break a short piece of string
can break a long piece of string, despite our intuition that the longer
piece of string is stronger. But the longer piece of
string does have one advantage: a longer piece of string has greater
elasticity, greater resiliency, and so can stretch further under a load,
thereby reducing the stress of a sudden pull. In other
words, the longer piece of string is better able to disperse strain energy
under a load.
The Resilience Factor
The resiliency in natural family structures works the same way.
We might call this resiliency our “intergenerational bonds.”
Maintaining intergenerational bonds turns our families into a long
piece of string. It enables a family to share the load
of daily stress. Every young mother appreciates the
extra set of hands from her mother to grandmother to great-grandmother, and
every young father can appreciate the wisdom, counsel, and even financial
assistance of dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
Weave aunts, uncles, and cousins into the fiber and that long piece of
string becomes truly resilient.
focusing chiefly on structures, this analysis has said little about the
nature and quality of particular building materials, such as steel, wood,
iron, nylon, or plastic. To be sure, each material has
its distinctive strengths and its weaknesses. So, too,
do individual members of a family structure. We may even
explore an interesting relationship between human muscles and human tendons.
Muscle mass is a soft tissue. Its value lies in
its ability to shorten itself, so creating tensile force by pulling
actively. But it is not an inherently strong material.
Yet we see muscles become strong when they are tied to solid bones by
tough and inflexible tendons. There exists an ecology of
strength within the human body that human structures must also emulate.
Lasting family structures require exceptional material strength, and
this material strength among family members derives from moral character,
from virtue, and from reliable behavior. Each part of
the family structure must be able to rely confidently upon the other parts
to comfortably bear the stresses of life.
Though it may seem surprising, those of us who want to make our own families
strong must do so by assuming the material make-up of a child.
The bones of a child are not terribly brittle; they are strong and
tough, but not stiff. Yet young children, on the whole,
bounce, but don’t break. They represent the archetypal
material of a durable family. Jesus Christ once
counseled his disciples to humble themselves and become as little children
(Matt. 18: 3-4). Following this counsel requires a man to become
“submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all
things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth
submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:18-19, Book of Mormon)
we thus become childlike, we recognize more fully how the natural family
structure represents the best familial structure science and the laws of
nature can offer. It is flexible and resilient.
Its component members are complementary and form an efficient ecology
of service and support. Its “long piece of string”—its
intergenerational bonds—spreads the load of daily life across the
connections of an extended family. We know
scientifically and empirically that the natural family is the best structure
in support of personal development, educational attainment, physical safety
for women and children, emotional well-being, and temporal prosperity.
Allan Carlson and I have written in The Natural Family: A Manifesto,
“Science, after all, is the study of the natural order.”