Tuesday, 21 September 2010

You Only Get Answers to the Questions You Ask

This simple thought seems too obvious to state, but here we go: the very approach to an issue can dictate the type of result you gain.

Stephen Jay Gould’s elegant essay, ‘Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples’ provides the perfect illustration. It was first published in ‘Bully for Brontosaurus’ and you’ll never regret buying an SJ Gould. So go on.

The conundrum of the male nipple is insoluble if you ask ‘why?’ They are, after all, they are of no obvious use in males. But start with ‘how?’, and we have the more useful insight that they are specialised sweat glands whose prototypal form was present in males and females before becoming more fully developed in one sex for lactation.

Male and female foetuses develop along similar lines for their first few weeks. Later, hormones start to influence differentiation into male and female. Too late to erase the nipples though. Males are left with vestigal nips with no purpose other than to indicate chill-factor, or delight that Man U has just scored.

Similarly, the Victorian female (and all her daughters, up to the 1960s) was beset with the notion that she needed to have a vaginal orgasm to be ‘mature’. Thanks Freud. After all, the purpose of an orgasm was to provide sexual satisfaction, and proper grown-up sex is penetrative sex with a penis. The function must surely follow the intent. This is the answer to the ‘why?’ question.

Except a lot of women – most actually – think their ‘G’ spot is just south of Narnia on the map, and get their climaxes from their clitorises. Or is that clitori? Who knows? Anyhow …

If you ask ‘how?’ … sort of rerun that thingy with the male nipple. Different types of tissue develop in different ways under the influence of hormones in-uteri to produce morphologically distinct males and females.

Our Victorian and early 20th century grandmothers probably suffered unusually compared to everybody else, before and since. After all, without a formidably authoritative, ideologically-driven, guilt-inducing impediment, the simple expedient of “Oy, rub this” has probably sufficed for years. We may not all have a magic button in our vaginas, but contriving sex for female orgasm isn’t that hard with an understanding partner.

So we can see that the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions are of vital importance, because they are often a good indicator of the a-priori assumptions of the questioner: ‘how’ is usually asked by scientists, and ‘why?’ is asked by mystics and magicians. And the answers to the ‘why?’ often create a lot of needless guilt, scapegoating and looking for G-spots.

Peter Tatchell made a Channel 4 documentary ‘The Trouble With The Pope’ to explore the issues surrounding opposition to the Pope’s state visit to the UK in September 2010.

In it, Tatchell discusses with Fiona O’Reilly of ‘Catholic Voices’ the notion that homosexual people suffer with “a strong tendency towards intrinsic moral evil”, as Joseph Ratzinger while Cardinal put it. O’Reilly explained that (45:45):

‘What is the purpose of sex … In the Catholic understanding, sex is ordered to the creation of children and the strengthening of the union between a man and a woman. If that is the starting point, then it makes sense”

And she’s right … if you assume that it really is the starting point.

But I think that we can see from male nipples and clitoral ripples that it isn’t necessarily the starting point, unless you want it to be.

Religion is suffused with the notion that there is a meaning, which is why religious people go looking for it. There is an assumption of purpose. In ‘England’s Child Witches’ I wrote:

‘People in charismatic African churches are not looking for the ‘how’ – they know perfectly well that microbes cause diseases and cars mechanically fail. They are looking for the ‘why’: why me; why not my enemy; why now; why here. It’s a question that empiricism can’t answer without leaving the empty and unsatisfying answer: “shit happens, sometimes more to you than other people”.’

The scientific method is counter-intuitive to human beings. It takes a great deal of education to think that way. Purpose-based explanations, on the other hand, are natural. They come without prompting to children. Our evolutionary history has probably favoured people who can draw meaning from events.

The purpose-based explanation is likely to create a lot of unhelpful false positives (I walked past that tree and fell over, so that tree is probably unlucky). But a false negative would be more dangerous (I ate that lobelia, but the projectile vomiting was probably a coincidence). Wherein lies the relative value of the system.

Some Catholic theologians, including the present Pope, have concluded that gay people are “intrinsically morally evil”.

But they should not kid themselves that they are starting from first principles with their reasoning. By the time they have asked ‘why?’, a preference for mystical thinking has already been settled upon and the conclusions will bear the marks of such a choice.


  1. I thought it was a fundamental of Christianity that we are ALL 'intrinsically morally evil' ?

  2. From nipples to the Pope in a few sentences - excellent.

    @Anonymous - we are all born in original sin (allegedly) but that's not the same as being evil.

  3. Excellent! Sex, catholics and the meaning of life. Forever topical. :D

  4. I'm all for the Atheist-Secularist-Skeptic camp criticising religion. Argument, afterall gives believers the opportunity to sharpen their own ideas. However, criticism must be grounded in factual accuracy. Claims must be checked and rechecked against their sources to establish their validity.

    Jourdemayne repeats a claim I have seen in the reams of No Pope Campaign literature I read in recent months which has no grounding in truth whatsoever:

    Some Catholic theologians, including the present Pope, have concluded that gay people are “intrinsically morally evil”.

    They have done no such thing.

    It is, I think, significant that Jourdemayne has not given a citation to buttress that remark since anyone with an elementary knowledge of Catholic doctrine would be able to spot it as a basic error.

    The Catholic Church does not believe that anyone is intrinsically evil. On the contrary, she teaches that humans have free will.

    It follows that the Catholic Church does not define anyone by their sexuality. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church makes clear that those with a disposition to homosexual acts are called to chastity.

    The Catholic Church teaches that the inclination to homosexuality is intrinsically morally disordered, not that homosexual persons are intrinsically evil (see free will, hate the sin, love the sinner etc).

    People may disagree with and criticise the Church's teaching as much as they like but if they do so on the basis of false reports, it isn't the Church they are criticising but a strawman of their own creation.

  5. Well, RedMaria, you say the Church teaches "that the inclination to homosexuality is intrinsically morally disordered".

    But we have from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html

    "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder"

    That is, some people are so made as to have a "strong tendancy ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil"

    To say that someone with such a tendency is not morally evil is like saying someone with a "strong tendancy ordered toward being left-handed" is not left-handed.

    It's ridiculous. The problem is this: when the religion was created, people did not understand what homosexuality is. They thought some people were deliberately choosing to behave that way and they believed it was wrong. We now know that this is false. One's instincts are innate. Now the church is dancing around this issue with wordplay. It does not change its ideas in the light of new evidence, such as the knowledge of evolution or neurology or hormones none of which were known about when Christianity was started.

    I could not choose to be gay because I am born straight. To say I have free will and I could be gay if I wanted is not true, and not my experience of being a human. Vice versa.

    These are the problems religions get themselves into when they go around claiming to know things and undermining our juryistic enquiries.

    Consider this: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

  6. Consider this, Anonymous: men are more likely to commit suicide than women; vets are more likely to commit suicide than dentists; Belarus has a higher suicide rate than Lithuania and so on and so forth. What are we supposed to deduce from this, or the fact that LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers? It isn't clear.

    Your reasoning lets you down again when you leap from one proposition, "homosexuality is ... an inclination ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil," to another, "to say that someone with such a tendency is not morally evil ... is ridulous" without explaining how an inclination is the same as an action, which is in turn equivalent to being.

    Let me put it this way. The Catholic Church does not accept that homosexual persons are any more bound to act on their inclinations, sexual or otherwise, than heterosexuals. Rather daringly she argues that humans, having free will, can choose to act or not to act on their impulses. She says that humans can control themselves.

    She also teaches repentence, that sins can be forgiven and that salvation is open to all.

    Hence to claim that she has ever said, suggested or implied, anywhere that homosexual persons are intrinsically morally evil is just wrong.

  7. Just an observation - is the nipple really of no purpose in the male? It is rather more sensitive than the skin around it and provides a sensory touch point on the chest which could be useful in doing things like crawling or climbing?