Friday, October 26, 2012

Compare and Contrast?

I’ve been trying to get my mind off America’s ideological wars by reading Maurice Godellier’s highly technical anthropological treatise the Metamorphosis of Kinship.  Unfortunately, everything is implicated in everything else. As I pointed out a long time ago, reality isn’t consistent; but it is stringy. Godelier’s expose of the ideas and practices of the Baruya, the New Guinea tribe he studied as a young ethnographer, turn out to be highly relevant to understanding the right-to-life debate in the United States. There is no escape.

The Baruya theory of human reproduction serves as the justification if not the inspiration of their social system. It holds that the child is produced by the semen of the male with the help of the Sun god, who contributes a spiritual element.  Women, on the other hand, have a strictly supporting role, as befits creatures regarded with scorn and sometimes fear. The Baruya place an enormously high value on semen. It not only creates life, but also has other uses. Baruya boys leave their family hut at nine or ten and live together in a communal dwelling with other boys until they are initiated into adulthood and marry. During that period, they younger males are made to drink the semen of the older boys in order to imbibe the masculinity they need to deal with the dangerous business of interacting with females—the crucial factor is that the semen donors must have never come in contact with women themselves. After marriage, men do not have intercourse with their wives until the walls of their shared dwelling get covered with soot. Instead, in lieu of vaginal sex, the wives fellate the husbands and drink their semen in order to build up a store of mother’s milk. (Godelier does not mention whether it was permissible for a twelve-year old boy or a woman to spit under certain circumstances or what the Sun god’s role was in such cases.)

The Baruya sexual ideology may seem extreme, but their sacred biology is really no crazier than the ideas of the right-to-lifers. For that matter, a worshipful attitude towards semen is not really foreign to the West and not just because for the Catholic Church every sperm is sacred. The Aristotelian theory of reproduction comes pretty close to the Baruya version; and the Koran is full of language that suggest that although Allah introduces the soul into the embryo, the body is formed from a drop of semen.  Of course the right-to-lifers don’t believe that the semen does the whole job—they have a different fetish—but their developmental biology is every bit as ideological. Although most of them avoid using the word “soul,” their assertion that “personhood” arrives with the formation of zygote amounts to essentially the same thing. “Personhood” is undetectable in a fertilized egg as the body of Christ is in a consecrated wafer. It is, in their usage, a theological idea; and the demand to outlaw abortion that it justifies is simply an attempt to end the separation of church and state and establish a religion by government action.

I am now going to violate one of the cardinal rules of the age and point out something that everybody knows: Contemporary developmental biology is roughly true, and theological biology is merely false.  Treating an early-stage embryo as a person is not a great deal different from asserting that the Earth is 6,000 years old and requires an equivalent sacrifice of the intellect. Educated people know that human development is a process, and that there is no absolute point of demarcation on the continuum that separates the zygote, which is obviously not a person in any way and a six-month old baby, which just as obviously is. I admit that there is something uncanny about this fact, this scandal of epigenesis; and it makes us very uncomfortable much as it is difficult to watch dying person slowly cease to be a human being. Since the facts are the facts, however, the best thing we can do is come up with reasonable laws that recognize that ending a pregnancy in ten weeks is a simply different act than infanticide or the late-term abortion of a viable fetus. 

I don’t know how the Baruya came to have their ideas about conception. According to Godelier, neighboring tribes, even tribes that speak much the same language, have very different concepts and practices; and the Baruya tribe itself is only a couple of hundred years old.  What does seem clear is that sacrality of semen goes along with an extreme version of male domination, also a specialty of the Baruya. Thus, to mention only one telling example, in Baruya country there are, or were before the outside world began to interfere, two trails to every destination, a higher trail for the men and a lower trail for the women. One can imagine that the reproductive theories of the Baruya are super structural reflexes of an underlying infrastructural reality, but it seems more likely to me that the theory of the magic power of sperm was actually one of the means by which the sociological reality of Baruya society was created. By the same token, the fantasy biology of the right-to-lifers is not just a part of an ancient and impressively consistent moral tradition but a way of subjugating women in the here and now. Like most Fundamentalist notions, it is in fact an innovation. In the traditional view of Jews, Catholics, and Muslims, the soul enters the fetus at quickening. Until then, to use an expression of the rabbis, it is merely a limb of the woman. Like the idea that it is obligatory to go down on your older brother, the idea that abortion is always a sin is the bright idea of some guys who want to change the status quo in their favor.