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Against Nature

April 15, 2010

“Human society is an antiphysis – in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex; quoted in Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex.

“You cannot go against nature, because when you do/Go against nature, that’s part of nature, too.”
Love and Rockets, No New Tale To Tell

It has always been fashionable, in pushing back against LGBT rights and against the women’s movement, to invoke “nature.” These arguments often apply highly contestable interpretations of nature, but I don’t want to engage with that. I want to attack the major premise: that “nature” is immutable, or correct, or in some other way is an authority that lays dispute to rest. I do not recognize the authority of “nature.” (And I want to convey it with reference to 80’s pop, because … well, just because.)

We cannot go against nature, because when we do, that’s part of nature, too. Smart animals do not simply try to scrape out a living in their environments. Smart animals modify their environments to suit their needs. Housecats make hunting trails, birds build nests, and beavers dam rivers to put a moat between themselves and things that eat beavers. When the snow drifts pile up and the old wolves scrape by on mice, why don’t they eat the beavers? Because there’s a frozen pond, and ten inches of frozen mud reinforced with saplings and branches, between the wolf and the comparatively comfortable beaver.

Humans are smart animals. Depending on climate and resources, we tend, if we can, to live in insulated homes, complete with running water and a sewage system that takes our waste away (preferably, one that takes our waste away from the whole population center, because that reduces disease). Water and sanitation services are, in fact, some of the most major innovations that allow highly concentrated human populations without regular plagues of infectious disease.

Some people would even say that the triumph of technology over disease is the major accomplishment of humanity. We vanquish bacteria with antibiotics! We replace lost blood by transfusion! We stymie the progress of viruses through our populations with vaccines! We thwart nature!

We are so wedded to the idea that we should conquer illness with technology that we deride, as crackpots and fools, those who refuse to do so. Certain religious sects, such as Christian Scientists, refuse some or all medical intervention, and some folks are skeptical, for example, about the common vaccination regimens. It would be hard to argue that these views are fully respected. At best, these people are treated with condescension; at worst their sanity, and even their right to raise their own children, are assailed. I have even heard women doctors mock (really, viciously mock) women who want to refuse some of the common medical interventions in childbirth.

The use of technology to free us from the unwanted consequences of nature is largely uncontroversial. There are exceptions, but they are few, and share a common theme which I will return to.

The one area where the use of technology to free people from the consequences of nature remains generally controversial, however, is the use of technology to free women from the consequences of sex. Abortion and contraception are constitutional rights in the U.S., but a huge minority of the population wants to see them restricted or eliminated, and there is a large network of terrorists and their sympathizers that kill providers and otherwise use violence to try to stop it.

(As an aside, in any serious analysis, anti-choice terrorists are an organized, motivated threat with fanatical support and a deep bench, and are more capable of operating effectively within the US population than terrorists for almost any other cause today. Rudolph, Kopp, Roeder and the other anti-choice terrorists have killed for their cause, even at the cost of life imprisonment or death, and Rudolph and Kopp almost certainly received significant support from within the population even after their crimes were known. Why, then, does law enforcement generally treat left wing radicals as a bigger problem and harass them while ignoring anti-choice radicals? I think because the law enforcement apparatus – and government in general – is largely populated by people more sympathetic to the goals of the anti-choice murderers than to progressive causes that may draw somewhat zealous supporters.)


Technology frees us from disease and death. Technology amends the vulnerabilities of our physical bodies. This is called “progress,” and is usually universally celebrated. Generally, people who oppose progress are considered marginal.

The history of medicine is the history of interference with nature. In nature, the body does battle against injury and infection. It heals itself, or it doesn’t. The opportunistic organisms that grow to our detriment are an invading force, and the army of our immune system tries to retake the territory of our flesh. If our immune system loses, the invaders take over and the body dies.

Sickness and death play a part is humanity’s oldest stories, from Gilgamesh’s fear of death, to Jesus’s healing of the sick and the lame, to a young Buddha’s recognition that illness can strike anyone. Plague was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. Our bodies’ vulnerabilities have always been with us. And so has the desire for protection from them.

The search for better protection from disease and death is older than history. Our attempts to free ourselves from sickness did not begin with the Renaissance or with the West: probably every human culture has ways, practical, mystical or both, or seeking respite from disease, injury and disfigurement. People’s demand for healers didn’t start when the healers began to have a lot to offer. The technology to protect and fix us has improved, though access to in on the global scale is wildly unequal, and so is life expectancy. The people on earth with comparatively more access to resources may live past 100, well fed, protected from the elements, contact with pathogens reduced, and any consequent illnesses treated.

Women And Consequences

William R. Inge, the former Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and something of a public intellectual in the United Kingdom, once wrote, “In nature, there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences.” Protecting people from the consequences of nature is the cornerstone of Western, and particularly American, civilization. But in America, we don’t really treat women as people, at least where their sexuality is concerned. And in American culture, the concern with women is always their sexuality. We demand that people in general be protected, by technology, from consequences. But there are powerful cultural and political movements to ensure that women specifically must live with the consequences of sexual conduct.

The major organizations of the cultural right wing are usually savvy about how they convey this belief, but bloggers express the view without the polish. One blogger, a homeschooling evangelical mother, praised disease and pregnancy as consequences for sex, in a way that is shockingly straightforward:

The morality decline in our society has slowly and deceptively gone down hill. I believe that part of the reason for this decline is because we have taken out the consequences of wrong doing!
For example:
1. Birth Control – We are now giving birth control to young teens because they might get pregnant. This is a way of allowing them to be promiscuous with [sic] the consequence of pregnancy.
2. Gardasil Vaccine – Given to young girls to prevent the HPV cervical cancer. This cancer would not be wide spread if it were not for promiscuity.
3. Hepatitis B Vaccine – Hepatitis B is primarily an adult disease transmitted through infected body fluids, most frequently infected blood, and is prevalent in high risk populations such as needle using drug addicts; sexually promiscuous heterosexual and homosexual adults; residents and staff of custodial institutions such as prisons; health care workers exposed to blood; persons who require repeated blood transfusions and babies born to infected mothers. Unfortunately, these vaccines are given to newborn infants who are still innocent because the ones who need this vaccine do not want to get it. Again, this vaccine helps to avoid a consequence.
4. Abortions – Murdering an unborn baby because it “happened” at the wrong time!
5. New HIV vaccine – This is a new vaccine that is still in testing. It is made to help wipe out HIV. If there were not promiscuity, fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, we wouldn’t have this problem!
If our society is ever going to change, which I doubt it will totally, we as parents are going to have to start teaching our children better moral ways.
1. Teach them that fornication and adultery is wrong. Instead of taking away the consequences, teach them what the consequences are. Let them know they will have to face those consequences and deal with them if they choose to do this wrong.

[Emphasis supplied.]

That couldn’t be much clearer, could it? There’s no hiding behind polished P.R. language here. The major organizations that initially came out firmly against Gardasil very quickly backpedaled and said that they supported the vaccine and only opposed making it mandatory – a fallback position necessary precisely because outright opposition to the vaccine sounded too much like what the blogger quoted above says: a plan to use the threat of disease to scare teens into abstinence. Even then, the professional moral scolds could not entirely lay off the argument that protection leads to promiscuity. The Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher said that “giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”

This thinking is not limited to the fringe, or, at the very least, the fringe has infected the organs of policy with this thinking. Right now in Wisconsin, state Attorney General Scott Southworth is so committed to this argument that he has threatened to prosecute school administrators who implement the state’s new comprehensive sex education statute. Dr. Janet Woodcock, FDA Deputy Operations Commissioner in the Bush administration, argued against making Plan B birth control pills available over the counter by raising the rather fantastical spectre of “extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an ‘urban legend’ status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B.”

Similarly, State Sen. George Runner of California told the Los Angeles Times that “American money would be much better spent on other types of vaccines, since cervical cancer is a result of lifestyle choices, rather than bad genetic luck.” State politics produces candidates who will say things that would be career-ending in national politics, and one Colorado State Senator fairly closely mirrored the blogger’s remarks:

Sen. Dave Schultheis, of Colorado Springs, on Wednesday opposed a bill requiring pregnant women to be tested for HIV so that if they are infected their babies can be treated to prevent the virus’s transfer.

This stems from sexual promiscuity for the most part, and I just can’t go there,” he said.

“We do things continually to remove the consequences of poor behavior, unacceptable behavior, quite frankly. I’m not convinced that part of the role of government should be to protect individuals from the negative consequences of their actions.”

[Emphasis supplied.]

The cycle of judgment is self-justifying: we don’t need to prevent things that only happen to sinners; and we shouldn’t feel sorry for the sinners, who get what they deserve. This is the unpolished and not at all compassionate face of conservative culture warriors. This is the face that most but not all of them hide for domestic consumption. This is the face that American evangelicals and other conservatives show in Uganda, behind closed doors when they encourage genocide, exporting their philosophy around the world; but not the face they show to the American public when the Ugandan government agrees.

The abstinence-only curricula that have received federal funding around the U.S. for more than a decade include disparagement of condoms as a core component. They inflate failure rates and spread myths to support this fallacious result. It is not necessary to disparage the effectiveness of condoms just to make a point that abstinence is preferable. In fact, the one abstinence program that has actually shown some effectiveness (and which does not qualify for the federal funds because it is insufficiently aligned with conservative values) does no such thing. The only reasons to disparage condoms as part of promoting abstinence are to (a) convince teens that no technology can protect them from the risk of STIs; or (b) to discourage condom use even among those who do not abstain, therefore making the transmission of STIs more likely. Sadly, the actual, empirical result is probably the latter. Virginity pledges have actually resulted in no lower rate of premarital sex, but lower rates of contraceptive use than non-pledgers.

The supporters of nature’s consequences do not have the courage of their convictions in all circumstances. For example, when white men are needed for military service, the threat of disease as a method to prevent sexual activity has not been a winning argument. The U.S. Army distributed condoms to servicemen in the Second World War. . White men in the war effort are considered too important to face the consequences of sex. As one might guess, poor black men are not, and hundreds of black men with syphilis were killed by the deliberate withholding of treatment in the Tuskeegee experiment.


There’s a saying as old as legal abortion; that everyone thinks there are three permissible abortions, for “rape, incest and me.” I’ll tell a personal story here. My mother, long before the lung cancer claimed her, used to sit and smoke after the lights all went out and everyone else was in bed, and tell me how the world really worked. That’s a big part of why I’m a feminist. She told me about a relative of mine, an evangelical Christian. She regularly protested outside the clinics. Then she terminated a pregnancy. Then she went back to protesting at clinics. Then she had another abortion. Apparently, her married boyfriend didn’t like using condoms, and she wasn’t in a very good negotiating position. She wasn’t in a place in her life where she could let anyone know she was pregnant. Jennifer Senior’s long article on abortion in the New Yorker summarizes an entire generation’s position on abortion as “Didn’t use birth control? The burden’s on you.” The gospel of personal responsibility always sounds better when we are looking at others, and harsher when we’re looking at our friends, our children, or ourselves.

The forced-birth advocates think that women have abortions because they’re irresponsible sluts. The Beverly LaHaye Institute (her husband wrote the Left Behind series of evangelical fantasy books about the biblical tribulation) posted this on its website:

Abortion is no longer primarily an act of teenage desperation; instead, more and more it is the calculated choice of adults unwilling to accept responsibility for their behavior. Abortion is becoming more “rare” among the nation’s teens, but a larger percentage of women in their mid to late 20s –– women who are supposed to be responsible, mature and informed –– are, to put it bluntly, using abortion as a form of birth control.

[Emphasis supplied.]

The anti-choice movement in this country is not trying to reduce the number of abortions. Will Saletan (who I have no respect for, in part but only in part because he is easily duped into supporting the agenda of racists) has been shouting for years to try to get anti-abortion conservatives to make common cause with reproductive freedom advocates around ways to actually reduce the number of abortions. All such efforts fail. The anti-choice forces steadfastly oppose comprehensive sex education and contraception. The Catholic Church wants all sex to be not only within marriage but “open to the possibility of conception.” The major anti-choice organizations in the US mostly have chosen to carefully avoid actually saying that they oppose contraception, while operating as though that is their position. Democrats For Life and National Right To Life both turned their backs on Ohio Democratic rep Tim Ryan out because he supported contraception, while denying that was the reason. Not one single pro-life organization publically supports contraception and sex education – the only scientifically-proven ways to reduce the abortion rate.

The folks who hold these views can make arguments that elide the deep consistency of their positions (not the inconsistency, but the carefully concealed consistency); they can say that encouraging comprehensive sex ed and contraception will lead to more sex, more contraceptive failures and therefore more unwanted pregnancies. But those arguments are always contrary to the data, and really to logic. They are faith-based arguments; mere rhetorical talking points that even their proponents know don’t bear out empirically. They make these arguments because they know better than to say outright what the blogger I quoted above makes explicit: that their ultimate goal is to defeat any decoupling of sex and pregnancy. Pregnancy is the biological consequence of sex; it is not a coincidence that choice opponents oppose every technology that effectively allows women to transcend that.

The normative implication of the argument becomes clear when the anti-choicers start talking about rape exceptions. There are a few hardcores that reject all exceptions out of hand, but one frequently hears a creeping rape-denialism: that rape exceptions allow an exception that swallows the rule because “rape” gets defined more broadly than they like. The best known example of this is probably South Dakota State Senator Bill Napoli, during the controversy over South Dakota’s fetal personhood amendment:

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Napoli says most abortions are performed for what he calls “convenience.” He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother’s life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.
BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.

[Emphasis supplied.]

The bolded portion is the real giveaway. Leave aside the stupidity and narrowness of Napoli’s definition, if you can. The operative part for this discussion is that Napoli’s definition of a rape that ought to give rise to an exception isn’t based solely on the nature of the conduct, but on the virtue of the victim. Contrary to Dean Inge’s dictum that consequences in nature are neither rewards nor punishments, Napoli wants to protect the virtuous from consequences; but only the virtuous. The technology that helps the good girls out is, in Napoli’s world, to be withheld from the bad girls.


As we can detect from Napoli’s frightening quote, cruel as it sounds, there is a strong undercurrent of rape apologist discourse that says rape is the natural consequence of … well, of something. Of women displaying sexuality, or sexual autonomy, which really just amount to this: some folks think that rape is a natural consequence of women being women.

Perhaps the most singular and disturbing example of an appeal to nature to justify rape is Thornhill and Palmer’s evolutionary psychology paean to sexual assault, A Natural History of Rape. The work is part self-promotion by guys who made money and careers off of the controversy, and partly the usual evo-psych true believer nonsense that whatever they want to justify is eternal and ordained. I think the whole field has about as much to recommend it as phrenology, and scientists were quick to point out that Thornhill and Palmer had no meaningful support for their theory. A good rundown of the book by Jennifer Pozner is here.

These “scientists” seriously put forth a theory that rape is an evolutionarily selected trait, and then proposed that women protect themselves by wearing more clothes and not being alone with men. (Where have we heard that before? And evolutionary psychologists wonder why so many people think all they do it tell “just so stories” to justify the status quo?) Though they attempted to deny, in interviews, that they engaged in rape apology, it can’t have eluded them that calling rape a natural tendency has the political implication of making it not blameworthy. After all, who can be against what is natural? They claimed to offer advice to women to prevent rape – as if rape, something that happens to women, is their responsibility to stop – but of course it was the same advice that has been given for centuries, and that shows just about zero efficacy in the real world. (Proposing corrective measures that have been tried and have not worked is an element common both to anti-choice and to rape-supportive discourse.) One can only conclude that either these “scientists” are stupid, or in the alternative, that they like the way things are, and seek to promote a theory that justifies it and can be used to push back against efforts to change the status quo.

Roles and Revolution

A basic principle of progress, that technology should protect us from the frailties of our bodies and the dangers of our environment, is suddenly in question or discarded when the subject is control of women and sexuality. Perhaps the signal element of civilization is to strive to rise above “biology is destiny,” but we make exceptions.

What would it look like if we didn’t make exceptions? What if technology completely divorced us from the effects of sexual and reproductive biology? What if we accepted completely the conclusion that biology need not be destiny when technology allows us to overcome it?

Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic Of Sex set out to answer that question. Despite being an incredibly influential Second Wave text by the co-founder (with Ellen Willis) of the Redstockings, it has been out of print for several years. Its influence continues, and Kathleen Hannah has praised it. I have a copy and I recently reread it; it is a deeply flawed work. Much of it holds up, in my view, very poorly forty years on. I defy any feminist reader to get through the material on race without cringing, as it applies a reductive pop-psychology to all black men and all black women that analogizes every single black person’s life to a single role in a psychosexual melodrama. Angela Y. Davis rightly criticized it in Women, Race and Class. There are other problems, including a number of historical and empirical assertions that I doubt, and Firestone said some things about childhood and sexuality that I think are hopelessly naïve. So by saying that the book is interesting as a thought experiment in a very different world, I do not mean to imply a wholesale or even a qualified embrace.

That said, Firestone imagined a world where every baby was a test-tube baby. In that world, the female body is not the locus of reproduction, and femaleness is not especially connected to childrearing. In fact, Firestone believed that the entire notion of the family would fade away (and with it, as her work largely reinterprets Freud, the whole corpus of family-oriented repressions), replaced by households (she did not use the word “family” in any positive sense) of choice, formed by contract among small groups of adults and children as voluntary associations. Firestone’s book is fundamentally utopian, of course, and in my view just plain wrong about a lot of things. But it has the virtue of really thinking outside the box.

Firestone wrote before the internet, before William Gibson’s Neuromancer, before the term “virtual reality.” It is, in fact, possible to imagine a world even more divorced from biological limitations than the one she wrote about. It is possible to imagine a world where either a mind-body dualism is fully realized (Gibson largely gets there), or for those of us that don’t particularly like separating our minds from our muscles, where we are able increasingly to use technology to shape those bodies as we see fit. What if our biology was primarily fluid to conform to our self-identification, instead of mostly the other way around?

I will leave that thought, because I am not a fiction writer, and we do not live in that world. The internet has not brought us a space free of the misogyny of meatspace, but instead one where the lack of the human element has made hatred, division, harassment and misogyny even more virulent; and for my readers who are women operating in an online world, I don’t need to cite any evidence of that, but I’ll reference one example: Kathy Sierra.

Still, what we live with does not describe the limits of the possible. In almost every area of human life, the limits of the natural are largely treated as challenges to be overcome. Discussions of gender, of sexuality, and of women’s personhood should be consistent with this notion, though they rarely are. “Natural” is a description, and, even where accurate, not a proscription. Broadcast communication, indoor plumbing and anesthetic are unnatural in that we use our technology to do what we perceive as better than what our raw environment provides. We do it all the time. We do it by habit. In fact, one could say that transcending the natural is human nature.

“Because when you do/ Go against nature, that’s part of nature too.”

Thanks to Kendall McKenzie for working through these ideas with me and editing drafts.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 2:22 pm

    Don’t have time to read this whole thing now, but all your links are broken. You have an extra double quote at the end of each one.

    • April 15, 2010 3:18 pm

      Fixed, thanks. Formatting problems are the curse of composing in Word, which I only do for long pieces. The curse of composing in WordPress is losing the lot of it …

  2. Rachel permalink
    April 15, 2010 11:09 pm

    I don’t know if I can say I “enjoyed” something this thought-provoking and serious, but I appreciated it immensely. As a woman by nature, I hope to be defined by more than my biology.

    • April 16, 2010 7:01 am

      Glad you liked it.

      I think all women can say that they are “women by nature,” but some who are assigned male at birth have a hell of a hard time overcoming the social constructs that have been built around the biology. (What I wrote has a lot of implications for the gender binary and trans- and intersexed issues, that I didn’t go into because first there are a lot of people in the blogosphere who are more expert that I, and second, this was already 4200 words.)

  3. Matthew permalink
    April 16, 2010 9:00 am


    Thank you so much for writing this. This really helped to tie a lot of loose ends in my mind about anti-choice rhetoric, and societal perceptions of technology and biology.

    Also, really great connection between the right wing’s influence in Uganda and the murder of George Tiller. I hadn’t thought of that before. Truly terrible.

  4. Leigh permalink
    April 16, 2010 10:40 am

    Thank you, thank you a thousand times for writing this. You have captured some of my thoughts on issues of gender, racism, and reproductive rights (all in one post!), and you have helped me to find a new way to frame the debate over choice. Thank you.

  5. Tom B permalink
    April 16, 2010 11:07 am

    Great article! The glorification of the “natural” is extremely problematic.

    One qualm, however:

    “Though they attempted to deny, in interviews, that they engaged in rape apology, it can’t have eluded them that calling rape a natural tendency has the political implication of making it not blameworthy. ”

    So, in the middle of your piece on the problems surrounding the glorification of the “natural,” you highlight a sentence basically condemning people because OTHER people believe in the naturalistic fallacy, and fail to even point out this problem?

    I’m not defending these scientists in particular, as I think that their conclusions were not supported by the evidence and they display an unfortunate overreaching of proposition beyond the evidence. I also think their suggestion for solving the problem by blaming women for wearing clothing is deplorable.

    However, your criticism of them seems to imply that any attribution of negative behaviors in humans to biological predispositions would be bad because people think “natural” is “OK” is extremely problematic. Scientists point out that many unethical behaviors are biologically influenced is not the problem (assuming that it is supported by good evidence of course); people excusing these behaviors on the basis of that biological component IS a problem, and a huge one.

    Our brains evolved on the basis of maximizing the fitness of the genes that produced them, not on the basis of producing ethically maximal human beings. There is no reason to suspect that the “natural” human mind will show ethically maximal tendencies, and when ethics and genetic fitness conflict, we should expect genetic fitness to win a significant portion of the time.

    Having a biological tendency or predisposition to a certain behavior is NOT an excuse of that behavior; human minds are extremely flexible and we regularly ignore our biological drives (we all put off eating for a time if we need to do other things before dinner, we obviously control our excretory functions on a regular basis). We need to fight the idea that “natural” predispositions excuse immoral acts, rather than cling to the idea that all or our immoral acts are purely cultural. Biology and society work in concert to produce virtually every human behavior; our philosophy of ethics must be able to deal with our biological nature rather than hide from it.

    Again, I liked your article greatly and agree on nearly all of the work. However, sometimes I feel like the criticism of evolutionary psychology stems from some problematic ideas (mixed in with some good idea of course) and it’s a big concern of mine.

    • April 16, 2010 12:04 pm

      Yeah, I see what you’re saying, but what I’m really doing is saying that I don’t believe the disclaimer and I think these guys are really engaged in the naturalistic fallacy themselves; like the Bell Curve, they are trying to lay the groundwork for the fallacious argument from nature, while denying that they have an agenda. I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing science that others may misinterpret; I think there is something wrong with doing “science” that is bullshit and driven by an agenda.

      • Tom B permalink
        April 16, 2010 12:50 pm

        Agreed on this. I got the impression that you were philosophically opposed to even the possibility of such inquiry based on the fact that you conflated the over-reaching research of some scientists with a whole field of scientists by grouping all of “evolutionary psychologists” together in the same problematic category. Examining the influence of evolution on the human mind is valid and worthwhile enterprise; not everyone in the field is motivated by unethical agendas.

        It is unfortunately true that some of the more well-known evolutionary psychologists are well known due to their notoriety and overly wide-sweeping claims, but spreading fear of any such inquiry doesn’t fight the naturalistic fallacy, it only feeds fears based on it. It’s better to stress the problems of the assumptions of naturalistic fallacy, as you had admirably done in the rest of the article. This was my main criticism: you were right in pointing out this research was problematic, but didn’t stress that this research is problematic above and beyond other inaccurate science due to unfortunate belief in the ‘rightness’ of ‘natural’ human behavior.

    • September 23, 2011 9:42 am

      Just came late to this post and comment thread–but glad I found it nonetheless.

      Just a note on evolution vs. revolution, nature vs. nurture:

      We have DNA for a reason, to program us biologically, to respond to our basic environment and its life-supporting or negating factors.

      We also have RNA for a reason–to adjust the DNA in response to changing environmental/survival issues; this includes chemical changes that occur in the brain as we process and internalize external stimuli.

      So, basically, in my opinion, it seems that nature is only there to think for us, until we start thinking for ourselves.

      Thus, we cannot really ever blame biology for our actions, only our urges. And we can change our urges, by making conscious actions.

  6. April 16, 2010 11:01 pm

    Interesting (and lengthy!) analysis. As a product of the Christian evangelical culture, I can attest to this idea that “natural” consequences should be enforced among those sinners that sinned the worst (“worst” being relative, of course…) having a huge influence on how evangelicals view gender, among other things. One thing I didn’t see in your post, was how to engage these very people (of whom I know A LOT) on the idea of these supposedly natural consequences being really just a crapload of misogyny justified by self-serving rhetoric. Any ideas? Or a lost cause?

    • April 17, 2010 6:11 am

      The thing about working with people who disagree with me where they are is that, while in some areas of my life I have to do it all the time, it frustrates me and I’m not good at it, so I’m not always great at providing guidance on it.

      That said, the only thing I’ve really seen work is humanization; compassion sometimes (and only sometimes) overcomes programming. Knowing gay people, especially early, and knowing that they’re good people can cause even religious fundamentalists to question the received wisdom — which is why so much of what fundamentalist communities try to do is disappear GLBT folks. That’s the thing about gender, though: we have a social structure that is so strong that it allows a whole belief system of “mars/venus” with people that we see every day, live side by side with, and have sex with!

      I’m reading Pink Brain/Blue Brain, and she writes that the current generation of dads don’t treat their young kids in as badly gender-policing ways as the fathers from the famous 1970s era studies we’ve probably all heard of, so the culture is improving … slowly. Those changes will filter through to evangelicals, too, more than they accept or admit, and as a younger generation replaces the older, they’ll go through the same changes, but as a lagging sector. The fringes may get more isolated and reactionary, but if they completely isolate themselves they reduce their own influence, too.

  7. MertvayaRuka permalink
    April 17, 2010 1:45 am

    “Why, then, does law enforcement generally treat left wing radicals as a bigger problem and harass them while ignoring anti-choice radicals? I think because the law enforcement apparatus – and government in general – is largely populated by people more sympathetic to the goals of the anti-choice murderers than to progressive causes that may draw somewhat zealous supporters.”

    This. This is a question that needs to be addressed, a question that must be asked again and again. Why does law enforcement greet the Tea Parties with their best foot forward while meeting left-of-center protests with pepper spray, baton rounds and general callous brutality? Why is it that the FBI can gin up a bunch of half-assed no-hopers into the WORST TERRIST THREAT EVAR by basically hand-holding them through Blow-Shit-Up 101 but they can’t get a handle on guys like William Krar or Demetrius Crocker? Why is it that we get the standard “lone nut” spiel whenever a Tim McVeigh or a Eric Rudolph engages in ideologically-motivated slaughter with fairly obvious material support either for the crime itself or or for their subsequent evasion of capture?

    Personally, I think the only reason they pounced on the Hutaree so fast is because the Hutaree were planning to kill cops, obviously law enforcement is not going to be sympathetic there. Honestly, those guys are probably lucky they’re not all dead for even daring to PLAN to kill cops. Unfortunately I think those of us not of an authoritarian rightist bent don’t fare very well on law enforcement’s sympathy scale either. My only question is, how long will we continue to naively and unquestioningly rely on law enforcement to protect us from people they DO sympathize with?

  8. rowmyboat permalink
    April 17, 2010 9:44 am

    “Consequences.” Something that gets passed over by the anti-choicers is that there can be different consequences. Or that maybe it is not quite the right word — results? outcomes? next steps? The consequence of having sex without using some kind of contraception doesn’t have to be having a baby you don’t want. Maybe it’s having a baby you do want — consequences aren’t just bad things! Maybe the consequence is having an abortion. Maybe it’s a miscarriage. Maybe it’s nothing. The consequence of wanting to have sex and not have a child is needing to use some method of contraception. And, calling children “consequences” is not just a little icky and dehumanizing.

    I dunno, talk about consequences makes my head feel all stabby.

  9. April 17, 2010 7:33 pm

    Very good analysis. I would love to see this thesis in book form….
    It is in keeping with many of the pieces in A House Built on Sand: Exposing postmodern myths about science, edited by Noretta Koertge, a fantastic book exploring the philosophy of science issues of now.

    As well, the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Natalie Angier taking up evolutionary psychology may be useful to you. Hrdy includes a depthy exploration of infanticide in her book Mother Nature- certainly an antidote to the idea of the ‘natural woman as beneficent mother’.

    I agree with your assessment of Saletan; he’s a bit of a tool.

    I’m thinking as well that you would like the work of John Gray (John N. Gray, philosopher that is, not the comedian or the women are from venus guy). He’s all about doubting the enlightenment while affirming that it’s all we got. Also about resurgent fundamentalisms as a particularly modern thing.

    There is a really great, well researched book about Abortion in the ancient world, whose author is escaping me right now, but one of the things he puts forth is that certain demographic changes seem to cue peoples awareness of and resentment for abortion. In particular, a low birth rate makes abortion seem very taboo to people and no longer a private issue. I do think that religious conservatives are reacting a bit to this- the world is different now and the spectre of choice haunts us all- which is both positive (as in the case of reproductive freedom) and negative (as in the case of consumptive excess). I guess you can’t make demographic history without much rattle; someone somewhere wants to go war and make you have babies.

  10. Sam permalink
    April 19, 2010 3:49 am


    this TED conference video may be of interest to you. Jonathan Haidt explores the “moral mind” and how “built in” doesn’t mean unmeallable. Nature and nurture aren’t opposites. And implying, echoing a simple feasibility narrative is as problematic as echoing a narrative of biological captivity, as it blinds us to some very important fundamentals of all of our lives. We may fight death with new medication, but we won’t beat it. We may become aware of behavioural consequences of our biochemistry with respect to, say, love, but we will still desire the state of mind.

    • April 19, 2010 8:22 am

      The TED speech is quite interesting, though I am something less than completely sold on the body of work that is moral psych. I recommend searching for Pinker at Alas, A Blog. There have been a few good critical analyses of his work over there. Where Haidt moves from the empirical work to social philosophy, I don’t find much of what he has to say new, and indeed he’s openly rehashing the liberty versus order conversation that has been going on since the French Revolution. The appeals to Eastern religions as particularly “getting it” annoys me; it’s a smug and orientalist habit that Westerners have because they either don’t know or choose not to see that the corpus of religious doctrine and rule in Asia is as flawed as everywhere else.

      The rest of what you said I agree with as far as it goes; of course we must reckon with the biology we have, not the biology we with we had. I mean to say, though, that (to use perhaps the most popular tautology in modern English) it is what it is. We can do what we can, and we can’t do what we can’t, but there is no should in biology. Ought is only derived from is by the imposition of a social construct on it.

  11. Alara Rogers permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:15 am

    You know, if there was, in fact, reputable scientific evidence that rape is “natural”, ie, it is an evolutionarily developed trait that confers an advantage, the correct solution is not to put the burden on women to protect themselves… we have plenty of natural solutions for animals that can’t control themselves. We made wolves into docile pet dogs by killing all the ones who were aggressive against humans, and we’re still doing it.

    I can easily believe that rape could confer enough of an evolutionary advantage that some men would have a predisposition to commit it. Forced sex exists in nature; for instance, up to 53% of duck copulations may be forced on the female by the male. But only in the world where men are the default human, and all men have inalienable human rights, and women are just an afterthought, could this “fact” (if it is in fact true) be interpreted to suggest the solution “women should avoid sexual displays around men.” If women are the ones with the inalienable human rights and men are understood to be violating those rights when they rape, and rapists are perceived to be genetically predisposed predators who “cannot help themselves”, they would have to be killed, or at least sterilized and imprisoned for life, their children (if they had any) monitored carefully for any tendencies to rape and punished just as harshly as their fathers were. Because we would see the “natural” tendency as something that has to be bred out of the human population, and therefore rapists could not be permitted to remain in the gene pool.

    The implications of the idea that “rape is natural” are staggering and awful, all right, but in a world where women were actually seen as human beings, they would be staggering and awful for *men*. Men could be legally presumed to be potential rapists until proven otherwise, the way dogs are legally presumed to be dangerous animals unless under the control of a human. Men might suffer from curfews or restrictions on how many men they can be gathered with at any time or other such terrible violations of their civil liberties. Only in a construction of reality where men, like all humans, are in control of their own actions and cannot be absolved of responsibility for any crime on the grounds that they can’t help themselves, can men be granted basic human rights.

    These researchers are so deep into a patriarchal, only-men-count paradigm that they don’t even *see* how men being biological predators would have to change how women treat them. Humans do not avoid predators, we *kill* them. We take the territories we want and we displace any creature that preys on humans. The logic of “men are hardwired to prey on women” results in “men, unlike women, are not rational actors who can be trusted to respect other humans’ bodies, and therefore, men must be controlled”… except in patriarchal clown logic, where the rules that humans apply to every other predator on the planet don’t apply to men because men are human and women aren’t.

    • Sidna permalink
      April 25, 2010 2:47 pm

      Yes! That’s all I can really say to that.

    • Christina permalink
      May 12, 2010 8:47 am

      Wow. That’s a really good point. I’d long noted that the idea of men being “unable to help themselves” was degrading to both sexes, but I hadn’t thought it through to that extent. You’re right, though. If men are viewed as predisposed “naturally” to rape, that would necessitate significant restrictions on *their* sexuality and behavior.

  12. Christina permalink
    May 12, 2010 8:53 am

    Great post! I have a utilitarian view of morals myself. Moral rules should exist only to the point that they protect people from harm. It may have been sensible in the past to have a rule “don’t have sex before marriage”, as there was no reliable form of birth control or safe methods of abortion, and the social set-up was such that a pregnant unwed woman or girl could be readily abandoned and be subjected to poverty. Of course, that stemmed from the patriarchal society, but even in a hypothetical egalitarian culture, without effective birth control, it would probably be a pretty good idea to not have sex until you have a family unit in place to raise the child.

    Although even given that, it should, ideally, still have been seen as a matter of practicality rather than morals. But, today we’ve gotten past that situation. We can safely avoid pregnancy, so the original justification for the “no sex outside of marriage” rule has faded away, and yet the rule remains.

  13. boro permalink
    August 21, 2012 7:09 pm

    “…it can’t have eluded them that calling rape a natural tendency has the political implication of making it not blameworthy.”

    I haven’t read their book, but from this statement, I don’t think they’re saying a ‘rape tendency’ is ‘good trait’. The statement is basically saying that the horniest men reproduce more often. If some big loser alpha-male can do whatever he wants, the women in his vicinity are more likely to reproduce with him, just because he can do whatever he wants: he can force them.

    It *is* blameworthy, without a doubt, but the ways to remedy the situation presented aren’t really realistic or practical. I’m talking as a guy here: the reason why guys get hyper-excited about sex, to the point of rape, is because they’re encouraged to. Get rid of your virginity asap, get around, be the top dog, etc. etc. etc. – it’s a lifetime of being conditioned to see the opposite sex as just another notch on the belt (and yes, women can see men the same way). It’s breeding to see someone else as ‘for use’.

    The key to curbing that is to become self-aware of what your biology and social programming are trying to do to you, and disagree with it. Sex basically becomes a lower priority in life, and males go about trying to curb their desires to get on with other things in their lives. We’re evolving past sex as the ‘primary’ concern in life, but a lot of people are still stuck in the past, and unfortunately, they’re men who have better physical strength.

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