Tag Archives: sex

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

White Carrots

Acronyms are useful in a complex world, although they are frequently opaque to outsiders. Taking a new job you’re found constantly swimming in an alphabet soup of abbreviations that can drown you as easily as ABC. Each the church has them. As an undergrad religion major at a Presbyterian school I had to memorize TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), all of which but the last I had to reject on the grounds of sanity. As aids to memory they can serve as mnemonic devices, or they may simply be frustrating caricatures of reason. In any case, we all know them. In universities departments or divisions are known by acronyms, local businesses and landmarks may be as well. The internet has only speeded the process up, with countless abbreviations, some of which are definitely NSFW.

IMG_1889So it was that I learned an acronym that is current in the publishing industry. I always thought of the parsnip as a rather curious root vegetable, somewhat like a white carrot. As a child I severely disliked them, but I’ve come to appreciate them, roasted and glazed, as an adult. The word itself is somewhat fun to say: PARSNIP. It is also an acronym of things publishers, particularly those who publish textbooks in English as a second language, have to avoid. PARSNIP stands for, according to the popular explanation, Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. Interestingly to me, at least four of these things have their traditional taboo status because of religions. Clearly Religion is one of those, but restrictions on Alcohol, Sex, and Pork are also based on religious rules. One could argue that Narcotics also fits into that category as well. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, religion, substances, and sex are all deeply intertwined.

One of the curious things about this is that our post-Christian society has declared that religion is not worth discussing, or even learning about. We slash religion departments from universities and then wonder why we can’t discuss things like sex and alcohol, without which our society would apparently collapse, freely in other cultures. When I was a child, reading MAD magazine, I quickly learned two things that adults didn’t discuss were religion and politics. The list has grown since that time, but apart from the fact I have no idea which Isms are to be avoided, I see PARSNIP as the white carrot of religious taboos. And politics. In this secular world, we’ve become very politically correct, although we really shouldn’t mention politics in that phrase. Now I’m wondering if maybe I should reevaluate TULIP after all. At least the first part.

Revelations

BeringWhyIsThePenisSex. Religion. Death. One of these things is not like the others, if Sesame Street taught me anything. But in this case, the three actually are of a piece. In my teaching days I pointed out that every religion, without exception, tries to deal with sex and death—the two great, towering markers of human experience. Nevertheless, I cowered close to the window on the bus, choosing the left-hand side so the cover wouldn’t be visible, to read Jesse Bering’s Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? From the first sentence you’ve got to like this guy. Although irreverent, Bering is never obnoxious as he asks questions about the basics of human existence that few would be willing to take on in the name of science. It’s a fascinating book, and, as I knew it would, it addressed religion and death as well as, well, you know.

Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he tends to lean toward a materialistic universe. His book raises a very important point, however; the belief in determinism statistically correlates with anti-social behavior. That is to say, those who believe they have no free will tend, to some extent, not to care about society. As Bering also points out, perspective is very important. I wonder if truth is subject to perspective. Actually, I’m rather certain that it is. I have fought determinism from my youngest days, although I generally feel out of control of my own life. I first encountered determinism in that insidious theological position known as predestination. The deity of a universe that predestines most people to Hell is a monster, no matter how saintly his/her portrait. One professor conceded after a vigorous debate in class: “on philosophical grounds free will wins, but on scriptural grounds, predestination does.” I disagreed. Still, he could go home happy—my challenge had, after all, been predestined.

Worse yet were the “double predestinarians.” They were those who believed that every little detail of life was predestined. I actually had a professor say, “if you fail an examine, it was predestined.” Already the illogic of it all struck the same timbre of distaste that materialistic determinism does. By its fruits you shall know it. As much as I enjoyed Bering’s book, I wondered how anyone obviously so intelligent could believe that this magnificent mental world we inhabit is nothing more than sparks tickling chemicals in our brains. Or even the biological wonders he explores. As I huddled up in a ball on the bus, my book close to my face, I knew that this behavior wasn’t natural at all. Not even science could have predicted it.

The Hunter

Orion seems to have tripped in his journey across the sky last night. I can remember being told of generals falling in battle, and now I hear how they fall in bed. Nobody really expects Sunday School behavior from an aging warrior, but the brass is used to issuing orders and expects unquestioning obedience. Now we delve into their personal lives and are surprised to find, what? Sex? Sex scandals have become a major source of “news” over the past several years and General Petraeus is only the most recent in a long line of politicians and power-mongers who’ve been caught in compromising positions. How very primate of us. I often think how in the categories of sin we include getting caught in affairs among the most horrible. But also among the most common.

Given the other activities of generals—waging wars and ensuring that enough of the enemy die to gain compliance—you might think that keeping them safely between the sheets might be the best thing for the greatest number. I don’t know the ins and outs of the story, but with the scandal running across the headlines it is pretty obvious that we’re all past the shock of Sandy and election night. Time to find other peccadilloes to amuse us.

If we cast a wide enough net, however, it won’t haul in generals only. No, we find politicians of all orders, televangelists, football coaches and all kinds of other leaders entangled in it. The thing that they seem to have in common is lack of commitment. Or restraint. That worries me a bit when it comes to leaders. None of us is perfect, I realize, but certain activities are taboo and those who ride the trajectory to fame violate those taboos at their own peril. It is the story of David and Bathsheba. I am, however, reminded of the mighty hunter Orion. The various myths tell it differently, but in one popular version it was the jealousy of Artemis that felled him. Perhaps that is why he seemed off-balance as I watch him fleeing the rising sun outside my window.

Till Credner’s Orion from Wikipedia Commons

Vindication

Back in the summer of 2009, I chose the name of this blog on a whim. Relatives had been encouraging me to provide a platform for podcasts and the occasional post and asked me what I would call such a blog. The pun of sects and violence initially drew some good humored interest, but there was a serious subtext beneath the choice. Nature has now published an article declaring that violence and sex are related. (Sects and violence is a no-brainer; just look at the newspaper.) The connection has been established satisfactorily only in the brains of mice so far, but what is the real difference between mice and men?

Yes, men. The studies focus on the male brain, that organ that continues to confound those of us who daily try to use one. Certain circuits in the mouse hypothalamus trigger either a violent or loving response when stimulated certain ways. Aggression is almost an automatic response. My mind tied this in with the Singularity article in last week’s Time. As we race forward with technological mergers between artificial intelligence and the human machine, do we really understand what that brain is that we are attempting to emulate electronically? Biology, according to many theorists, does not bow to the rules of reductionism. What happens when the violence of natural circuits (fight or flight) kick in with titanium feet?

I commented on a friend’s post when he cited the Singularity article in Time. Others responded to my remarks suggesting I did not take the reality of this seriously enough. Those who are familiar with Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will have no such questions. The minds that have given us both gods and guns are machines that can not be replicated precisely. Their function is to keep a degenerating biological mass alive. Electronic brains with replaceable parts (think Wall-e) have no such concerns. The missing limb syndrome is a very human response that is well recognized by those who understand the human psyche. And that psyche, it seems, is ready to fight as long as it is properly stimulated.

A boy's eye-view of the world