Friday, March 19, 2010

Burqa bashing

Burqa bashing is back in the media. One argument (e.g., Nigel Farage snippeted on the bbc world service) for banning the burqa is that it’s a symbol of oppression. The United Kingdom Independence Party leader is not the first person I’d look to for defence of minority rights, but that just shows you how naive I must be.

Now, naive as I am, I would have reasoned as follows: some oppressed women are bundled up in burqas; some women wear them freely; just because the burqa is an instrument of oppression there doesn’t mean it’s an instrument of oppression here; so people should be free to wear it. But, says Farage, if it’s an instrument of oppression there, then it’s a symbol of oppression here and that’s why we should ban it.

Well that’s clever: taking a symbolic stance against oppression there is ample enough reason for denying freedom of choice here. So, let’s apply the logic across the board. The cross was used by the Romans as an instrument of oppression, and, if it’s an instrument of oppression there, then it’s a symbol of oppression here. So we should ban the cross!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Ruth Deech on Civil Partnerships

Last night, Ruth Deech (professor and baroness), delivered an address on civil partnerships at Gresham College (transcript). Nearly the entirety of the speech was given over to an extremely interesting summary of relevant case histories in Britain, Europe, South Africa and elsewhere, showing how we have moved from a legal conception of marriage as heterosexual, procreative and Christian to an extension of many of the same rights to relationships between people who are none of these. Deech adopts a tone of such dispassionate factuality that it is nearly impossible to gauge whether she herself thinks that these changes have gone too far, or not far enough (e.g., should civil partnerships be called marriages?). It is only in the last three paragraphs that she notes ‘two issues in all this which give me unease’. On one of these, I agree: now that ‘biological parenthood, legal and social parenthood’ can diverge in so many ways (adoption, sperm donation, egg donation, ...), birth certificates should, while still respecting anonymity, no longer conflate or force a choice these. However, I do take issue with Deech’s second point, which plays a bit fast and loose with the science, citing inconclusive evidence that appears to have been cherry-picked by a Christian interest group.

Deech’s qualm concerns ‘the removal from the law of the provision ... that when a doctor is considering whether or not to give infertility treatment to a woman, he or she had to consider the welfare of the potential baby, “including the child’s need for a father”’. This is a legitimate concern, but whether it represents a defect in the law ultimately depends on matters of fact. Deech offers two observations in this regard, neither of which I find convincing.

First, she considers message-sending: ‘The removal of the requirement to consider the need for a father is to make a fresh statement that the child does not need a father... It sends a message to men, at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents...’ I find this slightly implausible. Are there really any men who were undecided about whether or not to participate in their children’s lives but who reached a decision once the government changed the law about which names should appear on birth certificates, because this constituted a message, in their eyes, that their involvement was neither expected nor valued? The law, and the brief administrative moment it affects, strike me as so far removed from any actual decisions that parents must reach that it cannot honestly be thought to have any effect or to send any message.

Second, she alludes to ‘a wealth of research showing that children need fathers, not just two parents’. She writes ‘that boys without fathers do worse at school and turn to worse role models’. However, as a bare fact, this is irrelevant to concerns about same sex parenting. Did the study (or studies) in question compare mother-father families with single-motherfamilies? If so, then it tells us nothing about two-parent, same sex families. Moreover, she writes, ‘Research shows that [fathers’] presence gives girls as well as boys advantages in educational and social development’. Again, does the research in question specifically address educational and social development in homosexual versus heterosexual two-parent families, or only in mother-father versus single-motherfamilies? If the latter, then it again tells us nothing about children raised by same-sex parents.

For details of this research, Deech points to This takes one to The Fatherhood Bibliography, which presents 26 pages each containing about 3-4 citations with representative quotations. So, a sizeable but hardly huge body of research (and I haven’t checked whether some works are cited more than once, in different sections). However, the publication, prepared by CARE (‘Making a Christian difference for the sake of the future’), makes no profession of objectivity: it is not a systematic review, deciding, first, what counts as good evidence, and then taking all research, positive and negative, into account in order to reach a balanced conclusion. Instead, its aim is simply to demonstrate the ‘significant amount of research ... showing the importance of fathers’. This is perfectly fine as a motive for publication. However, in order to justify Deech’s concerns, the relevant comparison set is not fathered versus unfathered children, but heterosexual versus homosexual two-parent families.

And in this regard the report is decidedly underwhelming. Only 12 publications are cited. One of them is not a piece of scientific research but the opinion of a French governmental body. Of the remaining 11 cited works, 6 simply say that the evidence does not permit proper conclusions to be drawn, 2 are of dubious relevance, concerning breakdown rates of homosexual versus heterosexual relationships (whether coparenting lesbians break up more than coparenting heterosexuals is irrelevant unless one controls for, e.g., whether the children result from previous partnerships or from a joint decision of both parents), and the remaining 3 point to possible socialization difficulties of children of same sex parents (though nothing that seems to me to be beyond what one would expect of children who might be teased or ostracized because of their minority status).

So, Deech may be right to raise fatherlessness as a point of concern. However, to suggest that CARE’s fatherhood publication provides relevant evidence seems wrong. That said, in the end, she warns only against parenting that ‘cut[s] out all contact with members of the other sex or falsif[ies] the birth registration’. When this is not the case, ‘Tolerance of both types of parenting has to be ensured’. Deech’s careful laying out of the legal steps that have brought us to where we are now seems sure to me to contribute to this tolerance and, like her, I am particularly struck by the eloquent advocacy of South Africa’s Justice Albie Sachs:

‘The exclusion of same sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, accordingly, is not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It reinforces the wounding notion that they are to be treated as biological oddities, as failed or lapsed human beings who do not fit into normal society, and, as such, do not qualify for the full moral concern and respect that our Constitution seeks to secure for everyone. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples. It should be noted that the intangible damage to same sex couples is as severe as the material deprivation. To begin with they are not entitled to celebrate their commitment to each other in a joyous public event recognised by the law. They are obliged to live in a state of legal blankness in which their unions remain unmarked by the showering of presents and the commemoration of anniversaries so celebrated in our culture. It may be, as the literature suggests, many same sex couples would abjure mimicking or subordinating themselves to heterosexual norms. Others might wish to avoid what they consider the routinisation and commercialisation of their most intimate and personal relationships, and accordingly not seek marriage or its equivalence. Yet what is at issue is not the decision to be taken, but the choice that is available. If heterosexual couples have the option of decising whether to marry or not, so should same sex couples have the choice as whether to seek to achieve a status and a set of entitlements and responsibilities on a par with those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. It follows that, given the centrality attributed to marriage and its consequences in our culture, to deny same sex couples a choice in this respect is to negate their right to self definition in a most profound way.’

Monday, March 15, 2010

What is homophobia good for? (Or: how to use science to advance moral debates)

In an earlier posting asking what homosexuality is good for, I sketched the idea that both homosexuality and homophobia might in different ways be adaptions. A recent publication about where Europe’s Y-chromosomes come from supports the ideas behind this thinking, especially with regard to homophobia, and this, in turn, affects how we should respond to the place of homophobia in the so-called ‘judeo-christian ethic’. Which brings back the topic of the earlier posting (about one attempt to reform attitudes to homosexuality by barraging the homophobes with scientific facts). There, I argued, that scientific fact rarely impacts on moral opinion. However, when science feeds our understanding of the history of ideas, when it shows us how and why our ‘morals’ originated, then it is a very powerful tool indeed. In the current case, science unmasks the charade that promotes judeo-christian homophobia to the status of a moral principle, revealing it as the remnant of pressures far distant, indeed antithetical, to the demands with which our modern world confronts us.

To begin with, here, again, is the scientific idea: homosexuality is a biological adaption and homophobia, a cultural one and each of them is associated with dominant strategies of resource management. That is: under some circumstances, a group with some homosexuality will be ‘fitter’ (i.e., will more successfully dominate resources) than a homophobic group that coerces reproduction from all its members; and, under other circumstances, a homophobic group will be ‘fitter’ than one in which some members support their siblings’ offspring rather than raising offspring of their own. In more detail, when resources are finite and, so, cannot support an indefinitely expanding population, having a proportion of (male) homosexual offspring induces collaboration, rather than conflict, over resources when the offspring in turn raise the next generation. Conversely, when resources can also be increased indefinitely (for instance, by bringing new land into cultivation, or by breeding larger herds and seeking new grazing land), then the genes of the parents are better served when all offspring independently raise their own next generation.

If this is correct, then it leads to some very specific expectations about how different genes will fare in expansionary farming/herding communities as opposed to others. Since males are freer to raise large families than are women, the scenario of resource abundance suggests moving from hunter-gather or small-scale farming to agriculture or nomadic herding will favour men and, hence, male genetic lines: a man in possession of large cultivated areas or large herds will be able to support several wives and their offspring and each male descendent will be able to do likewise, provided the expansion rate of the resources permits (i.e., provided there is enough new land or new technology to permit greater farm/herd yields). Precisely this claim is supported by a recent article about European paternal lineages and their relation to the spread of agriculture across Europe.

The article (A predominantly Neolithic origin for European paternal lineages, examines the distribution, across Europe, of different genetic lines of Y-chromosomes (inherited from the father) and compares these with lines of mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother). It argues that the ‘microsatellite diversity [‘of the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage’] is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic’ (after the last major ice age). The significance of this result is as ‘a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage’. Moreover, ‘the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition’. More specifically, the authors, Balaresque et al., argue that ‘the disparity between mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] and Y-chromosomal patterns could arise from an increased and transmitted reproductive success for male farmers compared to indigenous hunter-gatherers, without a corresponding difference between females from the two groups’, resulting in ‘the expansion of incoming Y lineage’. References in article point to the same pattern in other parts of globe: the Han expansion in China, the Bantu expansion in Africa, and the introduction of agriculture to India. Moreover, if the Bantu expansion involved herding rather than farming (as, e.g., work on patriarchy and herding would lead on to suspect), then the results apply equally to farming and herding. This is as one would expect if my hunches about homophobia are correct (though data about levels of homophobia in the Neolithic is unfortunately lacking—contemporary anthropological data is the obvious proxy, but I haven’t done a search for any relevant studies).

Such evidence permits one to make sense of why judaism and its descendent faiths, christianity and islam, think of homophobia as a moral virtue. The ancient Israelites were (a) a settler nation, concerned (b) with routing indigenous inhabitants, and whose economic mainstays were both (c) agriculture and (d) herding. All four factors are concerned with expansion of population and its resource base. The societal organisation we therefore expect is one that favours the male genetic line, and this is precisely what we see, with homophobia on the hand and polygamy on the other. Now, the ancient Israelites, needless to say, were not versed in the game-theoretic concepts at play in the foregoing reasoning about strategies for resource dominance. Instead, like all pre-scientific societies faced with forces beyond their comprehension and control, they commanded obedience to social norms by imputing them to their gods: religion, once again, filling the vacuum that only later could be rightly filled by reason.

What light does this understanding of the origin of homophobia have on attempts to invoke our ‘judeo-christian heritage’ in order to deny equality of rights to homosexuals? The answer is: it deals it a mortal blow. Scientific discoveries alone rarely impact on moral misunderstanding, because what’s natural doesn’t determine what’s right (early posting). However, what we are dealing with here isn’t only science: it’s how science impacts on our understanding of the history of the ideas we take for granted. And the history of ideas is a wholly different affair: once we show that what we take to be a universal, self-evident truth is merely a dreg of history, a residue of ancient habits, the encrustation of an atrophied misapprehension of how the world works, the purported truth, like a leash released, simply ceases to hold us back. It becomes only one more foolish idea contracted, like a bad habit, in childhood, and exposed and erased in adulthood.

Tying this back to the current discussion, if judaic homophobia and its kin are just the result of a prescientific mind attempting to grapple with the game-theoretic realities that lay beyond its grasp, then the judaic ‘moral code’ and its later variations are only as applicable nowadays as the circumstances that engendered them. So, let’s note (a) that we are no longer a society of colonial conqueror-settlers, (b) that we have by and large moved beyond dispossession of indigenous peoples, and that, although we continue (c) to farm and (d) to herd, we have since undergone the industrial revolution and the information technology revolution and are increasingly aware that future farming and herding cannot be a process of relentless domination of new lands. In other words: homophobia, it’s just a phase we were going through. But now that humanity has passed beyond its adolescent growth spurt, now that we’re in our societies’ adulthood and thinking about making a sustainable, responsible living, it’s time to recognise that homophobia is something we simply have to grow out of.

All of which points to a can of words which is only now being slowly opened and which has yet to make its proper mark on public debate and society at large, namely, understanding religion from the point of view of natural science and unravelling religious doctrines from the perspective of the history of ideas. There is a charade that we engage when we debate homosexual equality with advocates of ‘judeo-christian ethics’. It is that both sides are articulating ethical systems, that is, that both sides have a set of abstract principles (about the value of society and of the individual and how these are connected). In reality, this is precisely what ‘judeo-christian ethics’ lacks: what the science shows us is that homophobia is just a resource management heuristic arrived at by a society that did not have the intellectual resources to distinguish truly ethical behaviour from mere socially expedient norms and which muddied the issue further by burying this confusion in the morass of divinity, from which we still struggle to extricate ourselves. The sooner we appreciate the human origins of divine law and the more rapidly we come discern the fingerprints of humanity in the purported penmanship of deities, the sooner we can unburden ourselves of ancient half-truths masquerading as eternal immutables and the more rapidly our actions, and not just our species, will deserve the name of ‘humanity’.