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April 01, 2004

Rough cut & cutting modules & family values

My previous post, "Rough Cut" took a slice at the whole circumcision "issue" in terms of cost vs. benefit in the context of various societies. One particular subtext of my post was what I will term "Sailer's Swedish Maxim": x1, x2...n changes to the cultural framework may not result in social pathology or trauma in Scandinavia, but this outcome of re-working the "social equation" does not give a transnational general solution. More plainly put, context matters.

So, in the case of circumcision, I would assert:

1) The cost vs. benefit of this practice in First World countries seems to weigh against it, though my personal opinion is that the surgery itself is not as psychologically traumatic as its detractors make it out to be (see below on my clarification).

2) On the other hand, if you are a promiscuous trucker in the nether regions of the world (think parts of Africa, India, Brazil, etc.), circumcision might be a prudent step to take if you want to have your "candy" and eat it.

This jives with my instinct that there is "No Free Lunch," the loss of physical stimulation that is the result of circumcision (to my mind possible, perhaps probable) carries with it the benefit of protection from various diseases (I suspect likely).

One might argue that education and change to First World standards of hygiene is what we should be aiming for in places where some are arguing that circumcision would be beneficial in curtailing the spread of sexual transmitted diseases. But, I think that this is a little too long-sighted a perspective, if the individuals in question are dying from diseases spread because of the pathway of a foreskin, they will never survive to make it to the state of advanced social development that makes circumcision surperfluous. For those who argue that circumcision causes psychic trauma, perhaps they should take solace in the fact that it is a cultural practice, so its reversal in a different context is absolutely foreseeable. As for the idea that the practice might become part of the mental superstructure of a "culture," note that even Orthodox Jews can make an argument for mitigating the extent of circumcision if they so choose.

But now let me move to those who oppose circumcision and their general mind-set. One can google enough on this topic that I won't go through the general arguments. But I will make an observation: those who oppose circumcision often have "granola" tendencies. By this, I mean they are the type who argue for "holism," "naturalness," etc. etc. Though I am not being very specific-you all know what I mean. The very use of the world "intact" implies that circumcision is a bizarre artificial transformation of the body. The last part I accept, but "bizarre" is contextual. The religious idea that the "body is a temple" seems to have deep roots in the human psyche, those in the "granola" movement often give concurrent reasons that mimic many religious sentiments in terms of not treating the body as a functional object reducible to its various parts. In the context of circumcision, for all the talk about the specific point at hand, the greater context is that body "improvement" as a whole, "profaning" the sacred "natural," is wrong-headed and arrogant.

After characterizing the opponents of circumcision, let me make a jump & leap, and assert that many of them would argue for a "precautionary principle" when it comes to sex education and sexual freedom in youth. By this, I mean that many "granola" types would argue that sex for young people is natural, and abstinence education is "against nature," insofar as the body wants what it wants. The opponents of such people are often religious conservatives, who usually believe in abstinence as a principle, though publically they couch their position in terms of utilitarianism. As they say: hypocrisy is the homage that sin pays to virtue. Do most people abstain from sex before marriage? In a society where young people marry at the of 16 this is possible. In most modern nations, where the mean age of marriage is closer to 25, this is far less likely. Nevertheless, the principle matters to some, while others will argue from a "realist" perspective. Put the shoe on the other foot, and in the case of circumcision you have the "realists" making a principled stand, arguing against the benefit of circumcision in a case where the cost vs. benefit seems like a no brainer, because of the principle. On the other hand, many religious conservatives might be less concerned about this issue, and take a pragmatic take. After all, circumcision in the United States among Christians is something that became the norm only in the 20th century. Its fashionability is not foundational, rather it is contextual and subject to pragmatic considerations.

Why do I point this out? I think it helps our society if different groups understand that there are points where everyone is "unreasonable," and "irrationally tied to principle," even in the face of lop-sided cost vs. benefit equation.

Now, to my position on circumcision, and my sanguine attitude, I tend to see the body as a "brain puppet," not a temple. Wearing clothes, cutting our hair, taking drugs, and so forth, are all "unnatural." Human beings have basic natural urges located in various portions of the brain. Behaviors as complex as language seem modular and "hard wired." Nevertheless, much of what characterizes our humanity is an emergent property of various interactions between the modules & our environment. Our genius is our ability to form "models" that strip away extraneous characteristics, but that is also our vice, in that we over-simplify complex phenomenon and recast solutions in similarly simple "principles" that gives us a "logical" conclusion that must convince those who disagree, because it is after all "plain truth." The foreskin is a means to an end, if the cost of physical pleasure is too great in the context of bodily harm, well, get rid of it. If it's not that big of a deal, it's a nice addition to the arsnel of pleasure input devices.

To move on to oversimplifications, one might wonder about the recurrence of circumcision in many cultures across the world. Circumcision is known among the Semitic peoples, among Australian Aboriginals, Africans, and Pacific peoples. It seems implausible that this is the result of "cultural diffusion." Is there a "circumcision module?" Well, since it's not by any stretch of the imagination a "human universal," that seems highly implausible as well. Nevertheless, the fact that it crops up in many human cultures is a testament to the power of this common motif through various cultures (and times), likely because of constraints in our mind's cognitive architecture. Like religion, art, or any complex manifestation of "culture," diversity blooms between the ranges of our psychology. The vociferous attitudes toward circumcision (pro & con) is evidence of the power of the practice.

There is no "circumcision module," but some of the factors that result in this practice being cross-cultural have biological roots. So let us imagine a thought experiment, with circumcision as a main player, and biological reproduction as an end.

Imagine two populations, Circumphiles and Circumphobes. They are very simlar culturally & genetically, but circumcision is a practice that keeps them apart. Imagine you release a contagion that uses the foreskin as a pathway toward killing individuals of these two cultures.

OK, further proviso, philes & phobes very rarely intermarry. In fact, they are discrete breeding populations. The contagion may come from an outside population, or have been transmitted from animals, it matters little. Let us just assume that it has found traction in both populations.

As we move through time, the phobes are deciminated. If you imagine that both populations exist in the same geographic location, this would result in the replacement of phobes by more philes, who are not as deleteriously impacted by the contagion. But, imagine that the two populations are separated by an ocean. The cost for philes to move to the land of the phobes is so high that the phobes can maintain themselves as a population that is dominant in their geographic space (and exclusive in it).

Now you have a situation where the phobes are under a selective pressure. How would this work out? It can be sticky, and we can be wrong in our intuition, but let's just move down my string of logical inferences.

1) Men who are promiscuous die off too soon to take care of their children, or even procreate very much.
2) Men who are not promiscuous are less likely to catch the contagion.

But, what about the women? The partners of infected men are obviously at risk, and the partners of infected women are also at risk. So we have two incentives here:

1) Women avoid highly promiscuous men.
2) Men avoid highly promiscuous women.

Those who follow these maxims will prosper and multiply. To make it easier for men & women to monitor each other, extended family units composed of parents and their children in various monogamous relationships might be preferred. If patriarchy seems to be a tendency in many cultures, one might imagine a society where men are hyper-jealous of their partners. Not only are they in danger of being cuckolded, they may die if their partner passes them the infection. Virginity for brides is at a premium.

You can connect the dots where I'm going. I am imagining a society where lack of circumcision imposes a premium on "virtue," "fidelity" and "chastity." (I use quotes because these might be enforced as well as encouraged) If one wants to take a genetic tack, one might imagine that men who are more promiscuous ("cads") by "nature" would be selected against in this culture. The foreskin imposes a high cost on those who wish to follow the "r selected" strategy-rather, the risks of death are so high that men take a less risky path of monogamy.

Remember above where I note that the "granolas" often make the most emotional arguments against circumcision based on principles, with choice & dignity being big talking points? Well, I am illustrating here how a society might evolve (individuals) in response to a situation where circumcision does not occur & a contagion that uses the foreskin as a pathway is wreaking havoc. The law of unintended consequences at play. Conversely, I could spin a scenario where circumcision by men in a society where the practice is introduced to mitigate the spread of disease results in more promiscuity by overconfident morons, blunting its palliative impact.

Anyway, just a few ideas....

Posted by razib at 11:46 AM