Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Dolnick’s Seeds Of Life and the Science of Our Disgust

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Michael Dolnick’s “The Seeds of Life” is a fascinating look at how scientists figured out exactly how human reproduction works.  In particular, it shows that until 1875, we still were not sure what fertilized what, and until the 1950s (with the discovery of DNA) how that fertilization led to a fully formed human being.  Here, however, I’d like to consider what Dolnick says about beliefs before scientists began/finished their quest, and those beliefs’ influence on our own thinking.
In a very brief summary, Dolnick says that most cultures guessed that the man’s seminal fluid was “seed”, while the woman was a “field” to be sown (obviously, most if not all those talking about cultural beliefs are male).  Thus, for example, the Old Testament talks about “seed” several times.  An interesting variant was the idea that shortly after fertilization, seminal fluid and menstrual blood combined to “curdle” the embryo like milk curdled into cheese – e.g., in the Talmud and Hindu writings, seminal fluid, being milky, supplied the white parts of the next generation, like bone, while menstrual blood, being red, supplied the red parts, like blood.  In any case, the seed/field belief in some ways casts the woman as inferior – thus, for example, infertility is always the woman’s fault, since the seeds are fine but the field may be “barren” – another term in the Bible.
In Western culture, early Christianity superimposed its own additional concerns, which affected our beliefs not just about how procreation worked and the relative inferiority or superiority of the sexes, but also our notion of “perfection”, both morally and with regard to sex.  The Church and some Protestant successors viewed sex as a serious sin “wanting a purpose [i.e, if not for the purpose of producing babies]”, including sex within marriage.  Moreover, the Church with its heritage in Platonism viewed certain things as less disgusting than others, and I would suggest that many implicit assumptions of our culture derive from these.  The circle is perfect, hence female breasts are beautiful; smooth surfaces and straight lines are beautiful, while body hair, the asymmetrical male member, and the crooked labia are not.  Menstrual blood is messy, “unclean,” and disgusting, as is sticky, messy seminal fluid.

Effects on Sexism

It seems to me that much more can be said about differing cultural attitudes towards men and women based on the seed/field belief.  For one thing, the seed/field metaphor applies in all agricultural societies – and until the early 1900s, most societies were almost completely agricultural rather than hunter/pastoral or industrial.  Thus, this way of viewing women as inferior was dangerously plausible not only to men, but also to women.  In fact, Dolnick records examples in Turkey and Egypt of modern-day women believing in the seed/field theory and therefore women’s inferiority in a key function of life.
Another implication of the seed/field theory is that the “nature” of the resulting children is primarily determined by the male, just as different types of seed yield different plants.  While this is somewhat counteracted by the obvious fact that physically, children tend to favor each parent more or less equally, there is some sense in literature such as the Bible that some seed is “special” – Abraham’s seed will pass down the generations and single out for special attention from God his Jewish descendants.  And that, in turn, can lead naturally to the idea that mingling other men’s seed with yours can interfere with that specialness, hence wives are to be kept away from other men – and that kind of control over the wife leads inevitably to the idea of women as at least partially property.  And finally, the idea of the woman as passive receptacle of the seed can lead to men viewing women actively desiring sex or a woman’s orgasm as indications of mentally-unbalanced “wantonness”, further reinforcing the (male) impression of women’s inferiority.  
I find it not entirely coincidental that the first major movements toward feminism occurred soon after Darwin’s take on evolution (implicitly even-handed between the sexes) and the notion of the sperm and the egg were established as scientifically superior alternatives to Biblical and cultural beliefs.  And I think it is important to realize that, with genetic inheritance via DNA being still in the process of examination and major change, the role of culture rather than “inherence” in male and female is still in the ascendant – as one geneticist put it, we now know that sex is a spectrum, not either-or.  So the ideas of both similarity and “equality” between the sexes are now very much science-based.
But there’s one other possible effect of the seed/field metaphor that I’d like to consider.  Is it possible that the ancients decided that there was only so much seed that a man had, for a lifetime?  And would this explain to some extent the abhorrence of both male masturbation and homosexuality that we see in cultures worldwide?  Think of Onan in the Bible, and his sin of wasting his seed on the barren ground …

Rethinking Disgust

“Girl, Wash Your Face” (by Rachel Hollis, one of the latest examples of the new breed that live their lives in public) is, I think, one of the best self-help books I have seen, although it is aimed very clearly not at men – because many of the things she suggests are perfectly doable and sensible, unlike the many self-help books in which in a competitive world only a few can achieve financial success.  What I also find fascinating about it is the way in which “norms” of sexual roles have changed since the 1950s.  Not only is the author running a successful women’s-lifestyle website with herself as overworking boss, but her marriage is what she views as her vision of Christianity, complete with a positive view of sex primarily on her terms.
What I find particularly interesting is how she faced the age-old question of negotiating sex within marriage.  What she decided was that she was going to learn how to want to have sex as a norm, rather than being passively “don’t care” or disgusted by it.  I view this as an entirely positive approach – it means that both sides in a marriage are on the same page (more or less) with the reassurance that “not now” doesn’t mean “not for a long time” or “no, I don’t like you”.  But the main significance of this is that it means a specific way of overcoming a culture of disgust, about sex among other things.
I believe that the way it works is captured best by poetry by Alexander Pope:  “Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien/As, to be hated, needs but to be seen/Yet, seen oft, familiar with her face/We first endure; then pity; then embrace.”  The point is that it is often not vice that causes the disgust, but rather disgust than causes us to call it vice – as I have suggested above.  And the cure for that disgust is to “see it oft” and become “familiar” with it, knowing that we will eventually move from “enduring” it to having it be normal to “embracing” it. 
Remember, afaik, we can’t help feeling that everything about us is normal or nice, including excrement odor, body odor, messiness, maybe fat, maybe blotches or speech problems – and yet, culturally and perhaps viscerally, the same things about other people disgust us (or the culture tells us they should disgust us).  And therefore, logically, we should be disgusted about ourselves as well – as we often are.  Moreover, in the case of sex, the disgusting can also seem forbidden and hence exciting.  The result, for both sexes, can be a tangled knot of life-long neuroses.  
The path of moving beyond disgust, therefore, can lie simply with learning to view the disgusting as in a sense ours:  the partner’s body odor as our body odor, their fat as our love handles, etc.  But it is “ours” not in the sense of possession, but in the sense of being part of an integral part of an overall person that is now a vital part of your world and, yes, beautiful to you in an every-day sort of way, just as you can’t help think of yourself as beautiful.  This doesn’t happen overnight, but, just as the ability to ignore itches during Zen meditation inevitably happens, so this will happen in its own good time, while you’re not paying attention.
The role of science in general, not just in the case of how babies are made or sex, has typically been to undercut the rationale for our disgust, for our prejudices and for many of our notions of what vice is.  And thus, rethinking our beliefs in the light of science allows us to feel comfort that when we overcome our disgust about something, it is in a good cause; it is not succumbing to a vice.   And maybe, just maybe, we can start to overcome the greatest prejudice of all:  against crooked lines, imperfect circles, and asymmetry.  

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