Monday, January 7, 2013

The horniness of bonobos as an argument for secular churches

(In which I relate some notes from reading to an argument for close-knit congregational communities. I emphasize, these are notes; I don't explicitly connect the dots here to argue that the two factors I discuss -- an innate tendency toward promiscuity in humans, and cognitive limits on our capacity to empathize with others -- suggest that secular "churches" are a good thing for secular folks. That said, I do think these factors support that conclusion; these notes are part of my process for preparing to make that case more explicitly. )


From Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá:
Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child or two is in fat a culturally imposed aberration for our species -- as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor? Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers, and children are all being shoe-horned into a family structure that suits none of us? Might the contemporary pandemics of fracturing families, parental exhaustion, and confused, resentful children be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species? [p.109]
A reader with an agenda different from mine might wish to recruit the arguments laid out in Sex at Dawn to their own argument that a more sexually or erotically liberal society would lead to better outcomes than the present state of affairs. As it happens, my attention is attracted more to the prosocial rather than the prosexual potential of this line of reasoning.

As forcefully as Ryan and Jethá argue that Homo sapiens seems much more naturally (with all the caveats that attend that term) inclined to promiscuity than the standard narrative allows for, they imply that the current family and community structures incentivized by Western social mores is something of a mistake. Let's say promiscuity facilitated peace and cooperation in the small bands of foraging primates where our minds evolved. Setting aside the differences between the sexual habits of such a society and those of our own, we might focus as much on how difference that scheme of organizing social relationships or from our own.

Consider the answer seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune received when he explained to a Montagnais Indian man that the men of a culture that does not value strict monogamy face the danger of caring for children that are not their biological offspring:
Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe. [Sex at Dawn, p.107]
Which is the more favorable state of affairs -- a social system organized into many small units whose members are bound together by a sense of shared interest and identity made real by their geographical closeness, common investment in interdependent forms of enterprise, and internal bonds of kinship, friendship, loyalty, and attraction; or, a social system consisting of larger, state-sized units, whose members are unknown to each other but nonetheless bound together by the nonlocal facts of common nationality or ethnicity, political identity, and participation in a widely distributed and complex economy?

I suspect the most desirable state of affairs is one in which the smaller, village-sized units (call them assemblies or congregations if you like) are the constituent pieces of the larger, state-sized units.  Citizens who relate to each other only through the relationships mediated at the level of the larger unit are susceptible to political and commercial exploitation; yet isn't this the kind of relatedness fostered by commercial and social media?

A society structured so members can enjoy promiscuity without shame, household disruption, or threat of exploitation, might well be a society structured to maximize other beneficial kinds of interpersonal relationships. If you're close enough to copulate, you're close enough to care.


Some problems in utilitarian ethics relate to relatedness. (A classic example goes something like this: If the building is on fire, and you only have time to rescue one person inside, do you save 1) the rich man whose personal wealth and influence in the field of social justice means he improved the lines of countless people, or 2) the rich man's maid, who happens to be your mother?) But other problems in utilitarianism relate to distance. If you have five dollars to donate to charity, do you give it to the local mission to support a program to feed the poor in your city, or do you send it to the charity that works to feed the poor in a distant country?

I've long found myself saying that local is better, since it seems to me more likely to result in efficient and resilient allocation of limited resources. By circumventing the challenges of transportation and communication over a long distance (and across a wide social divide), more value can be converted into material aid rather than overhead. Consider this excerpt from Stephen Asma's essay at The Stone, "The Myth of Universal Love":
The feeling of care is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time — duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted. The limbic system can’t handle the kind of constant stimulation that Rifkin and the cosmic love proponents  expect of it. And that’s because they don’t take into account the biology of empathy, and imagine instead that care is more like a thought.
If Asma is arguing that "care or empathy is a very limited resource", I'd assert that the best way to distribute that resource is to the people with whom you share the closest social relationship. An argument favoring care based on proximity sounds to my ear like an argument favoring communities whose sense of shared interest and identity emerges from geographic closeness. Does this sound to you more like a neighborhood congregation in the physical world, or a distributed network of humans who interact online?

(The graphic above is taken from the essay in The Stone. It is a terrific visual representation of the utilitarian problem of proximity.)

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