Here is the culmination of Bishop Thomas Dowd’s series “Connecting the dots on So-called Same Sex “marriage”. As stated in the beginning, I hope that all of us can learn from the arguments and, more importantly the reasoning presented here so that we can make our case convincingly to a culture that has lost its way, and stands to drift even further.
Dot #4: Essay on the nature of human culture
There are many tangential points that were brought up in the comments boxes to the previous posts, but I am worried that if I start tackling them one by one the volume of commentary will cause my core arguments regarding marriage and family to acquire a taste of negativity. I am, however, normally quite a cheerful person, living and Waiting in Joyful Hope. I do not want to take an approach that will obscure the beautiful and positive things I believe many if not most of us believe in and want to promote. Yes, I do think that Bill C-38 represents a legal disaster. But as much as the opposition to it needs to have an articulate position, we also need to be able to put forward our positive alternative vision, and articulate it as well. Here is my attempt to do so, and my hope is that the answers to these secondary points will then become self-evident.
The word “natural” has been kicked around quite a bit in the comments boxes. My own argument regarding the change in the law centres on the question of “natural family bonds”. How can we expand on these concepts to create a positive, encompassing vision? It should be rational, even scientific, and rooted in natural concepts rather than depending solely on religious ones. Let us begin our exploration.
1. Our animal nature
If there is one thing I think we can all agree on, it is that we humans possess an animal side to our nature. We are living beings, not inanimate minerals. But we are not plants, we are animals. We are, of course, the most advanced species of animal yet produced by the process of evolution, at least in the intellectual sphere. As far as we know, we are the only animals capable of rational thought, and this defines to such a degree that the ancient Greek philosophers defined Man as a “rational animal”.
Now let us recall what the theory of evolution says, particularly regarding animal behaviour. Animal behaviour, it proposes, is driven by two key instincts: the instinct of self-preservation, and the instinct to preserve the species through reproduction. In some ways, it is just two facets of the same preservation instinct: a personal facet for the individual, and a collective facet for the species as such. Now over time, mutations occur within a species that affect its ability to meet the needs arising from these instincts. Because of competition between species, the negative mutations are weeded out and the positive mutations remain, and so species evolve, gradually becoming better. Indeed, some species may have competition within themselves, to ensure that the healthiest members are able to pass on more of their genes to the next generation. We see this quite often in mating behaviours, for example, as males fight over the right to mate with a female in heat.
One of the key evolutionary advances that breeds survival success is greater animal intelligence. Animals that are “smarter” are better able to adapt to their environments, because they can *learn*. And the smartest animals we know of (apart from us) are the primates, particularly the most advanced of them. Many anthropologists have gone to study primate behaviour, in order to gain insights into human behaviour by studying these closest “cousins” of ours. They have discovered a number of interesting things worth noting here, to serve as a basis of comparison.
First of all, regarding primate sexual behaviour, they note a high degree of promiscuity. The higher primates are social animals, typically organized into family units around an “alpha male” who keeps a harem of females for himself which he defends against other males. This is seen as the evolutionary paradigm at work: he wishes to pass on his own genes to his offspring, so naturally he will want to have as many females as possible in his harem, and he will want to ensure that no other males intrude and mate with his females. The females, however, are not merely passive participants in the survival of the species. Weaker, typically younger males often lurk in the outskirts of these family units, and females often prefer to mate with them. You see, for one male to challenge another for the title of “alpha” is a test of brute strength, and ensures that offspring are physically strong from the male genes. For a physically weaker male to successfully sneak a tryst with a female, however, implies cleverness and greater intelligence, on the part of both the male and the female. Such trysts are actually better in an evolutionary standard, because the offspring, presumably, gradually acquire a greater physical capacity for animal intelligence. Polygamy and infidelity are the rules of the game in the primate world.
As animal intelligence increases, however, we see the emergence of something very interesting: the existence of a genuine animal culture. The basic instincts remain the central driving force, but more intelligent animals rely less and less on specific instinctual behaviours and more and more on learned behaviours. An insect hatched in a laboratory can be easily placed back into the wild, as it will simply live according to its instinctual impulses. Higher animals born in captivity often have a much harder time adjusting to the wild, however. For some, it is because their more specific instincts (the instinct to hunt, for example) has been sublimated and needs to be re-awakened, but in others it seems to be because those behaviours no longer *have* associated instincts — rather than being passed on purely biologically, these social animals pass on these behaviours through their social contact.
All of this is particularly true of primates. Primates possess a remarkable capacity to solve problems and to learn, and these behaviours can be passed down to the next generation by imitation. There is no gene, as far as we know, that causes a chimpanzee to stick a twig in an anthill to get at more tasty ants, or to wash the dirt off food by rinsing it in the ocean: these are inventions, and are transmitted, not by biology, but by culture.
Still, primate culture is quite primitive. The tools primates use are themselves drawn from nature — the twig already existed as a twig. The social behaviours are much more physical than mental: primates groom each other, but they don’t recite poetry. Even the celebrated learning of basic sign language by certain gorillas and chimpanzees is not all that impressive when we consider that they didn’t come up with the signs on their own in the first place, and they these signs always express concrete subjects rather than abstract ones: the gorillas know the signs for “red” and “berry”, things that they can see, but ideas like “multiplication”, “justice”, and “God” mean nothing to them. It is still merely signing, and not yet true language, but the fact that such animals pass these signs on to their offspring shows the importance of animal “culture” in these creatures.
All this changed, however, with the coming of human beings, the most advanced animals in terms (at least) of intelligence. Let us see what this means.
2. The rational animals
As far as we can tell, human beings are the only animals that can truly be said to possess intelligence to such a degree that we can properly call it the gift of reason. Rationality gives us two capacities that other animals do not possess:
the capacity of free will, which can go so far as to override our specific instinctual impulses;
the capacity of abstraction, which permits us to attain true insight and understanding of things, as well as to use and manipulate symbols to convey meaning. The latter is the basis of language itself, as words themselves are symbols without an intrinsic connection to the thing signified.
The capacity for abstraction, in particular, meant that human evolution was to take on a whole new direction. While primate behaviour was beginning to show a cultural dimension, it was still biological evolution that was the key mechanism for better adaptation to the environment — and the process of biological evolution is slow. With the capacity for abstraction and insight, however, human inventiveness far surpassed the twigs-in-anthills of our closest evolutionary cousins. Fire, hunting weapons, tools, and clothing all permitted us to adapt quickly to new environments despite physical weaknesses, and the capacity of language allowed us to transmit the results of our successful experiments to others and pass them on to our children. There most certainly was evolution, but it was cultural, not biological, and it was driven by the accumulation of insights.
What, then, of human sexual behaviour? Some anthropologists have speculated that the behaviour of human beings, closely related as we are to the primates, should parallel the natural “best behaviours” of those primates. Such anthropologists see in these primate behaviours a justification and even sometimes an exaltation of polygamy and infidelity, or at least of promiscuity. These anthropologists forget, however, that humans are different, because we are rational beings. This is a radical shift in our natures, and it creates with it a corresponding new set of “best behaviours”.
One thing we need to keep in mind is that the development in mental capacity for humans is coupled with a physical development: the larger cranial capacity of the human head. Basically, we have bigger brains for our body size, and we have bigger heads to match. Because of this, human babies need to be born with relatively underdeveloped bodies, or else the head would become too large to pass through the birth canal. Our children are born practically blind, unable to walk or even crawl, or even to lift their heads. Primate babies are nowhere near this helpless when they are born, coming into the world quite alert and strong, able to grasp mama’s fur and to move about quite early.
So while human intelligence brings great advantages, it also comes at a cost: the human child demands a great deal more care, both initially and in the long road to adulthood. Human females, therefore, find themselves at a disadvantage with regards to their primate sisters: they cannot be anywhere near as independent, and they cannot simply rely on other females because they have the same problem. Some sort of pair bonding is therefore necessary with the males, who will contribute services of protection and providing. Arising from this comes the natural prerogative of monogamy. While males may still wish to have their harems and their trysts, the females are now suddenly a lot less interested, as true monogamy prevents the dispersion of the male contribution to child care.
Let me say that this analysis, as we have seen it thus far, is not my attempt to rationalize Judeo-Christian values. Many evolutionary biologists see certain parallel physical developments that seem to go hand in hand with tempering the biological “promiscuity drive” seen in other primates. Human females, for example, have a menstrual cycle that is very unusual in the animal world: it is not tied to the seasons, and shows very few external signs of fertility. Without knowing which of the subtle signs to read, women often don’t even know for sure themselves! In the primate world the “alpha male” only gives his special sexual supervision to the females when they are in heat while largely ignoring the rest, but in the human world this is not possible, and so it is much harder for a human male to actually exercise sexual supervision of a harem — it is a full-time job, with regards to each and every female, and the male, if he is really is interested in seeing his genes survive in his offspring, needs to be busy providing for their care and the care of their mother. Polygamy is simply too much to handle.
There is also an interesting evolutionary development within human males that supports this evolutionary view: the possibility for human males to develop strong emotional bonds with their children. Among primates this is far less evident, with active child care confined largely to the females. Given the helplessness of the human babies, however, and the much longer time it takes for them to grow to adulthood, the females need the males to contribute to this task. It is only logical that evolution provide a mechanism to help support the males in their evolutionary imperative to help ensure that their offspring survive and mature and pass on their genes: rather than the generalized male indifference found in primates, male humans naturally have strong emotional bonds with their children. It is a different bond from the female one, but very real nevertheless. How many fathers have told me that their life changed when their first child was born — they felt a powerful emotion at work that they had never even imagined before! It is the power of a genuine human evolutionary trait, designed to help the species thrive.
All these basic patterns, complete with their primitive responses, can be seen in human behaviour today:
Human females have traditionally looked for a strong mate who would be, first and foremost, a good provider, and who would contribute to the rearing of the children. This is true across all major cultural groups.
Human females tend to be devastated when they discover their mate has been unfaithful, which is an echo of the reality that such infidelity threatens a dispersion of the male-contributed resources to the family unit that are necessary for survival. Human males, partly because they never know when their mates are fertile, insist upon a reciprocal fidelity, most basically in order to ensure that the children are truly theirs.
Human beings tend to monogamy, again across cultures. Where polygamy exists, whether as multiple wives or as harems of concubines, such social structures are only accessible to the wealthy and powerful, and indeed are often seen as a sign of that wealth and power.
All these elements, rooted in biology and structured by our rational natures, give rise to a set of natural “best behaviours” for the human race. Philosophers call it the “natural law”, but no matter what term we use it is merely a recognition of certain logical patterns built into us that are meant to help us achieve the evolutionary imperative of survival: survival of self, and more particularly survival of the species.
3. The role of culture
As I mentioned above, higher animals (and especially human beings) evolve not only biologically but culturally. Ideally, the biological development of a bigger brain would have been accompanied simultaneously by the biological development of other physical features and instinctual behaviours, to round out the picture. Evolution, however, is a slow and sometimes chaotic process. Perhaps the bigger brain came first, and gradually other physical features (such as the hidden menstrual cycle) followed, with nature selecting in favour of those features because they contributed to the creation of a set of “best behaviours” that supported the obviously important advance of intelligence.
There is no guarantee, however, that the human species has yet evolved to possess, biologically, the fullest set of supporting instincts. In one sense, perhaps we don’t absolutely have to. Because we possess culture, those human “best behaviours” don’t need to be programmed by nature, they can simply be learned and passed on from generation to generation: the flexibility of intelligence itself allows the mind to quickly supply for instinctual behaviours the physical side of our nature has not yet provided. On the other hand, it obviously is useful for the human race to slowly catch up by biologically providing instincts that back up the “best behaviours” already determined by the intelligence. One could say that this kind of natural selection has been led by human beings themselves, using our intelligence in the selection of mates whose behaviour is best in synch with the human “best behaviours”. As such biological instincts manifest themselves in human behaviour, they would tend to be experienced as a kind of sub-rational wisdom: a certain “relaxation of spirit” when behaviour is consistent with human “best behaviours”, and an uneasiness when behaviour is inconsistent.
Human beings, then, find themselves between two states. With our bigger brains capable of supporting the function of abstraction we have evolved beyond the state of the primates, but this brain creates new behavioural demands because of slow relative physical development. This capacity for intelligence allows us to supply for the lacking instinctual behaviours through cultural development as we wait for biological evolution to catch up, but this means that humans always face a particular temptation: the temptation to fall back into primate behaviours, mistaking them for our true “best behaviours”. Our capacity for free will allows us to override any residual primate instinctual behaviours, and so, strengthened by culture, this capacity allows us to continue to live according to our own human “best behaviours”. While we are likely also slowly evolving a new set of instinctual behaviours to replace the primate behaviours, and indeed for many of us this evolution of a “natural conscience” may be quite advanced, we must also recognize that the success of the human species has historically depended on two things: the use of intelligence to discover the human “best behaviours” made necessary by the simply physical demands of that intelligence, and the use of free will to override the residual primate instinctual behaviours and choose the new, culturally discovered human behaviours.
Taking the evolutionary imperatives of personal and species survival as our criteria, therefore, we can state the following: Those cultural developments which support human “best behaviours” are superior to those which instead allow us to revert to, or indeed canonize, primate behaviours.
This is a fairly radical statement, especially in this day and age of cultural relativism. We like to believe that all cultures are equal, seeking to avoid any ethnocentric chauvanism. At the same time, though, we do recognize that, for people to be able to live and work together, some kind of basic common ground is necessary. Each time a new ethnic group immigrates to Canada, for example, bringing with it its own ways of life, some kind of cross-cultural exploration becomes necessary to discover these ground rules. If radical cultural relativism was truly the norm, then Canada would have no choice but to accept cultural groups which practiced human sacrifice, doing so in the name of being unwilling to “judge”. But we don’t accept such groups, and in fact we do believe that there are “better” and “worse” human behaviours, regardless of culture. The analysis I am presenting here is quite simple: rooted in the very nature of human beings as opposed to primates and other animals, I am proposing a basis upon which this common ground can be determined.
Now some may argue that, in fact, there are “best behaviours” that arise from the condition of primitive man, but because we are now a much wealthier and more advanced society it is possible to throw off these requirements of biology and write our own new “best behaviours”. For example, when the development of the birth control pill was announced, Hugh Hefner (the founder of Playboy) is said to have proclaimed, “At last, sex can be used for recreation, not procreation!” There can be no doubt that this new technology led to a revolution in sexual behaviour, such that both women and man are more promiscuous, in both intent and deed, and there is a greater cultural tolerance and even celebration of promiscuity. But is this really progress, or regress? Promiscuity is, in fact, a return to primate sexual behaviour. We see it in its accompanying signs: the impetus to form monogamous pair bonds weakens, bringing with it an increase in adultery and breakdowns of monogamous relationships (i.e. divorce rates rise). And when pregnancies do occur, the women often find themselves abandoned by the men to raise the children on their own. In many cases this leads to cycles of poverty and poor socialization, reducing our capacity to culturally strengthen the next generation (particularly the men) to avoid the excesses of primate behaviour: a downward spiral sets in, gradually leading to the decline of the culture itself. Of course, some will argue that abortion technology should be used to stop such pregnancies, but to do so is to go against one of the most basic of natural laws — the law of the survival of the species, written into the most basic instincts of all animate living things. And of course, again it is the women more than the men who pay the price of conscience in such matters.
This decline of the culture is a serious matter, because we need to realise that cultures do not exist in a vacuum. Many different cultures have arisen all over the world, and these compete with each other for the passing on of both genetic and cultural material to the next generation. The very existence of this competition is what justifies the claim that certain cultures are superior to others. The simple fact is that a culture that behaves according to the human “best behaviours” is, in the long run, going to produce more and better offspring. Such cultures are acting in accordance with the evolutionary imperative of survival of the species (in this case, of the cultural sub-group), and so each new child will be seen as a blessing. These cultures will create family units with greater stability, meaning the children will be better socialized, and those family units, seeing their children as their raison d’être, will ensure they are better educated. How can a more “primate” culture compete? Given enough time, they will simply be bred into insignificance, with the culture that is more in tune with human “best behaviours” taking a dominant role.
May I add that this is happening today. Let me put an example to you in the most blunt terms possible: While it does not do so perfectly, Islamic culture respects many natural “best behaviours” better than current post-modern Western culture. It is no wonder, then, that many Muslims believe Western culture to be decadent: according to the standard of natural “best behaviours”, it is! One might believe that they will simply assimilate into Western culture, but they have the necessary cultural support to avoid falling into the primate behavioural elements of that culture, rooted as they are in a strong religious sense. Therefore, while Muslims living in the West will adapt to the many advances of Western culture, they will *never* actually assimilate into it en masse. Increasingly the West is having to accommodate the presence of this culture within its boundaries, and given a few more generations of Western cultural decadence, the West will in fact be dominated by Islamic culture.
More and more I see pundits wringing their hands at this reality of Islam within the West, and I read articles filled with fear, resentment and even loathing for the Islamic resistance to cultural assimilation. Such cases are usually accompanied, however, with an utter lack of awareness that perhaps what is something wrong with Western culture can be identified using an objective standard. Human “best behaviours” provide that standard, not only for the West, but for all cultures.
So what are the cultural features that should be present for human “best behaviours” to be properly supported?
4. Elements of a truly human culture
The following list, without pretending to be exhaustive, outlines which I believe should be present for a culture to be able to rise above primate behaviours.
Children are a blessing
A truly human culture accepts and lives the evolutionary imperative to propagate the human species. Every child is, therefore, a blessing, and while the attitudes of individuals are one thing, there is no cultural attitude that validates the idea of an “unwanted child”: even if the child is not wanted by the parents, the child is wanted by the culture as a whole.
Now some may argue that this point is in fact dangerous, because it will eventually lead to overpopulation. “Overpopulation”, however, is a relative term: it is always determined as a function of available resources, such as food. And, starting with the doomsday scenario of Malthus, *EVERY* prediction made thus far of a population disaster has been an utter failure. Why is this?
We need to understand that, all other things being equal, higher populations are better than lower ones for the development of human culture. The motor of cultural development is the discovery of new insights, such as scientific insights. A new beneficial biological mutation takes a long time to spread throughout a population, because it is only useful to the direct descendents of the originator of the mutation. A new insight, on the other hand, is propagated by the intelligence, not by biology, and so can benefit all human beings relatively quickly. The simple fact, then, is that the more people there are seeking new cultural insights and working for their propagation, the more human culture will develop. The evolutionary imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” produces more than just people: it produces a culture that, more and more rapidly, is able to adapt to any situation.
The bottom line is that by the time this world truly reaches a level of population that is unsustainable even with the extraordinary technologies that will be developed by then, we will already be colonizing Mars and spreading throughout the solar system (and possibly the galaxy). “Overpopulation”, for it to even exist as a potential danger, requires unfettered procreation within the context of a selfish primate culture. The solution is not fewer offspring; the solution is to elevate the culture.
Social support for natural family bonds, particularly in education
Part of the evolutionary imperative of the survival of the species is the fact that this is accomplished by actual individuals doing the reproducing, who seek to ensure that their genetic heritage is passed on. There is therefore a natural bond that exists between parent and child which is, quite simply, an axiom of life.
While the parent-child bond does exist, however, the fact that humans develop partly through culture, as well as the fact that our free will can override our instincts, can mean that these bonds are stronger in some and weaker in others. A truly human culture would therefore seek to provide special cultural support, creating a climate of respect and honour for parents and parenthood. There would be a positive recognition of the natural family bonds that exist between parents and their children, along with support for the rights and responsibilities that flow from them. This would include a strong legal bias in favour of custody for natural parents.
The most important of these rights, next to the right of custody, is the right to for parents to determine the best way for their children to be socialized and educated. This socialization is extremely important for human beings, given the large role given to culture in human society. Parents fulfill their evolutionary imperative by not only begetting children, but by seeing that they are properly raised. (Let me also add that, because this requirement is long and demanding, it tends to place an upper limit on the number of children that will be born in human societies, unless that society has degenerated to a more primate culture and the proper socialization of children is less of a practical concern.)
The right to educate, therefore, does not begin with the society as a whole, but at a lower level, with the parents. Society does have a right to insist that parents properly undertake this responsibility, but it should step in only when absolutely necessary. Apart from this, because it is part of the evolutionary imperative tied to the natural family bonds with their children, parents should have the primary right to determine the best mix of home education vs. institutional education (i.e. schools), as well as the proper curriculum.
Gender difference understood as complementary
A truly human culture would recognize that men and women are equal but different: true equality is therefore not rooted in the idea that the sex difference is fundamentally unimportant, but in the idea that a complementarity exists between men and women.
Modern feminist analysis sees the root of social problems in the concept of patriarchy, i.e. the dominance of women by men. This, however, is actually a feature of primate culture, in which the males “own” their females and use their physical strength to keep them in sexual subjegation without, in fact, doing a great deal to ensure that the next generation is looked after (as this contribution simply isn’t necessary). A truly human culture, on the other hand, recognizes that the success of the next generation actually requires (because of the helplessness of human children and the need to a long socialization) the active cooperation and collaboration of both parents, and possesses this as a cultural norm.
Still, this partnership does not have to equal the radical denial of gender difference. A truly human society demands a partnership between men and women, but (coming as we are from a primate background) men live their maleness differently from the way women live their femaleness. This is not necessarily the start of a new patriarchy: indeed, without it, patriarchy may be impossible to avoid. If men are not socialized into their maleness in a manner that respects the unique differences of that maleness, they will by default fall back into primate patterns and patriarchy will resume (as we are seeing in the fallout of the sexual revolution). I might also add that the primate pattern for women is to meekly accept their subjegation, as the monkeys females do. That isn’t right either.
What does this proper socialization therefore require? In short, the presence of both parents, each contributing their proper part of this socialization. Boys need role male models to socialize them into proper manhood, but the strong presence of women is also needed to prevent this male bonding from turning into an “boys club” that is simply a union to push for the re-establishment of patriarchy; in other words, the men need strong women to help identify for them the path of true partnership. In their turn, girls need female role models to socialize them into proper womanhood, but also need a strong and upright male presence to teach them that they should not accept subjegation and patriarchy should primate patterns threaten to reassert themselves.
The solution for a truly human society, therefore, is not a total separation of the sexes, nor a denial of gender difference. It is a vision of partnership and equality rooted in gender complementarity.
As has already been demonstrated, monogamous marriage becomes a necessary cultural imperative to properly support the next generation of children. The only real alternative is polygamy, specifically polygyny (polyandry is exceedingly rare in human cultures). Polygamy spreads the resources for proper physical and cultural development too thinly, however. Monogamy really is the only possibility for a truly human culture.
We must concede, however, that polygamy *does* exist. Where does it come from? Polygamy is often seen in very warlike cultures, because the higher death rate of men over women from war casualties creates a gender imbalance: half a husband is better than none in such a context, especially when there are already children in the picture. Polygamy also often arises among the ruling class of a society, as the kinship bonds created by marriage become a mechanism to create alliances within and across tribes and nations: often, the king is culturally expected to be polygamous, for the sake of social peace. Finally, polygamy often arises in situations of wealth and power, even outside of the ruling class. In this respect, the wealth acts an enabler for the resurgence of primate behaviour, because the simple reality is that, in order to have multiple wives (or to keep a harem) a human male needs to have much greater resources than a primate male. He must contribute far more to the care of his multiple offspring, and the hidden fertility of his women means he must be even more vigilant than a primate male. Is it any wonder that the harems of many ancient cultures were guarded, but guarded by eunuchs? Such harems, of course, quickly become their own raison d’être, acting more as social symbols of wealth and power than true attempts to propagate the species.
Human culture demands more than simple monogamy, however. Because primate behaviour lurks so closely below the surface, a truly human culture transforms monogamy into the social institution of marriage. Human free will is the capacity that permits human to override any lurking primate instincts, and so human marriage is, in fact, rooted in a meeting of wills: whether it is through tea ceremonies, spoken vows, or the tossing of flower petals, the partners in marriage *choose* one another. The public nature of this institution is also important, because monogamy is not important only for the couple, but for the whole of society. It is not surprising, therefore, that societies create a special social category for married persons, complete with its own vocabulary: they do so to support the marriage partners in their vows.
Strict regulation of divorce
Monogamous marriage, as we have seen, is important for a truly human culture. Easy divorce, on the other hand, leads to a form of polygamy called “serial polygamy”. i.e. multiple spouses, just not all at the same time. In some ways, this is even worse than simultaneous polygamy, because the former spouses often find themselves truly abandoned. Divorce, for example, is often associated with single-mother poverty.
Because marriage is a choice, a meeting of wills, society does have the right to insist that people keep their promises and remain married. In the end, easy divorce gradually leads to the establishment of a primate culture.
This being said, we must recognize that there are times when a marriage truly has broken down, in the worst cases because of the manifestation of primate behaviours like adultery or jealous possessiveness leading to abuse. Society does need some mechanism, therefore, to permit the separation of a couple. The conditions for a divorce should be quite strict, so that the entire institution of marriage itself does not descend into primate chaos. In particular, society should enforce strict requirements on parents, that regardless of their current marital status they have a positive duty to contribute to the welfare of their children, which is one of the reasons for monogamy in the first place. Of course, there must be a certain reciprocity: such parents, unless they present a danger to their children, should be permitted to continue to participate in the education and socialization of their children, as otherwise their “contribution to the welfare” of the children is merely financial.
Another possibility open to society for the regulation of divorce would be the expansion of the possibilities of civil marital annulments. Currently, civil annulments are granted only on technical grounds (such as being under age). These grounds could be expanded to include cases of personal immaturity or improper socialization. The marital vows are meant to help prevent primate behaviour from surfacing, in part by identifying socially-supported marital expectations, but it may be that there are persons who, despite the fact that they say “I do”, are still personally in a very primate attitude and are not really capable of a truly human marriage.
Sexuality as something sacred
A quick study of ancient human cultures shows that sexuality was held as something sacred, particularly in respect to fertility. Ancient stone carvings, for example, show female figures with impossibly large hips and breasts, themselves signs of fertility, and a study of the ancient values of world religions shows a preoccupation of the human spirit regarding sex and fertility.
Of course, you don’t need to examine ancient stone carvings to know that sex is on peoples’ minds. This is quite natural, and is part of the basic instinct to reproduce the species. What is interesting, however, is how societies tend to wrap sexuality in sacred language and attitudes. We should not confuse the sacred with the religious: the word “sacred”, in the original sense, does not mean “holy” as much as it means “set apart”, or if you prefer, “put in its own proper place”. Human society seems to “sacrilize” sexuality quite readily: unlike animals, people tend to have sexual relations in private, and even sexual language is often replete with metaphors. Conversations about sex generally require a preparatory context, and despite this, is still often accompanied by nervousness and giggles. Although its exact form is different from place to place, modesty is a common human norm.
Why do we so spontaneously create cultural norms that sacrilize sex? Again, it goes back to the original tension between our primate ancestry and our human nature. Patterns of promiscuity, beneficial to primates in their evolution, are destructive to the future of the human species. Cultural patterns therefore necessarily develop to keep this promiscuity in check.
Apart from promiscuity and infidelity, however, we often find sacred language used to describe the sexual relations of husband and wife. Typically this language celebrates such relations. But, interestingly, the sacred dimension of sex is also often found to justify limiting sexual relations even within the context of marriage. Again, this is easily comprehensible within the context of human evolution. The relatively long time it takes for a human child to come to full maturity naturally mitigates against having an excessive number of children, because even the biological imperative to pass on our genes depends on not just having kids but raising them well. We can therefore conclude that a certain regulation of sexual contact even within marriage makes sense, and in fact this is what we often see. The only foolproof way to not get pregnant, of course, is to not have sex, and so cultures often develop patterns of periodic abstinence, even within marriage.
A whole host of other sexual taboos rounds out the mix. Sexual activities that do not respond to the evolutionary imperative to spread one’s genes within the gene pool, such as bestiality, incest, and homosexuality, are seen as sexual deviations. Children exposed to sexual contact at a young age often become very promiscuous as adults, so it is natural to expect that human societies would frown upon such contact. Sex before marriage also becomes a social taboo in this context, and there are strong social prohibitions against sex outside of marriage (i.e. adultery).
It is not only the sex acts themselves, however, that are wrapped in taboos: even artistic and cultural representations of sex are made “sacred”. Whether it is the depictions of sex acts on Hindu temples (note: on temples!), or the style of discussion within medical textbooks, these is still a sense of sex being “set apart”. An exception to this, of course, is pornography. But pornography regularly depicts elements of a very “primate” attitude to sexuality: largely consumed by men, porn typically displays spontaneous sex acts outside of marriage, all without any inhibitions, cultural or otherwise. Even the women depicted are a nod to primate culture: they evoke a sense of fertility, being young and/or having a body shape that resembles the ridiculously large breasts and hips of the ancient statuettes. Even the fact that porn is largely silent regarding pregnancy and childbirth is a part of this “primate dynamic”: the male apes just don’t care, because the females do all the work anyway! Pornography is, quite simply, inherently patriarchal.
Fornication and its depiction in pornography have historically been strictly regulated, if not by law then by sexual taboos. Some of you reading this may have even become uncomfortable by this very academic discussion. Our modern society has seen an explosion of fornication and pornography, however. Oddly, this has been partly driven by the drive for women’s equality. The simple reality is that while virginity before marriage and fidelity within marriage may be the cultural ideal, there are many cultures which place all the burden for this upon women while the men continue to behave, literally, like apes. I have sometimes heard women complain that it isn’t fair that men get to sleep around while women have to remain faithful. But while it is true that such men are behaving like primates, the solution is not for the women to join in and behave like primates too! As in the primate world, female promiscuity actually benefits the men more than women, and for women to simply join in leads inexorably to the justification of the misogyny of the primate world. Feminism is correct when it promotes the positive role of women in society against patriarchy. It is incorrect, however, when it sees sexual equality requiring equal access to fornication. This is merely a recipe for greater patriarchy further down the road, and feminism is at war with its own values when it extols female promiscuity.
Of course, throughout history women have quite readily accepted the uneven balance of sexual responsibility, simply because they find themselves facing an uneven balance in its consequences: it is the women who get pregnant, and primate behaviour dictates that it be the women who raise the children. What, then, has occasioned the massive increase in female participation in casual sexual contact? Quite simply, the breaking of the sexual act with its consequences. Simone de Beauvoir, the noted feminist, believed that full female liberation would require a sexual liberation in which women could behave as freely as men. She also noted, however, that this would never happen until abortion and contraception was widely available. Well, the future is now, and the advent of these two technologies allows women to then pursue their own side of primate behaviour: sexual contact with males without a sense of commitment. Of course, this often leads to conflicted feelings within the females themselves, because of the very conflict between their human nature and these residual primate instincts. And the greatest conflict comes when a pregnancy does occur, because the choice is often either single-motherhood, or abortion. The latter, of course, goes against both human and primate evolutionary imperatives. Even the female primates, in their multiple sexual contacts, are open to the possibility of procreation. We should not be surprised to discover that human females who have abortions typically don’t brag about it.
This now brings us to a very important discussion regarding the means of family planning. There are two possible ways to avoid pregnancy: by artificial methods, which seek to block the act of conception by technology, and by natural methods, which seek to determine when the couple is not fertile and limit sexual contact to those times. Both kinds of methods can be over 90% effective, but there is in fact a very real difference between the two. Artificial methods permit sexual contact at any time, and so opens the door to promiscuity, anonymous sex, and a lack of sexual self-control. Natural methods, on the other hand, require the cooperation of both partners, and depend on good communication and trust between them; they also require self-discipline in matters of sex, and so help build the traits that support fidelity and monogamy. Now this does not mean that all couples who use artificial methods of contraception are necessarily doing so because they want to have permission to be unfaithful — far from it, I am sure! But we should still not be surprised to learn that divorce rates are far lower for couples who use natural methods, and that such couples report far higher rates of marital satisfaction. It still isn’t nirvanna — humankind is far too complicated for that to depend on one thing — but the results are striking. It is merely the manifestation of the satisfaction that comes from living according to human nature, rather than according to our primate echoes.
A truly human culture will be one in which altruism is promoted as superior to selfishness. Now there are some anthropologists who see this as contrary to the basic evolutionary imperative to pass one one’s genes. Such a motive, they believe, demands and justifies a certain competition, to ensure a “survival of the fittest”. Even biologically, however, we are already social animals even within the context of reproduction, as we need pair bonding for the sake of our offspring. Beyond this, humans evolve primarily by culture, rather than by biology, and so there is a definite value to seeing *all* offspring thrive, not just our own, because the success of other offspring may very well contribute to cultural advancements from which all humans benefit. Nevertheless, our primate echoes do seem to reside in us as a “selfish gene”, and so a truly human culture encourages and supports a sense of altruism, and even encourages us to choose that altruism when it is difficult.
How does the “selfish gene” typically manifest itself? We see it at its most basic in the preference parents have for their natural children over other children. As long as it does not lead to harm for other children this can be a wholesome thing, as the bond is in fact the root of the self-sacrifice of parents for their children, but it does also explain why we prefer for adoptions to take place within extended families, and why we screen adoptive parents before giving them custody of orphans: we are looking for either a close family bond to parallel the natural bond, or we are looking for people who are sufficiently “human” to take care of the orphans as their own.
The “selfish gene” shows up in other levels of social organization as well. We prefer our extended family to our local clan. We prefer our local clan to our tribe. We prefer our tribe to the tribes of “outsiders”. It is no wonder, then, that to counteract the subtle influence of the “selfish gene” humans have, throughout history, relied on family ties and imagery to provide the necessary cultural support to prevent social disintegration. Whether it is marriages between royalty or a common ancestor myth, these mechanisms exist in order to justify the cultural development of altruism towards the Other.
What happens when this altruism is limited, and a situation of “us” and “them” arises? It does not take long for xenophobia, racism, and war to result. In its most basic form, war occurs when it is easier for one socially-knit group to steal the resources necessary for its own survival rather than produce them on their own, but war depends on an “us” and “them” mentality: one does not kill those who may enrich us culturally unless we believe that they cannot enrich us culturally. But even war is not the worst crime against humanity: this is reserved to genocide. Even war usually stops at enslaving the oppressed people. Many Jews in the Nazi death camps believed that, as brutal as the Nazis were, they would not exterminate them as long as they were economically useful. But in Nazism we see the worst manifestation of primate instincts in an “us” and “them” mentality. The Jews, let us not forget, had produced until that time a great many scientific and cultural advances: Einstein was a Jew! But the Nazis were not interested in the possibility of benefiting from further cultural advances: instead, they defined their enemy according to blood, declaring them racially inferior, and therefore sought to remove the Jews from the breeding pool of humanity by extermination. Primates, let us not forget, care less for culture and more for biological breeding: left unchecked, in an “us” and “them” context that allows justifies raw biological competition, anything can happen.
A truly human culture, therefore, sees altruism and social openness as a generally beneficial norm. Even the division of human beings into different physical races becomes unimportant, because the capacities of abstraction and language are common to them all and permit beneficial cultural contact. A truly human culture seeks to multiply such contacts, seeking to overcome xenophobic tendencies and cross-cultural misunderstanding for the benefit of all. There is one caveat, however: it may not be possible for a human culture, despite its general openness, to be fully open to another culture that is more “primate”, because of the limitations of the latter. A truly human culture defines everyone as “us”, but the irony is that the part of that “us” may include more primate cultures which define part of the “us” as “them”! Civilization is always threatened with disintegration, then, whether from within due to cultural decadence, or from without due to pressure from the “barbarians”. The solution is not disengagement, however: the more human culture should seek to engage the genuinely human elements of the cultural patterns of the Other, and in the event war does result it should not utterly crush the vanquished but instead use the opportunity to bring them to a higher level of culture. When Germany was defeated in World War II its people were not annihilated, but rather the destructive elements were purged and a new, peaceful and productive culture was born that has taken its place in the community of nations.
Altruism, however, for it to become a community-wide value, needs to start at home. A truly human culture seeks to encourage this, and in this regard it will see even the weakest members of its society as valuable. Our older people no longer reproduce, and may even require such assistance as to not be making any realistic economic contribution to society, so in a more “animal” paradigm there is little reason for them to be honoured, but the simply requirement to “honour our mother and father” helps build our cultural altruism to overcome the echoes of our primate selfishness. A culture which honours its aged is displaying human characteristics; neglect of the aged is a primate behaviour. The same also applies to other weak members of our society, such as the crippled, or the mentally handicapped. Yes, the care of such persons consumes social resources, but it also produces its own reward: the strengthening of cultural altruism. In some ways, these poorest and weakest among us represent one of our greatest cultural treasures. Finally, some might say that the greatest sign of cultural altruism will be found in the way we treat our criminals. Criminal behaviour, by definition, is anti-social, a kind of private war against society, and so such persons need to be removed from society for the protection of the greater body. But how are such persons to be treated? With bitterness, and revenge? A truly human society seeks reformation for such persons, but even if there is no hint of reform possible, even if such a person must be labeled a dangerous offender and isolated from society for the rest of his life, the very fact that he is treated in a human way is a triumph of altruism over our primate echoes. Even the enemies of human society give us an opportunity to strengthen our resistance to falling into barbarism.
The quest for meaning
Every human being has a basic sense of the concepts of “pleasing” and “displeasing”, simply from our own experience. Even babies grimace when they are fed food they don’t like. This experience is not limited to humans, though: anyone who has ever pet a purring cat, or scratched the belly of a dog, knows that animals understand “pleasing” and “displeasing” as well. Among primates, some of these pleasurable activities are used to cement social relationships, such as the practice of grooming. Primates even use sexual practice to achieve secondary social outcomes, something that fits well in their promiscuous natures.
Among humans, however, the communication of pleasure is joined, thanks to our rational nature, to the communication of meaning. Language is so much more than sounds from our mouths: it comprises gestures, choices, and actions as well. “What did he or she mean by that?” is a common question only humans ask. It merely serves as an illustration of a much larger quest in life, however: the quest for meaning.
The basic level of the experience of “pleasingness” starts with the physical senses. We have basic appetites — food and sex being two of the most basic — but we humans tend to do more than satisfy them: we seek meaning within them. Food rituals exist in every culture as a form of social bonding, in things as simple as family dinner. For humans, sex is much more than mere mating, but rather it is intercourse, in the truest sense of the word: a “conversation” of the body, communicating love and intimacy. These two appetites form the basis of what the ancient Greeks called eros, but the physical level of pleasingness can be expanded to include dance, music, sports, and so on. As near as we can tell, animals do none of these things.
The next level of “pleasingness” extends to concepts of the mind. Human beings find a certain pleasure in discovery and learning. To be sure, some of this is because it gives us a greater sense of control over our environment, but there can still be beauty in a mathematical equation, or in a really good book. Take the latter as an example: it is not a satisfaction of the senses — we are less interested in the quality of the paper or the print on the page — but we *are* interested in the contents. We want to see what it all *means*.
The highest level of “pleasingness” belongs, for lack of a better word, to the soul. I am not proposing here some sort of natural proof for the existence of the soul. What I *am* proposing is that there is an ultimate level of our quest for meaning that comes face to face with our finitude. Human beings seem to have a “thirst for the infinite”, which manifests itself most basically in our religious quest. We pray and meditate, something animals do not seem to do, and in the face of death we ask ourselves, “Is that it?”
Social rituals, moral codes, philosophy, sports, the exploration of nature, art, and religion are all social constructs which, in part, serve the function of responding to this quest for meaning. Animals don’t do them, but humans do, and within each of them we are inspired to go beyond our mere animality. A truly human society welcomes and encourages each of these things as part of the total humanization of, well, human beings. Now it *is* easy for each and any of these things to descend into becoming a tool to support our primate echoes, but at the same time they act as a measuring stick to let us know when this is happening: eating is now about fast food; sexuality turns into “If it feels good, do it”; moral codes which teach the value of sacrifice are seen as backward; cheating becomes more prevalent in sports, as winning becomes more important than how you play the game; the arts are reduced to a source of stimulation and titillation; and so on.
As for religion, a decline into a more primate culture will naturally lead to a decline in religious practice in general. In particular, the experience of death will become increasingly socially intolerable, something Ernest Becker famously noted in his Pulitzer prize-winning book “The Denial of Death”. Periods of mourning will become increasingly short, for example: primates do not mourn their dead. But a loss of a sense of meaning in the face of death only leads to a loss of a sense of meaning in the face of life, for death comes to us all. Life easily turns into a frenetic search for distractions, but when those distractions are stripped away life itself becomes intolerable. Decadent human culture has, at its core, a seed of despair and nihilism: euthanasia and suicide become socially acceptable norms for those who cannot imagine continuing to live. Or, in a more sinister form, for those whom *we* cannot imagine wanting to live.
A truly human culture, therefore, strongly supports the genuine human quest for meaning. It makes a generous place for religion. It organizes sports leagues, in a spirit of true sportsmanship. It supports the arts, particularly those arts which in the excellence of their presentation or their subject matter, express an echo of the deepest longings of the human heart. It honours its dead, particularly those who died after a noble life or in a noble cause, and it honours those who choose to live despite great obstacles. In short, in every part of human activity, it seeks to truly “humanize” that field of endeavour, lifting it out of the merely animal through the consideration of meaning. This is the highest level of “pleasingness” available to man, and a truly human society holds it up as its highest goal.
What you have just read is my personal vision for human society. I think it is reasonable and rational, rooted in the best philosophical natural law tradition but further explored given the data of anthropology and modern human experience. I do believe, of course, that the reality of human existence goes far beyond these points: I am a Catholic priest, after all! I believe that there is a God, and that he has taken an active part in human history. Grace builds on nature, though, so it does behoove us to begin with a consideration of that underlying nature. Among other things, it permits us to dialogue and form community with those who do not share our specific religious convictions.
I have been struggling to find a name for this paradigm, and I’ve decided to settle on the term socio-naturalism. It call it this because it is a vision of the social dimension of the human person (hence the socio), but it is more than a rooting of that vision in biology (i.e. it is more than sociobiology, which already exists as a field of inquiry). My social model includes biological elements, but incorporates human reason as an integral determining part of that social model. What is at stake, then, is not just human biology, but human nature: hence, socio-naturalism.