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June 12, 2004

Praise be unto the celibates

How about this proposition: societies with celibate or quasi-celibate classes and groups tend to be more open to innovation and more likely to give rise to counter-cultural intellectual movements that result in positive change downstream. On first blush it seems a loony idea, and I am willing to be refuted by the anthropological and historical literature on this topic, but my own intuition is driving me toward this direction. It is I believe part of the same tendency that contributes to the decline of scientific creativity and daring after marriage for any given researcher's career.

But first a qualification: when I say "quasi-celibate," I will admit that the Catholic priests of medieval Europe were not always celibate, and the unmarried Oxford dons of the 19th century were celibate by choice as much as dictate. Celibacy is just a way to indicate that conventional norms of family life and the responsibilities that go along with a "wife & kids" do not constrain these individuals to the same extent as "family men" (or now, women). This does not mean that I think that non-celibates can't be intellectual, but I suspect that they are more likely to stay within the narrow path of accepted wisdom, and act as interpreters and exegetes, refining truths rather than discovering new ones.

Certainly Jewish rabbis and the Islamic ulema are often intelligent, and their writings display a great deal of erudition and knowledge, but, both these groups tend to modify and reinterpret traditional knowledge, so change is evolutionary, incremental, and often based more on developing group consensus than individual passion. Why? I think the fact that rabbis and the ulema are married and have children is a big part of it, they don't want to risk the social chaos that might result if some of their more daring ideas hit the newstands. The Confucian scholars and thinkers of ancient China were also obviously bright men, but Confucius was explicit in that he was only reviving traditional customs and clarifying upon common sense. In many ways Confucian thought is prosaic, and typifies the fixation of family men who saw the study of family and its implications for human existence as the most important pursuit in the cosmos (classical Chinese philosophy for instance gave rather low status to logicians, as they seemed to be tricksters who played with empty word-games). In contrast, the Daoist recluses and the Buddhist monks of China have produced a great deal of esoterica beyond the bounds of the mundane, though their decoupling from the Chinese "establishment" means that they have had less impact than the Confucian Mandarins at the elite level.

If Isaac Newton was born into a society where marriage was mandatory by social convention, would he have changed the world while juggling his spouse and children? I am skeptical. Though the Roman Catholic Church lost its other half during the Reformation, many Protestants continued to leave a niche open for celibates and bachelors[1]. The Catholic Church also highlights differences within the world of the clerisy, as priests who served congregations tended to be more conservative, while the monks were intellectual rabble rousers. In South Asia, I believe one reason that Hindus reacted with more flexibility to the Western domination of the subcontinent than Muslims is that a minority of intellectual "oddballs" adapting and modifying Western ideas was more acceptable in a religion where vows of celibacy can create a class of activists dedicated only to general social goals and their own intellectual passions (which can be leveraged by the society). In contrast, Muslim clerics with families and non-religious concerns (like many of my forefathers) had a vested interest in maintaining a stable status quo (many were land-owners, like my forefathers) and opted for the lowest risk strategy possible (and also, lowest yield it seems).

Today, many childless liberal bohemians exist as a quasi-celibate class. They provide the artistic flavor that enriches Western culture. Their cognates on the Left Brain are the nerds, who provide the rich corpus of scientific knowledge that serves as the bedrock for material modernity. So in the end we are left with a quandary: many of the culturally creative societies are in demographic decline because of an excess of quasi-celibates. That is, Japan might have a shrinking population, but it is Asia's cultural superpower, defining an artistic sensibility via anime and fashion, in part because of the new individualism of its youth. I suppose the key is to find a good balance between the two, and convince the majority of society that not everyone should be a quasi-celibate, as there can be only so many artists and scientists whose names will go down in the history books.

[1] Any surprise that Copernicus & Mendel were Catholic clerics? Married Protestant clerics are to my mind rarely revolutionary thinkers because they can't always have their head in the air.

Update:

1) I am not asserting that celibacy or quasi-celibacy is a necessary condition of "genius."

2) Rather, I am making the observation that careers in science and the arts often take an enormous input of time. Those who do not have families have this time.

3) Additionally, I also suspect that a family encourages some level of risk aversion. Even if young scientists and artists are the ones who generate the "kooky" ideas that might change paradigms, it might take the lifetime of that individual espousing and promoting that idea to shift the mind-set of his or her hide-bound colleagues. So, possibly a lifetime of ridicule and opprobrium that the family-less might be more able to endure (this also suggests honor societies where extended family reputations are tied to individual reputation and vice versa can discourage risk-taking).

Posted by razib at 12:15 AM