The Evolutionary Biology of Disgust, Part II
It’s unfair to blame everything wrong with Western Civilization on St. Paul, but let’s give it a try . . .
I argued yesterday that evolutionary biology provides an explanation why disgust may generally have a rational basis as a tool for self-selection, but that it does a poor job explaining professions of disgust aimed at homosexuality. Disgust is clearly a powerful emotion to hijack, but how it becomes amenable to hijacking, particularly in the context of homosexuality, requires a short history lesson.
The Old Testament evidences plenty of disgust felt by the people of Israel, and plenty of disgust that their God plainly wanted them to feel. And yet, as Martha Nussbaum points out, there is a striking paucity of disgust at homosexuality revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and in ancient Greek culture. Something happened on the way to the Middle Ages. It may have been a two-step process, and I think it begins with the discovery of a general discomfort with the human body.
Some commentators blame Christianity for teaching a plain discomfort with the natural operation of the human body, both in its daily operations and in its decaying. Clearly, however, this suspicious attitude toward our corporealness is not present at the very beginning. Jesus embraced lepers and prostitutes. Samaritans were untouchables to Jews at the time and yet they were the heroes of his parables. Here was a profoundly radical rejection of the politics of bodily disgust . . . but it is very short-lived. Shortly thereafter, Paul hijacks the Gospel, despairs of the weakness and corruption of the flesh, and sets Christianity on a path that many argue has facilitated racism and anti-Semitism. Perhaps we have viewed our bodies with suspicion ever since this era, something to be fought against, a harborer of appetites constantly standing in the way of our salvation. If it seems unfair to blame Paul for so much (and it clearly does given the broader sweep of human history), maybe we can more blame the general rise of mind/body dualism.
But making the body the enemy is just the first move . . . why target a specific group for an extra dose of disgust when we are all disgusting in the flesh? The answer (and I don’t really claim to have one) may be as simple as the need to hide one’s own feeling of self-disgust behind the guise of uniformity. If one deals with one’s body in the same way as the majority, then perhaps one is not so bad, perhaps one need not fear so intensely. But such an impulse leads people to see those with different bodily practices as a threat. Maybe they’re especially disgusting? Maybe they’re better? Either way, they must be suppressed.