Of Breasts (Redux) and the Foundations of Ethics

My previous blog elicited more negative than positive comments. Allowing for the fact that one commenter is a troll and will simply be ignored, most of the rest advanced serious objections that merit reply. Please be aware that my thoughts here are within a larger trajectory of wondering why almost all the modern world suffers from the scourge of Aphrodiphobia and what long-term strategy might work toward eradicating it.

First of all, I was accused of not doing my homework, not having references, not offering peer-reviewed scientific evidence (since all the other blogs on Patheos must do that, right?). But I plead guilty and went looking for such evidence. I did find an especially useful article fitting those criteria: “Are Women Evolutionary Sex Objects?: Why Women Have Breasts,” by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, Sarah Lawrence College. It is available at http://web.archive.org/web/20111202170751 or http://www.nyu.edu/fas/ihpk/CultureMatters/Mascia-Lees.htm. It provides an excellent review of the current literature and a critique of the strengths and weaknesses of current theories. But none of them came up with a guess like mine or considered some of the facts I think relevant.

To summarize my previous argument. The permanent female breast is not necessary for nursing infants and therefore evolved because it had survival value. Furthermore, only humans and our closest relatives, the bonobos, have a menstrual (rather than estral) cycle, which must have been inherited from our common ancestor. That much is common ground. But there is no consensus in the literature Mascia-Lees reports on about why the permanent breast had survival value.

I suggest that men were conditioned for tens or hundreds of millennia to be sexually aroused by the permanent breasts, and to not be aroused when a girl had none. I further suggest that both men and women became quite consciously aware of all that as being a rule. That is, the permanent breast functioned to protect immature females from sexual activity, which could have harmed then often enough to reduce their chances of surviving and reproducing, thus reducing the hunting and gathering (H&G) band’s chance of survival. Since that chance could often have been marginal, that difference in probability could obviously have created evolutionary pressure.

The point is that the permanent female breast can be observed from a distance. It communicated the fact that the female was mature enough to engage safely in sex. If that correlation was programmed into the male brain for perhaps hundreds of millennia, could it have been completely reversed during the relatively short time since the Neolithic Revolution? I think not, especially since current human behavior seems clearly to manifest such conditioning. (“Don’t look,” she thinks. “I must look away,” he thinks. These are very real conflicts.)

Did that correlation mean that a male could and did have sex with any mature female he observed? Not bloody likely. Among the bonobos, unlike chimpanzees, it is the females who dominate all social interactions, as was probably true for the earliest human societies, which were exclusively H&G bands comprising an extended family of two or three dozen persons. Given female domination, if sexual selection was an element of evolutionary pressure, did it operate by males choosing females? It is at least as likely, or more so, that the females chose the males. If there ever was a matriarchy, it was in the era of H&G bands. Likewise, a society based on male domination resulted from the invention of agriculture and settled life. But that was never universal. Many classical writers, both Christian and Pagan, provide accounts (rather sensationalistic, true) of current or recent societies in which women were the ruling class, and men were pampered and submissive.

In teaching Ethics courses, as I do, I’ve thought about what our Prime Directive is, if we have one and however we may have evolved it. The most logical possibility is not “I must survive,” but “The human race must survive,” and until about 15,000 years ago, the entire human race consisted of those H&G bands. That is why selfish egoism is now always a losing strategy, whereas enlightened self-interest, which depends on maintaining one’s social network, almost always succeeds. As the sociobiologists have argued, altruism was necessary for our survival. That is why parents risk their lives to protect their children or, often, any child.

One flaw I observe in the theories summarized by Mascia-Lees is a strong tendency to assume that the fundamental social unit of mankind is the modern “nuclear” family of husband, wife, and children, an accompanying tendency to project the behavior of such a family back into Paleolithic times, and a resulting tendency to assume that heterosexual pair-bonding is universal, normative behavior. An essential step in thinking about “human nature” is to become aware of our assumptions, and that is always hard. Once an assumption is questioned, its improbability may manifest.

In a H&G band, would each woman have cared for only her own children? Or would all the adults have cared collectively for all the children? Obviously, if survival of the band is the prime directive, the latter is the preferred strategy. And really, has that changed? Consider the common saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” One can suppose that many modern social problems arise from the loss of such networking.

If all the adults cared for all the children, then even if paternity was known, it would not have been important. Would jealousy have been a problem? Not if there was no pair-bonding and no concept that one person could belong to another. Rather, all belonged to the band. Even calling the network of relationships a “group marriage” imposes unjustified assumptions on it. The belief that jealousy is a normal human emotion is a thoroughly unexamined assumption. I think jealousy is a pathology of civilization; in our society it inspires domestic violence, a major cause of homicide and of danger to police officers. If these humans had no concept that there was anything wrong with having sex—and why would they have?—then they probably had sex whenever they felt like it, or, more precisely, whenever a woman felt like it. A man who did not stop when told “No” would not have lived long.

The modern “nuclear” family is actually an historical anomaly, created by the need after the Industrial Revolution to move workers to where the factories were being built. It was not practical to move a living group of 20 or 30 people, but a man, wife, and children could be moved. In other words, before about 300 years ago, the normal human living group was about the size of a H&G band, and in a great deal of the world now, it still is. In looking at domestic English-language magazines from India, I was struck by how different the ads aimed at families were. In India, advertising assumes that a typical family is about a dozen persons: grandparents, parents, and about four each of sons and daughters. Modern Indian novels suppose that parents, all their sons, their son’s wives, and all their children continue to live together. That was historically the typical patrilocal family.

Modern-day humans tend to assume that “cavemen” were stupid, because they lacked technology. In fact, they had a highly advanced technology based on stone; we can trace its evolution over about the last hundred millennia. We tend to think they must have done all these complex technological and social maneuvers by “instinct.” No, maybe they were just as self-aware as we are. They were probably smarter than we are on average, because, even through evolutionary pressures affected the entire band, not merely individuals, back then stupidity (meaning a failure to deal adequately with reality) was strongly selected against. Unteachability (as in the Tea Party and Biblical literalists) would have been lethal. I think our ancestors in those H&G bands were consciously aware that women were far more important for the survival of the band than men were. I think not just evolutionary pressure but specific and conscious social rules existed to protect the women. It has been suggested that when two or more bands met for a very traditional gathering, they might have traded “marriageable daughters.” No, more likely they would have traded two or three boys in order to gain one girl.

As Leslie White pointed out, the human condition is that we are saddled with bodies (and minds) that stopped evolving physically tens of millennia ago, living in a society whose energy comes from inanimate fuels, but with obsolete beliefs suited to the era that ended with the Industrial Revolution, an era of empires and hierarchic power structures fueled by growing plants. The times are out of joint, indeed.


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