Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Philosophical Anthropology 101

A man who everybody thought was a widower gathered his many children together when the youngest reached the age of 18. “I felt that I had to let you all know a secret I’ve been keeping since your mother died. Your mother and I were never married.” The sons and daughters were aghast and began to upbraid their Dad, “How could you have done this?” After a while, though, the youngest boy stood up and said, “I don’t know what the rest of you bastards are going to do. I’m going to the movies.”

Humanae Vitae

I ran across an anecdote in the Saturnalia of Macrobius that was weirdly apropos of contemporary controversies—I knew there had to be some reason I was reading this ancient monument to terminal pedantry. Anyhow, the story runs like this. The daughter of Marcus Popilius had a pretty bad reputation. When somebody tried to make a point by asking her why the females of other animals only sought a mate when they wanted to get pregnant, she replied “that’s because they are animals.”

And here’s the application:

The old debate about the function of the female orgasm flared up recently. The scientific interest in the question revolves around its implications for evolutionary theory, specifically, the issue of whether every character of an organism should be seen as an adaptation or, at a minimum, whether biologists should always presume that every character is adaptive until proven wrong. Although the dispute is much older, its recent salience dates back to an influential paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” by Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, which argued that many features of living organisms are the side effects of other characters that are adaptive and only become adaptive themselves, if they ever do, after the fact. Actual spandrels, the spaces between two arches or an arch and its rectangular frame, came to be used as decorated surfaces in churches and other buildings; but the buildings weren’t designed to create such surfaces. Analogously, some features of organisms aren’t selected for, but are simply consequences of features that are selected; and, if they end up serving some purpose after the fact, they are, to use the jargon, exaptations rather than adaptations. In many cases, however, they are about as useful as tits on a boar pig. 

The strictly scientific question is whether the female orgasm is a spandrel—“a fantastic bonus”—or is there some reason that natural selection might account for its (sporadic) occurrence in human women? The debate is extremely interesting and involves some central issues of the philosophy of science. It has certainly provided an opportunity for creative hypothesis creation on the part of the panadoptationists who invoke sperm suck-up and other equally ingenious or far fetched functions for the orgasm. My interest here is not scientific, however. I wonder what are the non-scientific, perhaps even unconscious reasons, that account for why people either readily accept or noisily reject the fantastic-bonus account of female organism.

I may be speculating at a sperm-suck up level to suggest this, but it seems to me that a lot of people don’t like the spandrel version because for them the legitimacy of enjoying sex needs the blessing of natural selection, which serves in this instance as a substitute for a moral legislator. Long before Spinoza, people sometimes referred to God as Nature; and Nature (with a capital N) is still imagined in a theological way even though natural selection (with a small n) is not a teleological principle but an explanation of why a teleological principle is unnecessary. On the other side, some people probably like the spandrel version because they don’t deify nature and are perfectly happy if the female orgasm is a $20 bill they found on the sidewalk. From this point of view, it is profoundly human to make something meaningful out of what doesn’t mean anything at all in itself.  The human thing is a city that floats in the clouds.

Another application:  When Sandra Fluke testified in favor of covering birth control in health insurance, she brought down a really remarkable storm of slander and libel on her head. Although the level of civility may have differed between the spokesmen of the Catholic church and Rush Limbaugh, the rationale of Fluke’s critics was identical: contraception is always dubious because the function of sex, at least for women, is reproduction. The economic argument against Fluke was not central, though the Conservatives did falsely claim that Fluke wanted the government to pay for contraception. For them, to enjoy sex while frustrating its natural purpose is perverse even if you’re paying for your own birth control pills. To allow such things to be part of your health insurance is a public endorsement of fundamental immorality.

In fact, Nature has no purposes and lays down no laws. To understand the world rightly, it is even more necessary to be an atheist about Nature than about God. We cooked up all our customs and rules, so that a sex-negative morality is quite as artificial as a sex-positive one. The difference is simply that an ethic that eschews pleasure, equality, and sociability is rather unintelligent.

The Existentialists sometimes made this point in a misleading way. It is perfectly true that our inheritance from that careless mother, evolution, strongly constrains our choices, just as the physical properties of marble and paint constrain the artist. As the bricoleurs of our own desires, we tinker with the bits and pieces we find in ourselves. Since these biological raw materials developed under the influence of natural selection, they often have a continuing tendency to improve our general fitness. Nevertheless, “Thou shalt maximize the number of thy viable offspring!” is no less arbitrary a commandment as “Thou shall have no other Gods but me!”  In any case, the exemplary product of radical human freedom is not the individual and stupid act of a Raskalnikov, but the intelligent and cooperative creation of a civilization.  Sartrean cheap thrill aside, we aren’t condemned to freedom. We won the lottery on that one.

We also drastically underestimate the possibilities. When people talk about human freedom, they sometimes seem to imply that individual choice is only about the selection of means because we have no control over the ends. We want what we want. With Christmas coming up, however, you’d think that at least the philosophers who are parents would notice how much time they spend teaching their children how to identify their own desires. You have to learn how to want and not just what you want for lunch. Self-fashioning is as much or more about selecting and elaborating goals as picking out the route to your objective; and this is especially true in terms of our sexual selves. 

Perhaps the deepest objection that traditional religionists have to non-procreative sex is that it exemplifies a dimension of freedom that people, especially female people, are not supposed to have.* What makes free female sexuality particularly threatening is that women can use it to modulate their relationship with men. The polemicists rant about hookup culture, but the scarier outcome is the emergence of a much more egalitarian and stable form of marriage that is prevalent among well-educated folks, at least in the blue states.    


*Thomas Laqueur made a similar point about self love in his book Solitary Sex: a Cultural History of Masturbation—according to Laqueur, what upset the moralists was not so much the prospect of biological decadence and hairy palms as the interior liberty opened up by sexual fantasy. There just isn’t any way to censor the programming that appears on the thinking man’s television.