June 8, 2012


E.O. Wilson's Semi-Closeted Social Conservatism (Peter Lawler, June 5, 2012, Big Think)

Consider, for example, E.O. Wilson's criticism in his new and magisterial The Social Conquest of Earth of the dogmatic, unscientific ignorance of Pope Paul VI's encyclical explaining the church's ban of artificial contraception. Wilson appears to emphasize his criticism of Humanae Vitae in order not to make too unfashionably obvious the ways in which he actually agrees with it.

The pope, according to Wilson, holds that God intended sexual intercourse to be only for the purpose for conceiving children.  He made it clear, Wilson should have added, that he also thought natural law was also on his side.  The pope seems very Darwinian here, after all.  The purpose of members of our species is to pair bond, reproduce, and raise their young.  Sex is deformed when detached from those natural, social functions. 

There is, Wilson observes, an opposition genetically present in each member of our species between the two levels of natural selection--one that produces cooperative social behavior and the other that produces self-serving behavior.  That opposition, in Wilson's words, "renders each of us part saint and part sinner."  Human beings through all their religions have, he explains, characteristically praised action according social instinct virtue, and blamed preferring one's own good over the good of the various groups of which he or she is a part as sin.

 Neither the pope nor Wilson deny that members of our species have the biological capacity to  choose for themselves over the good of their groups, beginning with the family.  But they also can agree to call such choices sin because our natural flourishing depends on group selection--driven by social instinct--prevailing over individual selection.  Although they differ in many ways on personal details, the pope and Wilson agree that each of us is most fundamentally a social or relational being.  For Wilson, organized religion has been pretty much "an expression of tribalism" and nothing more.  For the pope, the Christian religion is much more, but it, like other religions, does support our social and relational duties.

The pope missed, Wilson explains, another purpose for sexual intercourse discovered lately by scientists.  Human females differ from those of the other primate species in not advertising "estrus" or being in heat.  That means a woman bonded with a man invites "continuous and frequent intercourse."  The cycle-based Natural Family Planning--or a kind of natural contraception--practiced by some Catholics, Wilson could have added,  gets in the way of what nature intends a husband and wife to be always doing.

Wilson explains that the evolutionary or "adapative" function here is that women use sexual pleasure to make sure the father is always around to help raise the children.  Human children, because of their "high intelligence," are helpless and then need lots of help for a much longer period of development than the young of other species.  It could hardly be called an evolutionary intention for a social animal that is the natural mother be stuck with raising those kids alone.  It's clearly better for the children for their parents to stay bonded--sharing both parental responsibilities and sexual pleasure--until they're raised.

So nature encourages the woman to use her constant ability to give and receive sexual pleasure to sustain her existing family, and her intention is sometimes not to add to that family.  Reproduction and raising the young are equally indispensable functions of the social animal, and Wilson suggests, of course, that the social instinct of a woman that supports putting her children first is stronger than the comparable instinct in men. It seems women are somewhat more about using sexual pleasure, and men about receiving it. From this view, some use of artificial contraception within marriage or at least parenthood can be compatible with natural family values.

Wilson even adds that there's no reliable alternative to raising children to two "sexually and emotionally bonded mates."  The mother, even "in tightly-knit hunter-gather societies" can't count on the broader community or tribe. So the superiority of the two-parent heterosexual family with children is both natural and enduring.  Other kinds of families less natural or adaptive, which is not to say that they aren't better than nothing.  It may take a village to raise a kid too, but not in place of parents.  This conclusion, it should go without saying, should fill us with supportive empathy for the lonely struggle of single moms, and it shouldn't diminish our admiration for gay couples with the generosity to choose to raise kids.

On the basis of Wilson's analysis, we can say that the pope has too narrow a view of the function of sex in pair-bonding and raising the young.  More impressive, however, are their broader areas of agreement.  Marriage is for having and raising children.  The capacity of our women to be constantly available to give and receive sexual pleasure must be understood in the context of the stable, enduring marriages our young require to be raised well.  So women "sin" and are unhappy when they give and receive sexual pleasure as free individuals mistakenly believing that they are "autonomous" enough to be unguided by social instinct.  Society, the family, and the species suffer when too many women are deceived by that mistaken judgment about who they are.

 Wilson and the pope appear to agree that women sin and are unhappy when they make sexually pleasure too readily available to men who are sinfully unwilling to accept the responsibilities of sexual and emotional mating.  The use of contraception to avoid having kids altogether--and especially the casual use of contraception outside of marriage--must be viewed as sinful or as undermining the social or group cooperation that's the natural fuel responsible for the singular success of what Wilson calls by  far the most intelligent of the "eusocial" species.

Friend Lawler, perhaps in his eagerness to co-opt Mr. Wilson, misses the central irony of his position.  Suppose that we take Darwinism seriously for a moment, which the Darwinists never do.  Then Mr. Wilson's argument about biology driving us to act for the good of our group is nothing but a justification of tribalism. If we accept Darwinian notions of species, and acknowledge that the tribe is, by their definition, a species, the argument is that we are pre-programmed to act in the interest of our own race/ethnicity/species.  Racism then, in the context of Darwinism, is Natural. When we pretend, along with the post-Holocaust Darwinists, that their theory can coherently support the idea that all human beings are one species, we do a disservice to their theory and to clarity of thought.

The Pope, on the other hand, represents the view that all men are brothers, that race/ethnicity is insignificant.  It is Christianity that is anti-tribal, which is why no one can be both Christian and Darwinist. Nor can the latter be conservative in the final analysis.  They can only be rightwing.

Posted by at June 8, 2012 5:42 AM

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