Why I Am a Christian

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Science of Sexual Morality

There are some things which sound good at the time, but many generations of experience have shown that they don't work.
     That was a comment made by my mother when I was a teenager, with a veiled reference to sexual morality. There is a tendency is some circles, I have noticed, for what is termed "traditional sexual morality" to be regarded as some collection of irrational taboos, or at least something no longer applicable to modern circumstances. Sometimes it is called "Christian sexual morality", but that is a misnomer. It would be better to call it "human sexual morality", for it is the basic default system from which individual cultures tend to deviate. What Christianity introduced is a add-on: the idea that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Committed as it is to sexual equality, Christianity has always been negative towards polygamy, divorce, and the major exception to the default system practised by civilisations: the idea that it is acceptable to have a pool of degraded, low status women ie prostitutes, as an outlet for otherwise "respectable" men. However, the desirability of chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards is the general rule of all human societies.
     Some cultures, believe it or not, have sexual moral standards stricter than ours used to be, and attempt to restrict nearly all communications between the sexes. Where their standards are slacker, it usually means carving out exceptions to the general rule - exceptions which, as the proverb explains, imply that the rule exists. The unusual exceptions - the ones which titillate anthropologists - tend to disappear when we leave the small tribal societies and examine the major civilisations, and the reason is obvious. These are the successful societies; they have been around a long time, and each occupy a large section of the world's area and population. They have discovered, as we are now having to relearn, that if you don't keep sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, things start to fall apart.
Basic Principles
     If you wish a comprehensive defence of the default position from a functional/philosophical position, I don't think you can go past John C. Wright's dissertation here, and I would sincerely urge you to read it in full. However, my degrees were in evolutionary biology and ethology, the latter being the science of animal behaviour. And since this is my forte, and since human beings are animals, I shall take that approach.
     There are certain things which scientists from this background take for granted, but which might not be so obvious to outsiders.
     When we talk loosely of a "sexual instinct" or a "maternal instinct" we are recognizing that certain behaviour patterns are hardwired in our brains. Every form of behaviour and personality quirk has some genetic basis, although it might be quite small and indirect. Your genes don't make you choose one restaurant or one grocery store over another, but they do guide you there. They supply the basic mechanism by which you learn which foods to eat and how to obtain them, along with your reactions to hunger, starting from the time you cried whenever you were hungry, and on a more basic level, the automatic chewing process and, probably, to some degree why you prefer some foods to others. The genes which affect behaviour to the extent that they help you better to survive and produce children of your own will be the ones which ultimately spread throughout the population. Even if they improve breeding success by only one percent or less, over many generations, this will be sufficient to drive all other varieties from the gene pool.
     But let us get one thing clear: there is no such thing as a gene for monogamy, polygamy, promiscuity, or the like. What the genes affect are such things as the amount of hormone, the response to hormones, the response to specific stimuli, the rate of maturing of certain behaviours, and the ability to learn specific things. As a result, they push the individual, and ultimately the species, in a particular direction.
     Just as every species possesses a certain set of physical characteristics, it also possesses a specific set of behaviours. Every species has its own social system adapted to its specific lifestyle. For most people, the most common example is the difference between cats and dogs - the first being adapted as a more-or-less solitary hunter, the latter as a pack hunter. (And, incidentally, the reason the dog is "man's best friend" is that humans are also pack hunters.) A kitten raised by a bitch, or a pup raised by a she-cat, will identify its foster species as its own, but it will act towards them according to the social system laid out in its own species' genetic map. A group of strange cats thrown together will never form a pack; a group of strange dogs always will.
     The same is true of the primates, the order of mammals to which we belong. A group of olive baboons will never sort themselves out into the same social system as a group of gelada baboons. A chimpanzee group will never behave like a patas monkey society, and human beings will never form a typical chimpanzee style social system. The great variety of human cultures often blinds us to the fact that they are all variations on a theme. Anthropologists have already recognized this under the heading of "cultural universals".
     Of course, this does not mean that social systems are inflexible. The higher animals can modify them by learning. Indeed, as mammals practise parental care, they are actually programmed to develop their behaviour by the interaction of their inborn tendencies with social feedback. A species' social system has been likened to a rubber template: it can be stretched this way and that, adjusting to local needs while still maintaining the relationship between the parts, and always tending to spring back to the default position. For human beings this takes on a whole new significance because, as the most intelligent species, we are capable of distorting the rubber template until the results are unsatisfactory to the individual, and disastrous to society.
The Pair Bond
     As I said, every primate society is different, but the sort of generalised social system of the higher primates - the one from which others tend to deviate, and the one that almost certainly existed among our ancestors - is typified by such species as the olive baboon, rhesus monkey, and chimpanzee. These species are omnivores whose food supply is locally, but sporadically abundant. In other words, it exists in too much abundance for any one individual to monopolise, but only for a limited period, after which a new source appears elsewhere. The result is that they live in multi-adult bands. As is usual among mammals, mating occurs only during several days surrounding the female's fertile period, a period called "oestrus" or "heat". As a general rule, outside of that period, the female is neither sexually available, nor sexually attractive to the males. However, during that periods, mating is promiscuous, but tempered by dominance. In other words, the dominant males monopolise the females. That suits both sexes. The male, provided he is a good enough fighter, gets to father the maximum number of offspring, while the female ensures that her offspring are fathered by the healthiest and strongest males.
    Then, several million years ago, the vast tropical forests shrank, and our ancestors ventured out into the woodlands and savannas. There they evolved an upright stance, their hands better able to make and hold simple tools and carry loads. They carved out a niche of living by their wits, foraging for food wherever they found it, the men in particular going forth to hunt small animals, and both sexes using the simple tools. This put a strong evolutionary pressure on developing a large brain, the growth of which required even more high grade protein in the form of meat. The inevitable result was a greater length of dependence for the young before they could fend for themselves.
     When this happens, the evolutionary response is for the male to stay with the female in what is known as a "pair bond" and help raise the young. The male who does this begets fewer children than the deadbeat dad who loves 'em and leaves 'em, but he produces more grandchildren, because his children survive to breeding age. Most birds fit this pattern. Those with precocial young, such as turkeys and chickens do not, but the young of the vast majority are altricial and helpless, hence the pair bonds which give lovebirds their name, make turtle doves a symbol of marital loyalty, and inspire articles such as the one I remember: "Are eagle marriages better than yours?" It also occurs sporadically among mammals, such as beavers, and many carnivores, including otters and canids (wolves, coyotes, foxes etc.)
     It should be perfectly obvious that the same thing applies to human beings, where the pair bond is called "marriage". Let us look more closely at the implications. In former times, if a child was conceived out of wedlock, the options available to the mother could be listed as: marry the father, give up the child for adoption, or attempt to rear it with the assistance of her parents. These days we pay her a small pension, and the results have been catastrophic. However, the message is clear: even in our complex civilisation, it is next to impossible for a woman to raise a child by herself, at least for the first couple of years, let alone raise a sequence of them.
     Not only that, throughout the western world there has been a tremendous number of studies on the effect of family structure on children, and the evidence is overwhelming: children raised by only a single parent, as a result of either illegitimacy or divorce, do much worse statistically than those raised by both their parents, even starting from birth, when they are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Even allowing for compounding effects such as race and socio-economical status, they are statistically less healthy, less likely to be vaccinated, and more likely to develop asthma, among other things. Girls are more likely to experience early puberty. The children of unmarried and divorced mothers are far more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and/or other substances, suffer from anxiety and depression, be sexually active, get pregnant, join gangs, get involved in crime, and even to commit suicide, to list just some of the negative outcomes.
     It is also well established that a father functions differently from a mother in child raising. From him, his children learn how to relate to authority. His sons learn from example how to relate to women, his daughters how to relate to men. He is the first man the little girl falls in love with, and all those who follow have to measure up.
     These studies, which number in the hundreds, have been so consistent and so compelling across many decades and many different countries, it can only be the result of deliberate blindness that the media fail to publicise them, and the average person ignores them. When presented with such data, the tendency is to point to some example where they didn't apply. Non-scientists are not comfortable with statistical tendencies; they always imagine a generalisation can be defeated by an individual example.
     So, we have established that the need for two parents is still operative. The evolutionary response, pair bonding, remains equally operative. Marriage is recognized in every society of earth. Irrespective of the effect on children, I would have thought most people are aware of the benefits of marriage on health and happiness. "Marry the right person," said one Guide to Happiness, "(and be the right person). It will account for 80% of your happiness in life." For most people, finding a soulmate to love is still their highest goal in life.
     One might, however, examine what happens in groups which reject outside moral standards. In criminal gangs the women do what they are told, and unattached females are regarded as fair game but, by and large, an approximation to monogamy is achieved by the implied threat of violence. A mafia don, or the leader of an outlaw bikie gang, can't just seduce his underling's woman and expect not to have to watch his back. Likewise, hippy-style communes come and go. They may preach free love, but when they sort themselves out, John prefers Marcia as a bedmate, and Pamela prefers Paul, so they end up pairing up. These pairing are nowhere near as stable as real marriages, but while they last, they are subject to the same jealousies and possessiveness - even more so because they are unstable. Similarly, if you read the history of vast harems, you will discover that the raja or sultan has his favourite, and many of the others may wait months or years for a visit from their lord and master. I suppose if you have a woman for every week of the year, you can more easily find one who suits you.
     You often hear it said that marriage was invented to attach fathers to their offspring. It wasn't invented; it was evolved. Men and women have a natural tendency to pair up, and it is the aim of society merely to channel the activity for the good of all concerned.
     Judging from recent discussions about same sex "marriage'", it is clear many people imagine that marriage is a creation of the law. It isn't. It is the fundamental institution of society, which predates the law, and even the human race. All the law does is recognize and regulate it, just as it does parenthood. Societies which do not protect and promote marriage do not thrive, and they are ultimately replaced by societies which do.
The Nature of the Bond
     Although pair bonds have evolved independently many times, they display certain features in common, because they build on specific behaviour patterns common to all higher species.
     No system works perfectly. Also, in some cases the system is breaking down and in others it is still forming. Thus, DNA studies of paternity have uncovered quite a bit of "adultery" in many pair bonds. Just the same, individuals of pair bonding species are pretty fussy about whom they mate with. The have to go through a bonding process first. In other animals, courtship is just a preliminary to mating. When pair bonds are involved, courtship serves to establish the bond in the first place. Once a zoologist watched the formation of a pack in a group of wolves originally kept alone in captivity, and it was just like a TV soap opera. A courted X, but X courted B, while B was courting Y, Y was courting C, and C was courting A. To make matters more interesting, the dominant male would attack any male who courted the female he was interested in, while the dominant female would similarly defend "her" male from any other female who gave him the come-on. As you might expect, in a wolf pack the dominant male and the dominant female end up pairing off, because no-one else is allowed to have them.
     We have bred dogs to be promiscuous, but Konrad Lorenz, the founder of the science of ethology, used to keep chows, which still retained much of their ancestral wolf monogamy. He discovered that if he wanted to bred from them, he had to ensure that the relevant male and female did not have access to any other member of the opposite sex, because if they fell in love with the stranger, it was hard work to get them to mate with the one he wanted. He also described taking his chow bitch for a walk while she was on heat, and watched how she ignored or rejected the males which followed insistently behind her. She had a husband at home.
      Chemistry also comes into play. Our emotions are mediated by chemicals called neurotransmitters, which pass messages between nerve cells. The initial sexual attraction, falling in love, is mediated to a large extent by a chemical called dopamine, which is also involved in a large range of emotions, not just sex, focused on seeking, reward, arousal, and cognition. (It is also implicated in schizophrenia - further evidence that falling in love is a form of madness.)
     Jane Goodall, who has spent most of her adult life studying chimpanzees, once commented that, based on their behaviour, she did not think them capable of true love in all its tenderness and unselfishness. Chimpanzees do not form pair bonds. But those species which do, during the formation of the bond, bring another neurotransmitter into play, a chemical borrowed from the parent-infant bond: oxytocin. As a hormone, it plays an important role in childbirth and breast feeding. As a neurotransmitter, it activates the emotion you feel at the "cuteness" of a baby, and the warm, tender feeling that comes when you hold your loved one in your arms. "The opiate of contentment" is one way it has been described. It also peaks earlier in the relationship for women than for men, which makes them more vulnerable. (It also mediates emotional tears, which is why women can turn on the waterworks better than men.)
     Couples always wish they could recapture the excitement they felt when they were dating, but that is impossible, for two reasons. The first is obvious: during courtship they were still negotiating intimacy. Their love was as yet unconsummated, and there was no certainty about where it was heading. The other reason is that, after one or two years, while oxytocin is still going strong, their dopamine levels fall back more-or-less to base level. It is no coincidence that this is about the same  time a fertile couple will be bonding with their firstborn. Every married couple knows the experience. When dopamine is in the ascendancy, they are walking on air, they can't go 100 yards without embracing, they sit at a restaurant table looking into each other's eyes, unable to think of anything to say, they consider a day wasted if they haven't copulated at least once. Once oxytocin has the field to itself, the frequency of sexual intercourse, although still high, drops down several notches. They are able to concentrate on other things apart from each other. They even start to notice that the other party has faults. But by then the tenderness, the gentleness is in full bloom. Falling in love or passion has been replaced by adoration or deep love. And, as those who've experienced it know, it is the most beautiful thing there is.
    Of course, pair bonding is reinforced by special rituals. To give just one example: with many birds, the male feeds the female as if she were a nestling, and both groom each others' neck feathers. I shall now quote Konrad Lorenz's description of the flock of jackdaws (a type of crow) which he knew.
And the most appealing part of their relationship is that their affection increases with the years instead of diminishing. Jackdaws are long-lived birds and become nearly as old as human beings. . . . Now jackdaws, as described, become betrothed in their first year, and marry in their second, so their union lasts long, perhaps longer than that of human beings. But even after many years, the male still feeds his wife with the same solicitous care, and finds for her the same low tones of love, tremulous with inner emotion, that he whispered in his first spring of betrothal and of life. (From King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Lorenz, 1952.)
    Of course, a human couple's bond is reinforced by the embrace and kiss they share as they separate for the day, and when they are reunited, the hugs, the endearments, working together as a team, the constant flow of little things which, as the song reminds us, mean a lot.
    By now, someone is going to ask: when is he going to mention the elephant in the room, sex? Most people fail to appreciate how unusual our human sex lives are. In the vast majority of mammals and birds, mating takes place only during the female's fertile phase, and then usually only during a specific season of the year. Indeed, coyotes, like jackdaws, pair up months before they think about mating, and once the female is pregnant, that's it until another season. Wouldn't life be a lot less hectic if human beings were like that?
     Probably not. Remember, unlike coyotes, monkeys and apes typically live in multi-adult groups, which means that different females are coming into heat at different times, and providing temptation. The dominant male may form a consort relationship with a female for the one week every month when she is on heat, but how is she going to keep him by her side for the other three weeks, not to mention the long period when she is expecting and nursing his child? The solution was to extend the period of heat, or oestrus, until it was almost completely liberated from the cycle of fertility. Human beings are almost unique among mammals in that mating takes place virtually all the time. This is a win-win situation for all concerned. Both sexes manage to bring up their offspring together. The male gets regular sex without having to constantly fight for it. Even the subordinate males get their chance while the Big Boss is preoccupied with his female. Meanwhile, the female gets a lot of fun herself, while being bonded even closer to the father of her children. Certainly, there is much evidence that, for women at least, sexual performance and satisfaction is strongly influenced by the knowledge that the lover will always be there.
     This is the point: sexual intercourse has evolved into the major bonding mechanism among human beings. That's why we call it, "making love". It is not only supposed to be an act of love, but to reinforce love. In societies where marriages are arranged, it is hoped, and often expected, that the couple will learn to love one another after they are married, rather than before. While short-cutting the natural courtship process is risky business, it often works - provided the couple are both decent people with clear ideas on their roles in marriage and a determination to do the right thing. But there is another side. A woman adventurer whom I shan't name wrote about how she had a one night stand with the photographer who came to record her activity, and commented, in effect: this was a mistake; it bonded me to him in some primeval manner. Exactly. If you have ever wondered why certain couples stick together in toxic relationships, constantly rubbing each other the wrong way, but being psychologically unable to let go, you may wish to start from that proposition.
     So there you have what sex is for: procreation, pleasure, and love, with the last being most important from the point of personal satisfaction. If you believe in God, you will be impressed at how He has wrapped the three up in such a delightful package. If you don't, you should still concede that the three aspects are intricately bound up, and that it is both difficult and dangerous to try to pry them apart.
Dangerous Fallacies
     Becoming one of the most highly sexed of all species is both our blessing and our curse, for whatever is capable of great good has an equal potential for great evil if it is misused. Sex can greatly enrich our lives. But it is hot, and you know what happens to people who play with fire. They don't necessarily get burnt the first time, or the second time, or the third, but burnt they eventually will be.
    What strange ideas people get to rationalise their lusts! Take the blithe assumption that more sex partners mean more sex. Of course, it is obvious nonsense. Even in cultures with loose morals, the bulk of copulations occur within marriage, for the same reason that you eat more if you stay for the banquet rather than grab goodies on the go. Eventually, most of these people cotton on to the fact that, if you want regular sex, it is best to have a particular partner "on tap". Of course, if they are both simply using each other, and their chief connection is lust, you can't expect the relationship to be either satisfactory or long-lived. It might, however, be fertile.
     Then there is the quaint theory about "getting experience." Now, a bit of helpful instruction never goes astray, but let's use some common sense: they human race wouldn't have lasted as long as it has if the physical mechanics of sex were complicated. You don't have to try it out with a dozen or half a dozen partners in order to "get it right". You would be better off experimenting with your one-and-only to see what suits both of you together. But, besides that, the real beauty of sex is the emotional connection, without which the physical act is just pedestrian. In addition, marriage requires give and take - mostly give - surrender, unselfishness, and self-control. You don't acquire that by developing a habit of chasing quick, transient pleasures. This is why it has been shown that premarital sex greatly increases the likelihood of divorce.
     "I'll love you forever," is the refrain of half the love songs in the world. It's the sort of promise which come naturally to lovers, which they can't help making; it's in their DNA. But the other half of the songs complain about the other party being "untrue". Sexual habits are just like other habits; they develop with practice. First they start as cobwebs which cannot be felt, and then end as chains which cannot be broken. Yes, there are some people who have sown their wild oats by the bushel in their youth, and then kept their field perfectly weedfree once they settle down. But that's not how you should bet. The best predictor of fidelity in marriage, and failure to divorce, is self-control before marriage.
    Our attitudes to sex are contradictory. We call it an instinct - and it is - but we imagine that it is independent of all the other instincts. We call it "making love" and recognize its strong emotional potential, but we think that, if only we could remove those pesky physical consequences, we could just pursue the pleasure without any emotional backlash.
    Casual sexual liaisons are wrong if for no other reason than that you are playing fast and loose with someone else's emotions. But it is also bad for the perpetrator. To share the most intimate part of your nature in a shallow, transient interaction is equivalent to using a precision tool, such as a woodworking chisel, for a crude operation, such as turning a screw. It will do the job, but it will blunt and damage it for its primary purpose. If you give sex in order to get love, you are setting yourself up for a broken heart, as well as cultivating a habit of inappropriate responses which bode ill for the future. If you "make love" simply to gain pleasure, then you are gradually wearing down your capacity for true love, for it can only be done by deliberately suppressing the natural emotional response. Even then, it doesn't always work. A lot of bad matches have been formed because people found themselves inextricably bonded "in some primeval manner" to someone they thought they were just using.
What About Lovers?
     All right, I hear someone ask, I understand the objection to casual sex, but what about lovers? Isn't sex all about love? I've been told that many modern parents short-change their children by instructing them to wait, not until the wedding night, but until they meet "someone special" or when they "feel themselves ready", thus begging the questions: what's so special about someone who won't commit, or ready for what: to share your life with them, or to share the most intimate part of themselves without knowing where it is all heading?
      Remember, the purposes of sex are procreation, pleasure, and love. Whenever it takes place, the possibility of pregnancy arises. Even in this age of widespread contraception, it's surprising how often it happens. Or perhaps it's not surprising. To quote the inimitable words of John C. Wright:
Even if the sex act does not lead in most cases to pregnancy, and even if contraception is licit and is effective nine times out of ten, prudence requires that all cases be treated as if they were the tenth case, for the same reason that prudence requires we buckle our safety belts when entering a car, or don a helmet when mounting a motorcycle, each and every time, not merely the one time in a thousand when we have an accident. Nature does not tell us beforehand when the accident will occur. The reason why accidents are called “accidents” is because they do not necessarily happen.
     An unplanned pregnancy is seldom a disaster when the parents are married, but when they are not, the alternatives - premature marriage, adoption, lone parenthood, abortion,  - are all, at best, unsatisfactory, and at worse highly traumatic. (Wright himself gives some fairly dramatic examples from his own experience.)
     Secondly, experience shows that such an attitude easily leaves the way open to sexual exploitation, where the one most in love is taken advantage of by the one motivated chiefly by lust. "Promise her anything" has always been the seducer's slogan. Traditionally, women have always been the most vulnerable to this exploitation, but if you think men can't get their fingers burnt in the same way, you should read Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage.
     Thirdly, this attitude quickly leads to the assumption that sex is the natural and automatic response to sexual attraction, then the natural and automatic response to dating, and to mistaking physical desire for genuine love. In one study, 40% of the subjects admitted having sex on the first or second date when, it was pointed out, they probably wouldn't trust the person to look after their pet for the weekend. They were more comfortable letting people into their bodies whom they wouldn't ask to feed their cat. Not unexpectedly, they rated their marriages (only married people were interviewed) as less satisfactory than did those who waited longer. They had allowed the overwhelming sensation and bonding ability of sex to overwhelm their judgment concerning each other's personal qualities. Seriously, what did they expect? This sort of behaviour could occur only in a contraceptive society. Human beings were designed to fall in love gradually, establishing emotional compatibility before throwing themselves into bed together.
     We live in an imperfect world. People don't always behave the way they ought. We often deceive ourselves about our own motives. It is best to put our cards on the table: wait until both of you make your vows in a public setting, so that you, your lover, and the rest of society know exactly where you stand.
A Failed Revolution
     The conventions previous generations adopted - banning pornography, discouraging sexual talk, especially in mixed company, modesty in dress and gesture - were not, as is often claimed, aimed at inhibiting sex. Their function was merely to prevent people thinking about it more than they needed to. They recognized that sex is a fire which burns hot and strong enough by itself, but if it is fanned, it might get out of the hearth and cause terrible damage. Well, we have fanned it, it has got out of the hearth, and it has caused terrible damage.
     One of the advantages of living to be 65 is that you can remember when things were different, and can determine whether the change has been an improvement. I was a teenager when The Pill arrived. At the time it was claimed that, yes, giving unmarried people access to it might encourage unchastity, but it wouldn't matter, because it would at least reduce the number of illegitimate births. But it didn't work. Although our birth rate is now below replacement level, there are more out-of-wedlock pregnancies than ever before.
     Then it was decided that abortion would effectively mop up the excess. But it didn't work. Now a quarter of all babies are aborted, but the number of illegitimate births are at all all time high, with all the disastrous effects mentioned earlier in this article.
     Once cohabitation before marriage was called "living in sin", and it was considered scandalous. The campaign to make it respectable, I remember clearly, took place in the period 1974-7, and the reason given then was the same one cited now: it is necessary to trial the relationship to make sure of compatibility. But it didn't work. At that time the divorce rate of 10% was considered disastrously high. Now it is closer to 40%. All right, there have been other changes in the last 40 years, such as no fault divorce (another innovation which failed to deliver), so perhaps a "trial marriage" really is necessary. The trouble is, there has been a tremendous amount of study on this subject in many different parts of the western world, and the results have been consistent: couples who live together before they are married are 50% to 80% more likely to get divorced than those who don't. Not only that, but if they haven't lived together first, but one of them had cohabited with somebody else beforehand, their divorce rate is still higher than those who didn't. As a trial marriage, therefore, cohabitation is a failure. And one need not mention all the cohabitations which break up without ever getting to the wedding stage, but which leave a helpless child behind without a father.
    When are we going to admit that the sexual revolution has failed? And that the first rule of common sense is: when you find yourself stuck in a hole, stop digging?
     Because there are some things which sound good at the time, but many generations of experience have shown that they don't work.