Saturday, July 23, 2005

Inducing disgust   posted by Razib @ 7/23/2005 09:54:00 PM

In Descarte's Baby the psychologist Paul Bloom puts a mild evolutionary psychological spin on child development and ties it in thematically with the concept of Cartesian dualism as an innate trait of human cognition (I agree with him there, I have to remind myself that my body isn't just a flesh puppet, it is me). There wasn't much new in here, though it was a breezy read, except for the chapter which dealt with digust, and how people use the term. The definition from is:

1. To excite nausea or loathing in; sicken.
2. To offend the taste or moral sense of; repel.

Bloom makes a simple argument that the atomic core of disgust is the aversion to spoilage of meats, and fear of contagion. Rotten meat smells, it is often slimy and has a sickly pallor. Though we are primed to this aversion, it takes time to kick in. Feces fall under one of the main items that are universal objects of disgust, but infants are not repulsed by their own shit. Freud of course made this data point a central aspect of his pseudoscience, but Bloom offers that infants who are relatively immobile when they soil themselves and become exhausted by crying because of their innate revulsion at their state might not be at an advantage. Far better to allow digust to work its magic on someone who can affect change, the parent.

The literature seems to suggest that attitudes toward disgust are time released and tend to crystalize by 5-6 and initiate around 3, the age at which many children start to be averse to their own feces. Bloom hypothesizes that disgust is a default feature that inculcates in us an early aversion to most foods, in particular, meats, because though we are ominivores our digestive tracts are not totally promiscuous. Though we are primed toward pickiness, the particular range of meats we consume is culturally conditioned. Research indicates that the later you transition a child toward "adult" solid foods, the smaller their range of acceptable foods are. In other words, bombarding children with a wide range of foods tends to acculturate them to the items and blocks the disgust response. While a Muslim is disgusted by pork, an East Asian might relish it. The extrapolation of meat disgust toward feces or other biological products is easy, like spoiled meat they smell, are often slimy and are soft to the touch. A disgust response toward someone with low standards of hygiene is likely an extension of the smell factor.

But all the circumstances I am pointing to are more applicable to definition 1. What about 2? A term like disgust is malleable. Something is not just either disgusting or not, and context matters (sex with a fat man is disgusting, sex with a rich fat man is not so disgusting, at least on the check account balance). Disgust is more often used as a metaphor when verbalized, and the metaphor often carries with it an implication of inevitable instinctiveness, like the response toward a pile of feces. But Bloom makes the point that the use of disgust as a metaphor is usually never so clear cut, but rather part of a rhetorical campaign. From page 174: is just not true that we react to cloning in the same way that we do to incest, corpse mutilation, and bestiality. Many people think that human cloning is a bad idea, even a terrible idea, but this is not the same as feeling revulsion. Perhaps you tok the kids to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in the popular movie The Sixty Day? (Arnold goes to clone the family pet, and then, through sinister machinations, he gets cloned!) I would be surprised if Columbia Pictures were to release a popular actions film around the them of bestiality....

Bloom's point is there is a wisdom to repugnance, but outside of the most abstract and detached discussions acts and objects that elicit genuine innate revulsion are not those that you have to make a case for. At this point standard phenomena in the past that would have elicited revulsion are trotted out and shown to now be considered rather banal. Consider black males having sexual intercourse with white females. The standard past denigration of this involved the depicition of black males as beasts, ergo, this was tatamount to bestiality, an act which in the literal sense humans do seem to find offensive (there are the rather numerous legal codes which punish the animal as well as the human, I don't know what that says). Yet today there is a flourishing sub-genre of pornography that deals in black-white sex (often with black males and white females). A portion of the population no doubt still considers this disgusting (that is, if they do not consider pornography as a whole disgusting), but certain social norms have changed. In contrast, the market for bestiality and feces related porn seems rather limited, but the fact that there is a market for such products does clue us in to two important facts: 1) human variation in disgust might still exist, or, 2) disgust can be deadened over time, and coupled with the tendency toward seeking novelty, this can result in very bizarre predilections (I put pregnancy porn and lactation porn into the same bizarro category).

Psychological traits, tendencies and paradigms are part and parcel of many "high brow" discussions because they are part of the intellectual zeitgeist, whether the ideas were transmitted via developmental psychology popularizations picked up in one's feminist book club, or Pinker's latest bestsellar peddled by Barnes & Noble. Something like disgust illustrates that even simple tightly defined traits can't be easily sliced, diced and dichotomized, the way we use language tends to result in our deployment of the ideas as if they were hammers when what is really needed in any dialogue is a knife.