Friday, November 25, 2005

Shall we do what comes naturally?

I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond and I can heartily recommend it. Here’s what he has to say about copulation:

Whatever the main biological function of human copulation, it is not conception, which is just an occasional by-product. In these days of growing human overpopulation, one of the most ironic tragedies is the Catholic Church’s claim that human copulation had conception as its natural purpose, and that the rhythm method is the only proper means of birth control. The rhythm method would be terrific for gorillas and most other mammal species, but not for us. In no species besides humans has the purpose of copulation become so unrelated to conception, or the rhythm method so unsuited for contraception.

This may sound counterintuitive at first glance and, therefore, is just the kind of comment that some rabid shock jock might pick to try and show how ignorant anyone who doesn’t fall into step with his beliefs is. However, Diamond is pointing out a very important fact. Unlike other apes, human females do not advertise their being fertile, indeed, generally find it difficult to tell when they are fertile and, again highly unusually, humans have sex not only when the female is fertile but at any time of the month.

So, one might ask, why is the human sex drive set up in such a wasteful way. Why aren’t we like gibbons who have sex once every couple of years, generally leading to a pregnancy? Well, this is the hard question but it seems that this is linked to just how hard it is to bring up a human child. On the one hand this requires a strong long-term bond between the parents so that two adults care for the child and, on the other hand, it requires co-operation between these parents and an even larger group of humans. The human pattern of sexual activity seems to be aimed at cementing pair-bonding while minimising tensions caused by jealousy within the group.

Of course what I have mentioned is only a rough summary of the arguments that Diamond looks at. By doing this I have made them sound much more univocal than they are. Still, the general point that human sex isn’t primarily for conception holds. Which all brings me to another topic – the way in which Catholicism often makes use of the idea of something being ‘natural’. Their use of this word, however, is a case of false advertising. The reason is linked to the Vatican shuffle I mentioned previously and has to do with the question of how, according to the Catholic Church, we should find out what follows what they call natural laws...

Here’s some of what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say on the issue:

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law.” The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action.

So, how do we find out what the natural laws are? One might think that the way to do it would be to look at the world, find out how people and animals behave and to generalise from that. So, for example, we would find out that homosexuality is natural for both males and females as our closest cousins, the Bonobo chimpanzees, practise it with relish. Well, that would be altogether an unsatisfactory way of finding out what is natural, wouldn’t it. The reason Catholic thinkers give for their avoidance of what may seem to be the rational thing to do is, apart from centuries of tradition, the fact that their use of ‘normal’ is supposed to be normative. Looking at how people behave only tells us what they do while the natural laws Thomists look for are supposed to say how we ought to behave. The difference arises because of our having the free will to act in ways other than we ought to.

This immediately leads to three problems.

The first is what about the gay Bonobos? They, according to Christian beliefs, are brute animals with no free will. This seems to imply that when they have it off with another member of their sex they are doing exactly what God willed them to. Gay sex is O.K. for animals but not for us?

The other problem is that according to this view God gave us free will but, if we are to do what he wants us to, we shouldn’t use the free will we have but, instead, just do what he wants us to. It’s kind of like opening a cage and then punishing the animal for trying to leave it! Which, come to think of, is exactly like the perverse feeling one gets when reading the Eve, Adam and apple story. If the Catholics are right then God is one sick puppy.

Finally, the third problem lies in how we are to tell what is natural. Of course, for the Catholic Church this is where the Catholic Church comes in. Which, again, is all too convenient. The end result is that to find out what is natural for people you shouldn’t even consider looking at how people actually behave but, instead, should ask guys who make public vows never to have sex with a woman and, instead, all to often end up forcing their sexual needs upon children. You’ll pardon me if I remain sceptical.

Not that any of this undermines the basic problem of the difference between what we do do and what we should do. This is just as real a problem for an atheist like myself. For example, humans are moderately polygynous animals in that a fair number of males have children by more than a single female, this being very often attained by committing extramarital sex – Diamond says that research shows that something between 5 and 30 per cent of all children in the US are being brought up by guys who only think that they are the fathers. However, this does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that extramarital sex is a fine and right thing to get into. Just like a Catholic, I have no intention of justifying an action on the grounds of how commonly it is performed. Unlike a Catholic, however, I do not have the false comfort of being able to just be told what to do by a priest. Instead, I have to fall back upon my own wisdom, the advice of people in general and a factual understanding of what humans are actually like to chose the correct course of action, and I have to face the very real possibility that I may err even when I think I am in the right. Unlike a Catholic I can not hand over responsibility for my actions to another by simply doing what the bishop or even God wants me to do.


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