Posts Tagged ‘sociobiology’

Vox Political: Grayson Perry Sculpts Bell-End to Represent Bankers

May 21, 2016

Mike also put up another hilarious article on Thursday about a piece of work Grayson Perry produced to represented the financial sector. Perry’s a Turner-prize winning artist, specialising in pottery and ceramics. He found the world of banking and finance to be increasing male the further one went up the hierarchy. To symbolise this, he sculpted a giant phallus, embossed with pound coins, and the heads of bankers, including George Osborne.

See the article at: Warning for those easily shocked: it’s got a picture of the pottery penis in question.

Perry states that it’s not his most subtle work. Possibly not, but it is accurate. There have been a number of scandals about the lack of women in the upper levels of the financial sector, and it is a very, very masculine environment. One report about the imbalance said that not only were there very sexist attitudes towards women – they were divided up into ‘babes’, ‘mums’ and ‘dragons’ – but that the bankers themselves had a very cynical and exploitative attitude to their clients. Indeed, they often boasted about how they had shafted them. This is the world of the Wolf of Wall Street and Gordon Gecko.

And quite often members of the financial sector do describe themselves in phallic terms. One financial whizzkid, whose book was reviewed back in the 1990s by Private Eye, even described himself as ‘a big swinging dick on the stockmarket floor’.

You can also find support for Perry’s ceramic penis from the sociobiological interpretation of mythology. One academic used sociobiology, or as it is now, evolutionary psychology, to explain the phallic shape of ancient Greek herms, or boundary markers. He noticed that troops of baboons similar post guards with erect willies as sentries when out foraging, and males also engage in ‘penis fencing’. He therefore concluded that the shape of the herms was a similar primate display of masculine guardianship over place. You could therefore argue that Perry’s pottery penis is thus an apt sociobiological comment on the extremely culturally phallocentric culture of the financial sector.

Or am I reading too much into this?

As Freud said, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.


John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).

Homosexuals and Atheism: An Uneasy Alliance

February 7, 2008

One of the most noticeable features of recent atheist polemic is its deliberate appeal to the gay community. Religion, it is argued, is innately hostile to gays and so the self-respecting gay man or woman should utterly reject it. While it is entirely understandable why many gays object to what they feel is religiously motivated prejudice and persecution, nevertheless it is not necessarily the case that atheism offers better protection.

Now my own opinion is that the debate about homosexuality has already gathered more attention and taken up more time than it deserves. While I believe that it falls short of the ideal set for us by the Lord, I don’t like the culture of hate that exists in certain parts of society, such as the violently homophobic lyrics in some Rap. I also feel that the desire to avoid being seen as homophobic has deterred entirely legitimate criticism of certain aspects of gay culture. For example, the reckless hedonism and promiscuity portrayed in some of  the novels of Edmund White would be seen as irresponsibly dangerous and self-destructive if done by heterosexuals. At that level, the sexuality of the people involved is immaterial: it’s squalid regardless of whether it’s done by gay or straight people. I don’t wish to discuss the morality of homosexuality or the prohibitions against it here, but to challenge the assumption that atheism promises a better attitude towards gay men and women.

Pro-Homosexual Attitudes in Paganism

While many religions have prohibitions against homosexuality, there are others which include the ‘queer’ in their conception of the sacred. Babylonian and Canaanite paganism included male as well as female temple prostitutes. There were particularly associated with the goddess of love, Ishtar. ‘There is no doubt, however, that the temples of Ishtar, the goddess of carnal love, were the sites of a licentious cult with songs, dances and pantomimes performed by women and transvestites, as well as sexual orgies’. The male participants in these rites, called assinu, kulu’u or kurgarru, included passive homosexuals. 1 Amongst the gods of Polynesia is one who presides over gay love affairs. 2 The Roman writer Apuleius, was gay as well as a devout member of the cult of Isis. Homosexuality was entirely acceptable in Graeco-Roman culture, a situation that has strongly influenced contemporary Neo-Paganism’s positive view of homosexuality. In the 1905 novel, The Garden God, by Forrest Reid, recounts the discovery by the gay hero that he and his boyfriend were lovers in previous lives in ancient Greece. Confessing their emotions to each other on a beach, they call upon the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. 3 Many shamans in the world’s indigenous religions may be gay or transvestites, their sexuality a sign of their deep connection to the uncanny and numinous. This was recognised by the ancient Greeks, who noted the presence of such individuals, and the respect in which they were held, by the ancient Scythians. The author of the Hippocratic medical treatise, Airs, Waters, Places specifically mentioned them, stating that ‘the Scythians themselves attribute this to a divine visitation and hold such men in awe and reverence, because they fear for themselves.’ 4 Here a rational, materialist explanation for their sexuality has been a challenge to the high status in which such people were held since ancient Greece. The above Hippocratic author was himself critical of the supposed supernatural origin of their sexuality. In an explicit statement of early rationalistic scepticism, he stated that ‘indeed, I myself hold that this and all other diseases are equally of divine origin and none more divine nor more earthly than another. Each disease has a natural cause nothing happens without a natural cause.’ 5 For this early exponent of sceptical medicine, the transvestism of this part of the Scythian people was due to varicose veins brought on by their constant horse riding and their highly dangerous attempts to cure it by cutting the carotid artery. 6 Thus, while individual religions may condemn homosexuality, theism as such does not, and some gays have found in those Neo-Pagan religions that accept it a more positive attitude towards their sexuality than may be found elsewhere in society.

Lack of Basis for Tolerance to Gays in Atheism

There is also the problem in that atheism, as a rejection of theism and its values, does not necessarily lead to a more tolerant or positive attitude towards gays. In the controversy surrounding the establishment of civil partnerships by the British government a year or so ago, the BBC noted on one of its news programmes that three quarters of the British public were opposed to gay marriage. This would seem to include many secular individuals who would not see their opposition to it as religiously based. A documentary by a British Black gay writer and broadcaster on Britain’s Radio 4 into the violent hatred of homosexuals in Caribbean culture, The Roots of Prejudice, while interviewing some Christian ministers whose preaching strongly condemned in very strong tones, nevertheless also considered that it was due to the very strong emphasis on masculinity in Caribbean culture. My guess is that the hatred in such lyrics may also act as a general redirection for the anger and bitter hostility generated by tensions elsewhere in some Caribbean societies. Despite the high hopes for prosperity and social advancement and improvement after independence, Jamaican politics has been tainted with corruption since the 1980s when politicians made alliances with the notorious Yardie gangs to advance their ambitions. In a climate when politics could be mixed with real gang violence, it’s possible that the anger and disillusionment at the contemporary situation, which could not be voiced because of the real danger of personal violence, could find an outlet instead in a common hatred of homosexuals.  

It is also the case that some of the postmodern philosophies that have become fashionable in recent years, despite their ostentatious promise of tolerance, actually offer the opposite. A few years ago some of the self-appointed arbiters of what was fashionable in Britain made statements highly supportive of Nihilism. One gay style guru got into Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ for his declaration that nihilism was not enough, and that right-thinking gays should go beyond this, apparently not realising that if you go beyond the mere negative, you come back to embracing a positive view. Nihilism here seems to have had an attraction to those who saw themselves as courageous adversaries of oppressive social convention, preaching personal liberation and tolerance. However, there is the situation that in order to argue that gays also have the right to life, liberty and property, it has first to be accepted and recognised that there are indeed transcendent rights to life, liberty and property, rights which Nihilism implicitly denies, along with all other conventions. The persecution of homosexuals can only be condemned as immoral if it is considered that there are transcendent morals which are necessarily true beyond mere human opinion and social convention. Nihilism, by definition, entirely rejects this view. In the Brothers Karamazov, Doestoyevsky observed that without God, anything was permissible. Thus, just as some homosexuals believe that atheism will allow a greater acceptance of their sexuality, so nihilism also leaves open the possibility of renewed and greater persecution as morality becomes nothing more than individual opinion or social convention. This was one of the problems the British journalist and agnostic, Rod Liddle, in his The Trouble with Atheism on Britain’s Channel 4, pointed out with Richard Dawkins’ conception of morality in The God Delusion. Liddle remarked on Dawkins’ revised commandment, ‘You shall enjoy your sexuality, as long as you don’t harm others’ that it was all very wishy-washy. Dawkins replied that that was it’s advantage, as it could be revised and updated with the zeitgeist. The problem with this attitude is that, if morality is only the product of the zeitgeist, then the tolerance Dawkins was advocating may be totally rejected in favour of intolerance and persecution.

Hostility to Homosexuality in Atheist and Anti-Christian Ideologies

It’s also been the case that many atheist ideologies themselves have been hostile to homosexuality. Freudianism traced homosexuality to problems in a person’s upbringing, and attempts by Freudian psychiatrists to correct what they saw as a dangerous inclination towards it amongst their patients and charges could be cruel. A few years ago the BBC screened a documentary series, The Century of the Self, on the profound influence Freudian psychiatry has had on Western political, social and commercial attitudes, and the way Freudian psychiatrists were hired by governments, politicians and businesses to manipulate popular opinion. Amongst the chilling stories recounted in the series was the account of how one particular Freudian psychiatrist had attempted to bring up the perfect, well-adjusted family according to a strict Freudian regime. She was particularly worried about one of the boys, whom she feared would grow up to be gay, and so paid particular attention to preventing this from occurring. The result was a harsh, bizarre system inflicted on the children, with the result that far from being happy and well-adjusted, many of them became emotionally scarred and neurotic. The vehemently antichristian totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both criminalised homosexuality. Twenty years ago the British theatre produced a play, Bent, about the Nazi persecution of gays and their incarceration in the concentration camps.

Materialistic Conceptions of Humanity No Guarantee of Tolerance

As part of the campaign to remove the perceived prejudice against gays, some scientists and activists have suggested a genetic, sociobiological origin for homosexuality in which it is viewed as an advantageous evolutionary strategy. For example, it has been suggested that homosexuality arose, as it allowed homosexual males to assist the early proto-hominid group in protection and foraging, while allowing the dominant heterosexual male to mate with the females. A variant of this view is that the homosexual gene exists to allow gay children to help their parents with child-rearing. Such sociobiological theories have been criticised by scientists for both their lack of evidence and their reductionist attitude to human psychology, sexuality and society. ‘Any of these ideas could be true, but they are mutually exclusive, and there is absolutely no evidence for any of them. This kind of reductionist analysis of something as complex and manifestly socially conditioned as human sexual preference causes anthropologists, psychologists and others to despair.’ 7

These evolutionary theories of the origin of homosexuality also suffer from the naturalistic fallacy of turning ‘is’ into ‘ought’. The problem is that there are many things that occur in nature that human society rightly condemns and prohibits. Science may explain the origin of homosexuality, but it still requires a philosophical justification through moral theory. Moreover, these sociobiological theories of the origin of morality generally miss the point. People don’t just behave altruistically from an evolutionary strategy to allow the survival of their children in the co-operative group in a way that can be simply calculated scientifically, as J.B.S. Haldan is supposed to have done on the back of an envelope in a pub. According to the story, after performing his calculations Haldane declared that he was willing to die for four uncles or eight cousins, this being the number required to replace a person’s own genes in the gene pool. 8 People act altruistically and with compassion not from a desire to protect their genes, or those genetically similar to them, but from a belief that what they are doing is transcendentally and objectively right.

Materialism a Threat to Human Dignity

Indeed, the materialism on which much atheism is based actually undercuts morality. For some very reductionist philosophers and scientists, such as Daniel C. Dennett and Sue Blackmore, consciousness is an illusion and people really are nothing more than organic automatons. Yet people’s everyday interactions with each other is predicated on the idea that there is indeed a ‘ghost in the machine’, and a transcendent self, an ‘I’, within their heads experiencing pleasure and pain. A good starting point for morality and altrusim is the belief that the suffering experienced by people is not an illusion experienced by an equally illusory, unreal self, but real pain suffered by a real person. This is traditionally the view of the theist religions, and so one of the forces that may actually protect gays, as well as heterosexual people, from dehumanising conceptions of humanity is actually this aspect of theistic religion.

Reproductive Technology and Children’s Right to Life, regardless of Predicted Sexuality

Similarly, Christian objections to the morality of genetic engineering and ‘designer babies’ may also protect homosexuals. For Christians, as well as very many other people of faith and atheists, recent developments in reproductive science threaten to devalue the sanctity of human life as people are offered the ability to choose their children’s heredity, including, possibly, their sexuality. A few years ago there was much hoo-ha about the supposed discovery of a ‘gay gene’. Suddenly the possibility that parents would choose their children’s sexuality seemed all too real. The Christian pastor, Albert Mohler has been strongly criticised on the internet for his suggestion in his blog that if it was found that an unborn child would grow up gay, then gene therapy should be used to prevent this. Long before he made these comments, however, I can remember Quentin Crisp causing similar outrage when he said something similar in the British media. What made this particularly surprising is that Crisp is a gay icon, and the dramatised treatment of his life, The Naked Civil Servant, a landmark in the campaign for greater tolerance towards homosexuals in British society.  Now Christianity considers that people are not simply the products of their genes. They have free will and a genuine moral choice. And for many Christians, the rights of the unborn to life and their inherent biological integrity and dignity means that such genetic tampering should be rejected regardless of which sexuality those doing the tampering intend to fix in the child. Again, Christian moral attitudes here towards the unborn may also protect those who could be suspected of growing up gay.

Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality: A Middle Way

At the moment there is a strong debate in Christianity over the morality of homosexuality, with some urging its acceptance while others are very strongly opposed. It is possible to find a middle way, however. Christian theology makes a distinction between the sin and the sinner. God hates sin, but loves sinful humanity, and gays do not deserve any greater condemnation than other people. This attitude was clearly displayed a few years on British television by a Baptist pastor in a documentary series on Channel 4. This was a mixture of reality TV and history as it followed a group of men and women and their children as they attempted to recreate the life of the very first colonial settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, in the first decades of the 17th century. The people themselves were a mixture of Britons and Americans, with the Baptist Pastor taking the role of the colony’s first governor. Part of his duties was to lead the community in Christian worship in the colony’s church, just as it would have been performed by the colonists nearly four centuries earlier. One of the guys in the party was secretly gay. Tormented, and unable to hide his sexuality any longer, the man stood up in church one Sunday morning and publicly declared his anguish and his sexuality to the rest of the community. The Pastor was unfazed. He simply remarked that while it was a sin, ‘all men have sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory’ and simply carried on with the service. A condemnation of the sin does not necessarily translate into hostility towards the sinner, and while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexuality, amongst the mainstream churches in the West it will lead also to a condemnation of violence against gay people as persons. Some of those who campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain were liberal Christians who felt that the punishment was worse than what was punished. Atheism offers no guarantee of this, and its conception of humanity as a mere automaton whose notions of morality are merely the products of an evolutionary history designed to ensure the propagation of genetic material actually weakens this. Thus, while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexual, its concern for the person as a transcendental subject, made in the image of God, may offer to protect gays as well as heterosexuals from the dehumanisation inherent in a purely atheistic, mechanistic view of humanity.


1. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), p. 213.

2. G.H. Luquet, ‘Oceanic Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, trans., New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968), p. 451.

3. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 48.

4. ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ in G.E.R. Lloyd, ed., and J. Chadwick, W.N. Mann, I.M. Lonie and E.T. Withington, trans., Hippocratic Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), p. 165.

5. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

6. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

7. ‘Homosexuality’ in Anna Hodson, Essential Genetics: Genetics Clearly Explained and Defined (London, Bloomsbury Publishing 1992), p. 142.

8. Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 121.