Thursday, April 11, 2019

Are We Animals? The Conference on "Science, Human Nature, and Public Policy" at Saint Vincent College

This is a video of my lecture for a conference on "Science, Human Nature, and Public Policy," April 4-6, sponsored by the Center for Political and Economic Thought at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  All of the lectures can be found on YouTube.

I  was especially happy to visit Saint Vincent for the first time because one of the best of my former Ph.D. students--Jason Jividen--has been teaching there for some years.  This also gave me the chance to pay homage to those famous residents of Latrobe--Arnold Palmer and Fred Rogers--and also to sneer while driving past The Trump House (Google it).

With nine speakers delivering lectures on a wide range of topics, it was sometimes hard to see the thematic coherence of the conference.  But by the second day, I began to see some recurrent themes; and when the last speaker--Melissa Moschella--spoke in favor of "animalism," I saw the question of animalism as one common theme in many of the lectures, although Moschella was the only speaker who used the term.

Animalism is the term used by some contemporary philosophers over the past thirty years for a seemingly simple idea: We are animals.  We are, each of us, an animal of a certain kind, the kind that is called Homo sapiens.  In contrast to those dualists who assert that we are not just animals but persons, and that our personal identity transcends our animal bodies, animalists assert that every human person is a human animal.  We are self-aware thinking beings with a first-person perspective on the world--each of us can say "I"--but this personal experience of subjective self-consciousness and decision making arises from the psychological properties of the human animal.  Not every human animal is a human person, because a human fetus is an animal, but it lacks the subjective self-awareness of a person; and a human animal that falls into a persistent vegetative state without any capacity for self-conscious thought is no longer a person.  Moreover, the death of the human animal body brings the death of the human mind or soul, so there is no personal immortality separated from an animal body.

One might imagine, however, that there could be personal immortality if dead animal bodies could be resurrected in such a way as to sustain personal minds.  The resurrection of Jesus shows this.  Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas have speculated on what this resurrected human animal body would be like.  (I have written about this here,  here, and here.)

Animalism does not necessarily deny the possibility of persons that are not animals, because we might imagine a capacity for personal experience that does not depend on animal bodies--such as angels, deities, or robots.

A good presentation of animalism is Stephen Blatti's article on "Animalism" (2014) in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and his coedited book (with Paul Snowden)--Animalism: New Essays on Persons, Animals, and Identity (2016).  As Blatti indicates, many of the objections to animalism depend on imaginative thought experiments--as is often the case with analytic philosophers--that supposedly show how human persons could be separated from their animal bodies.  So, imagine, for example, that we could transplant a person's brain or head from one body to another, and imagine that the thoughts and memories of that self-conscious person could then be attached to a new animal body, and the old animal body could be destroyed.  Does this show that the human person is not identical to any particular animal body?

But there's no proof here that such a transplant could be successful--that a brain could be severed from its body without destroying personal identity.  Moreover, this ignores the fact that a brain is itself an embodied animal organism; and so a mind that depends on a brain is not fully disembodied.

There is at least one rare human condition, however, that does seem to deny the animalist's claim that each of us is identical to a particular human animal--a rare type of conjoined twinning called dicephalus--in which twins are conjoined below the neck, so that we see two distinct heads on one body, with two brains supporting two distinct mental lives.  This looks like two persons with only one animal body.

                               Conjoined Twins Abby and Britany Hensel at Their Wedding

Abby and Britany look like two separate persons sharing one animal body.  So does this show that personal identity is not animal?  While Abby and Britany are clearly sharing one body, other conjoined twins--like the famous "Siamese twins" Chang and Eng Bunker--have two bodies joined by only a small belt of flesh at the waist.  Conjoined twins thus raise deep questions about the anatomical biology of human nature (Dreger 2004; Quigley 2003).

Actually, although it happens rarely,  lots of nonhuman animals have been born with two heads--including cats, cattle, snakes, turtles, and more.  So does this show that their personality is separated from their animality?

Stephan Blatti (2007) argues that dicephalic twins are a "borderline case" of the human animal--with more than one but less than two complete animals.  This need not be seen as a counterexample to the animalist's claim that each of us is identical to a human animal.

Here I will follow this question of animalism as it came up in the nine lectures at the Saint Vincent conference.

Blombos Cave or Bethlelem? Science, Theology, and Human Nature
Christopher Baglow, the University of Notre Dame

Baglow is the Director of the Science and Religion Initiative at Notre Dame.  His lecture was to answer one question: What do science and faith teach us about human origins and human nature?

Some scientists would point us back to Blombos Cave on the southeast coast of South Africa, where archaeologists have found evidence of behavioral changes among Middle Stone Age human ancestors dating to 100,000 to 70,000 years ago.

                                                Engraved Ochre found in Blombos Cave

Although it's hard to interpret its meaning, the abstract patterns of engraving on ochre look like the oldest evidence of symbolic artifice.  This capacity for symbolic abstraction has been identified by some evolutionary scientists as the distinctive human difference: human beings are animals, but they have naturally evolved from primate ancestors to be the human kind of animal that is capable of symbolic culture, which makes possible human art, science, philosophy, and religion.  (I have written about the uniqueness of human symbolic culture here.)

Baglow asked: Is this Adam?  If these ancient human ancestors in Blombos Cave were the first truly human beings, because of their capacity for symbolic thought, Jews, Christians, and Muslims might say that they correspond to Adam and Eve of the Genesis story of Creation.  The problem, of course, is that the scientists studying the artifacts at Blombos Cave do not see any evidence there for God's creation of Adam and Eve in God's image.

But then, some evolutionary psychologists who are also Christians (like Justin Barrett) would say that what we see here is the natural emergence of Homo religiosus--the first animal capable of believing in and longing for God through symbolic thought.  A theistic evolutionist could say that God used a natural evolutionary process to create human beings in His Image.  (Some of my posts on these points are herehere, and here.)

Baglow gave us a manifestation of this evolved human capacity for religious symbolism by giving us a Christian theological interpretation of human nature as fulfilled in Jesus Christ: to become fully human is to be open to Christ as both fully human and fully divine--as Adam was before the fall into sin, as the embodied image of God.

As he did this, he also affirmed Thomas Aquinas's animalism--Aquinas's Aristotelian insistence that human beings really are animals, even if animals of a special human kind, and that the human mind or soul is an activity of the human animal.

Baglow did not speak about the contradiction in Aquinas's account of how the soul arises in human biology--claiming that this arises through a fully natural embryological process, but then also claiming that this requires a miraculous infusion of soul by God.  I wrote about this in my paper for this conference, and in a post here.

Why Intelligent Design Is Not A Good Way to Challenge the Hegemony of Naturalism in Public Life: A Thomistic Corrective
Francis Beckwith, Baylor University

Beckwith is a professor of philosophy at Baylor.  Originally, he was hired at Baylor to be the Director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.  Members of the Dawson family signed a letter to the President of Baylor protesting that since Beckwith was a Fellow of the Discovery Institute--the leading organization promoting Intelligent Design Theory--he was opposed to J. M. Dawson's idea of separating church and state, because he was advocating the teaching of ID as science in public schools, which was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.  They asked that he be terminated.  When he was denied tenure at Baylor, he appealed the decision and won.

It stirred great interest, therefore, when Beckwith openly rejected ID in a series of blog posts at the Biologos website, which promotes theistic evolution.  He argued that he had never fully embraced ID, although he had defended the constitutionality of teaching ID in high school biology classes.  He explained that the Catholic theology of Thomas Aquinas had persuaded him that ID was theologically mistaken: ID assumes that natural causes compete with divine action, because divine action requires a miraculous break in the natural order of causes.  In fact, God can act through the secondary causes of nature--including natural evolution--that depend ultimately on God as First Cause.  William Dembski and Michael Behe imply that God is not First Cause, because divine intelligent design is separated from nature and chance.  In affirming that God acts through nature and chance, Beckwith has adopted theistic evolution as opposed to ID.

In his lecture at Saint Vincent, Beckwith repeated these points, which are some of the same points that I have made against ID (here and here).

Apparently, Beckwith would agree with those theistic evolutionists who think that God could have created human beings in His Image through the natural evolution of animal species, which would support animalism.  He did not indicate, however, whether this would explain the evolution of the soul in the brain through the emergent evolution of the primate brain, which has been my argument (here).  Nor did he indicate how his theistic evolution would allow for those miracles necessary for Christian faith--such as the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ.

Science and Slavery in Lincoln's "Lecture on Discovery and Inventions"
Diana Schaub, Loyola University, Maryland

A professor of political science, Schaub offered an interpretation of Abraham Lincoln's "Lecture on Discovery and Inventions."  Lincoln's account of human history as a progressive advance through technological inventions and discoveries--such as language, writing, the printing press, the discovery of America, and the steam engine--sounds a lot like Francis Bacon's project for progress through the human mastery of nature.

But as someone influenced by Leon Kass and other conservative critics of modern science and technology, Schaub wanted to read Lincoln as rejecting Baconian science.  She did this by indicating that at least some of the inventions mentioned by Lincoln--such as "the invention of the negro" at the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade--are morally harmful.  Therefore, she concluded, Lincoln teaches us that technological progress is not necessarily moral progress, and he hints that God will punish us for our immoral inventions like slavery.

Her argument was unpersuasive, because she played down the general Baconian tone of moral and intellectual progress in Lincoln's lecture.  She ignored the fact that while this lecture has more Biblical references than any other speech by Lincoln, Lincoln uses the Bible as an anthropological history, and he ignores or mocks the Bible's religious teaching.  So, for example, here is how Lincoln begins the lecture:
"All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner."
"The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself, in his physical, moral, and intellectual nature, and his susceptibilities, are the infinitely various 'leads' from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny."
"In the beginning, the mine was unopened, and the miner stood naked, and knowledgeless, upon it."
Notice that "in the beginning," there is no divine creation of man, and man depends totally on himself "to dig out his destiny" without any guidance from God.

Considering the themes of this conference, it was surprising that Schaub said nothing about Lincoln's acceptance of the idea of evolution--as developed by Robert Chambers--and nothing about the many ideas that Lincoln shared with Darwin.  I have written about this here, here, and here.

In his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions," his "Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society," and in his meeting with some American Indian chiefs, Lincoln laid out his conception of evolution as moving through three stages of human society--from foraging societies to agrarian societies to societies based on commercial exchange and free labor (Arnhart 1985, 2012; Miller 2001).  Like Darwin, Lincoln believed that human beings were unique in the animal world because of the human capacity for symbolic speech, which allowed for collective learning in the artful domination of nature for the material, moral, and intellectual improvement of human life.  Originally, all human beings lived by foraging, a way of life still manifested in Lincoln's day among some of the Native American Indians.  The invention of agriculture supported human civilization as an advance beyond the savage life of foragers.  But, despite the progress in civilization in agrarian states, such states were founded on slavery and other forms of coerced labor, so that rulers lived by exploiting peasant labor.  Lincoln saw that the Industrial Revolution based on commercial exchange and free labor was bringing a new revolution in human cultural evolution that promised the physical, moral, and intellectual liberation of labor.  He saw the abolition of slavery as a crucial move toward this new state of society, which would bring a "new birth of freedom" to which all human beings would have a fair chance in the "race of life."  Schaub said almost nothing about this Lincolnian vision of human cultural evolution.

On the Margin: Out of the Mainstream in Liberal Societies
Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania Law School

In the fall of 2017, Amy Wax, a professor at Penn Law School, started an intense debate at her school and around the country in response to her op-ed article in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country's Bourgeois Culture."  She attributed many of the social ills in the United States today to the failure to enforce the bourgeois norms of conduct that prevailed in the United States up to the early 1960s.  "All cultures are not equal,"  she declared.  This was enough to provoke the charge that she was a white racist elitist!  This then became part of the general debate over whether the liberal principle of freedom of speech and thought should include freedom for cultural conservatives to speak in favor of social norms that support the moral condemnation of those groups that reject those norms.

Wax's lecture was an extension of what she had said in her article and in her responses to her critics.  She began by agreeing with Alexis de Tocqueville about the mania for equality in America.  While she accepted the justice of equality of opportunity as fundamental for any good liberal social order, she worried that equality of opportunity was being replaced by equality of outcomes, so that every group of people demands recognition for its identity and freedom from any stigmatizing disapproval.

Every healthy society requires norms of good conduct, she observed, and the enforcement of those norms will inevitably create social ranking of people into higher and lower classes.  Thus, in a bourgeois liberal society, those who exhibit (or at least profess) the bourgeois norms will be respected, and those who don't will not.  Of course, a liberal society must show some tolerance for deviant behavior, but tolerance is not endorsement, and so we will allow some deviance but only within bounds and with moral disapproval.

In her defense of the need for bourgeois culture in a liberal society, Wax could have deepened her argument by rooting it in a science of human nature that explains the evolution of bourgeois liberalism as symbolic niche construction.  She came close to doing that in her references to some of Charles Murray's reasoning in The Bell Curve and Coming Apart, in which he shows how the bourgeois virtues satisfy the natural desires of our evolved human nature.  I have written about these points hereherehere, and here.

In her article for the Inquirer, but not in her lecture, Wax made clear her agreement with Murray that the breakdown of bourgeois culture was limited to a few groups of people--some working-class whites and some inner-city blacks--and that the upper classes and upper-middle classes were still practicing the bourgeois virtues.  She wrote in her article: "Among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low."

Wax should emphasize more than she does that except for a few groups, the indicators of social disorder that rose in the late 1960s and 1970s have dropped dramatically in recent decades.  For example, in her article, she says that "homicidal violence plagues inner cities."  But she doesn't note that homicide rates have been dropping since the 1980s.  Here are the deaths by homicide per 100,000 resident population in the United States: 5.1 in 1950, 10.4 in 1980, and 5.1 in 2014.  So homicide has fallen to the levels of the 1950s.  Consider also the divorce rate in the U.S. measured as divorces per 1,000 people: 4.3 in 1946, 2.2 in 1957, 5.3 in 1980, and 2.8 in 2010.  So after peaking in 1980, the divorce rate has dropped almost to the level of 1957, and it's actually lower than in 1946.

Moreover, some groups of Americans--such as African-Americans and women--are much better off today than they were in the 1950s.  In her article, Wax says that "male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows."  That is true, but it is also true that women's working-age labor-force participation is higher than it has ever been.  She says that "many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries."  But this ignores the fact that there has been a stunning increase in educational achievement for many Americans, and particularly women.  Here are the percentages of the population with 4 years or more of college education: 5.2 percent for women and 7.3 percent for men in 1950, 6.7 percent for women and 11.4 percent for men in 1962, 35.3 percent for women and 34.6 percent for men in 2018.

Contrary to the assertions of recent critics of liberalism (like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher), these and other social indicators prove that bourgeois liberalism has succeeded in improving the lives of most human beings who live in liberal social orders.

Schools, Religion, and the New Science: "Education and the State" Revisited
Catherine Pakaluk, The Catholic University of America

Thomas Aquinas claims that like other animals whose offspring require parental care, human parents are naturally inclined by instinct to care for their children by providing for their existence, their nourishment, and their education.  And thus parental care of children is part of natural law.

Throughout most of human history, parents have been responsible for the education of children.  But beginning in the 19th century, in Europe and North America, there arose the first state-sponsored and compulsory mass education systems.  For the first time, parents were compelled to send their children to government schools for five to ten years with a prescribed curriculum (usually reading, writing, and arithmetic) and licensed teachers.  For the past 150 years, this has been a great experiment that has sparked a debate over its successes and failures.

Pakaluk is a professor of economics in the Business School at Catholic University of America who studies the economics of education and religion.  She is a critic of compulsory state education who thinks that parents should have the freedom to supervise the education of their children either through home-schooling or through choosing the school where they will send their children.

In her lecture, she elaborated her argument as a reconsideration of E. G. West's book Education and the State, which was first published in 1965.  West's book was a critical study of the history of public schooling in Great Britain, beginning with the Elementary Education Act of 1870 (also called Forster's Education Act), which set the framework for the schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12.  Eventually, this became a system of compulsory education with a curriculum prescribed by government.  The main argument for this system was that parents could not be trusted to educate their children voluntarily.  But West claimed that in 1870 most children were already being educated by their parents through voluntary schools supported by churches and private philanthropy.  Moreover, he argued that private voluntary schooling is probably better for children.  West then proposed a voucher system to replace the system of compulsory government schooling.

Pakaluk endorsed West's argument and brought it up to date by pointing out that there was little empirical evidence to support the success of public education and a lot of evidence that private voluntary schooling supervised by parents was better for educating children.  Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of religious education, which is not provided in public schools.

Implicitly, Pakaluk was recommending a return to Aquinas's natural law view of parents as the natural educators of their children.

The Gold Standard Family: How Science Tells Us Marriage Still Matters in the Twenty-First Century and What Public Policy Can Do To Strengthen It
W. Bradford Wilcox, the University of Virginia

Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.  His lecture was a summary of the social science research showing that the "gold standard family"--two married parents committed to one another in a stable household--is the best family for the couple and for the children.

Why Marriage Matters: Jonathan Rauch Interviews Amy Wax, Brad Wilcox, and Elizabeth Marquardt

Wilcox spoke against two "myths" about marriage.  The first is the "soulmate myth"--the idea that people today marry only for a personally satisfying romance, and so they should divorce as soon as the romance fades.  The second is the "kids will be okay myth"--the idea that as long as the kids are loved, it does not matter if their parents are unmarried.

In fact, Wilcox argued, the children are more likely to flourish if their parents are in a "gold standard marriage," where husband and wife are married and committed to fidelity and a stable household.  Divorce elevates the risk of harm to the children.  But even worse than divorce is cohabitation, where there are two adults in the household, but they're unmarried.  In some ways, Wilcox claimed, the kids whose parents are divorced are the lucky ones!  The kids of a single mom are much better off than the kids of a mom who have a live-in boyfriend.  The risk of child abuse and neglect is elevated in cohabitation.

We should keep in mind, however, as Wilcox indicated, is that the superiority of the gold standard family for children as compared with other family structures is only a difference in the degree of risk on average.  Most children turn out fine regardless of the structure of the family.  But still the gold standard family is more likely to favor good outcomes for the children.

The gold standard marriage is also good for men and women even when they have no children, as indicated by the evidence presented by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher (in The Case for Marriage) showing that married people are both physically and mentally healthier than unmarried people.  This indicates that conjugal bonding is a natural good of marriage even without the natural good of parental care.

Wilcox offered some recommendations for public policies that might promote marriage--such as, for example, changing the tax laws to favor marriage.  But his policy proposals seemed weak.  And he suggested that the best support for marriage comes not from government but from culture--from socially supported norms that teach people that monogamous marriages built around couples permanently and faithfully committed to one another is good for everyone.

In the question and answer period, Wilcox was asked about the social science research on same-sex marriage.  He said that there was some evidence on both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage, but there wasn't enough evidence to resolve the debate.  Same-sex marriage has only recently be legalized, and so, he observed, we will need at least 10 years to see how this experiment plays out.  This supported my argument in my lecture that, indeed, we will need more experience with same-sex marriage before we have enough evidence to see whether same-sex marriage can succeed.

It's noteworthy that in the video above, Wilcox was interviewed by Jonathan Rauch, one of the leading gay men promoting same-sex marriage, and the interview was sponsored by the Institute for American Values, which was founded by David Blankenhorn.  Blankenhorn was once a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, but then he changed his mind when he decided that if marriage is good, it's good for both straights and gays.  I have written about this here.

In my lecture, I pointed out that the best proponents of same-sex marriage--like Rauch and John Corvino--agree with Wilcox about the "gold standard family" being the ideal.  They agree that this is the best kind of family for both adults and children.  But then they ask: When this ideal is unattainable, what's the best we can do?  They argue that same-sex marriages can at least approximate heterosexual marriages in satisfying the two natural ends of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care.  Once we have more experience with legalized same-sex marriages, we will have enough evidence to decide whether this is true or not.

Gender Trouble, Marriage Trouble?
Mark Regnerus, the University of Texas at Austin

I have written about Regnerus's research on comparing gay and lesbian parenting with heterosexual parenting in some recent posts.  In this lecture, he spoke about his present research involving a world survey of how Christian young adults around the world view marriage.  He is interviewing hundreds of young churchgoers in seven different countries.

What he sees is that like other young adults today, these young Christians have moved away from the traditional "foundation model" of marriage to a new "capstone model."  Traditionally, many young adults have seen marriage as a "foundation" for their life: they would marry at a young age--before their mid-20s--so that they and their spouses could work together in building a good life, which meant that they would start out relatively poor, but with the expectation that they would accumulate resources and become economically and socially successful over time.  Now, many young adults see marriage as a "capstone" of their life: they don't want to start a marriage in poverty, and so they delay getting marriage until they have successful careers, and then they can be comfortable in marriage.  This is part of the explanation for the decline in marriage rates and the delay in getting married.

Another part of the traditional foundation model of marriage was the expectation that marriage would be organized as a division of labor, with the wife working more as a housekeeper and mother and the husband working more outside the home as the breadwinner.  The new view of marriage is that both spouses should have careers outside the home, so that the wife contributes as much to the household income as the husband.

This new view assumes "gender flexibility": instead of the traditional division of labor based on men and women having different gender roles, now men and women become interchangeable.  But, then, Regnerus suggested, it's not clear that men and women need one another, and so marriage becomes less important to them.  One can see here the theme in much of Regnerus's research--that modern views of human equality lead to the breakdown of the traditional family that was organized around traditional gender roles for men and women.

One of the traditional gender norms for marriage was that the share of household income earned by the husband should be greater than that of the wife, because the husband should be the primary breadwinner, and the wife the primary housekeeper.  But now as women have increased their participation in the labor force in many societies, wives can contribute more to household income, and sometimes the wife's income can exceed the husband's.

Regnerus suggested that this departure from traditional gender norms has created trouble for marriage, as indicated by the research of some economists (Bertrand et al. 2015) studying the causes and consequences of relative income within households.  They showed that in the United States, the distribution of the share of household income earned by the wife drops dramatically once it exceeds one-half.  That is to say, it seems that many couples feel an aversion to the wife earning more than the husband.  Indeed, as the economists indicate, some surveys show about 38 percent of U.S. respondents agreeing with the statement that "if a woman earns more money than her husband, it's almost certain to cause problems."

The economists offer some evidence indicating that some of the decline in marriage rates comes from women earning more than men, because men and women don't want to marry if the man would earn less than the woman.  The economists also show that in households where the wife earns more than her husband, the wife does more housework than the husband, as if she's trying to restore traditional identity norms.  And where the wife has the potential to earn more than her husband, she might choose to earn less than her potential.  The economists also indicated that in households where the wife earns more than the husband, there is a higher likelihood of divorce.

Do we see here one of the natural sex differences in the human animal--that men tend to have a stronger drive for dominance than do women, so that husbands need to take pride in their earning more income than their wives?  Does a successful marriage depend on husbands and wives taking different roles that conform to natural sex differences?  Regnerus seemed to be saying yes.  And yet he did not ask about whether there was any scientific explanation for this sex differences.  He did not consider the possibility that evolutionary psychology might explain these differences--that, for example, in the ancestral environments of ancient human foragers, the reproductive fitness of women would have been increased, on average, by mating with men willing and able to provide resources for the women and their offspring, and consequently natural selection would favor women finding men with resources more attractive (see Trivers 1972; Buss 2016).

But notice that the majority of the respondents in that survey did not agree with the idea that a woman earning more than her husband will cause problems for the marriage.  The economists report that those answering in this way tend to be more highly educated than those endorsing traditional gender roles.  And as Charles Murray and others have noted, the more highly educated people tend to have more stable households and lower divorce rates.  Does this suggest that a modern education can promote sexual equality in gender roles?

The Darwinian and Thomistic Natural Law of Justice Kennedy's Same-Sex Marriage Opinion
Larry Arnhart, Northern Illinois University

Having written some recent posts about my paper for this conference, I don't need to add much here about my lecture, which was a brief summary of my paper.

If we agree with Aquinas that the natural law of marriage supports two natural ends for the human animal--conjugal bonding and parental care--and if same-sex marriage can achieve those same natural ends for homosexual couples without harming children or weakening heterosexual marriage, then there is a natural law argument for same-sex marriage.  But even in making this argument, I observed, one can concede that the stable marriage of husband and wife caring for their biological children is still the "gold standard family," and that same-sex marriage can be justified only as some approximation or likeness to that ideal.

When I finished my lecture, about a third of all the people in the room raised their hands to ask a question.  This started a lively discussion.  I was surprised by the friendly tone.  Even though it was obvious that most of the audience disagreed with my position, I had the impression that many people found my arguments persuasive, even if not convincing.

This confirms my sense that most of the Christian conservatives who have opposed same-sex marriage are now conceding that they have lost the debate, because their own arguments for the goodness of marriage support the conclusion that marriage is good for homosexuals as well as heterosexuals.

The only undecided question is how many homosexuals will choose to marry, and how many will establish stable households.  It is possible that most homosexuals will have no interest in marriage, and most of those who do marry will have no interest in caring for children.

Trapped in the Wrong Body? Dualism, Transgender Identity Claims, and the False Hope of Gender Reassignment Therapies
Melissa Moschella, The Catholic University of America

A popular explanation of transgender people is that they feel "trapped in the wrong body."  These people have a personal gender identity that conflicts with the biological sexual identity of their bodies, and so they might seek hormonal and surgical treatment to change the sexual identity of their bodies to conform to their gender identity.  It has now become a standard medical treatment for "gender dysphoria" to provide procedures for changing one's sex to coincide with one's preferred gender, so that men can become women, and women can become men.

Speaking as a professor of philosophy, Melissa Moschella argued against this "wrong body" narrative as based on a false dualist view of human nature that should be rejected in favor of an animalist view. Dualism is false because the body is intrinsic to our personal identity. Animalism rightly sees that our personal sexual identity as male or female is rooted in the biological identity of our body.  We are our animal bodies.  And therefore men are those with male bodies, and women are those with female bodies.  It's impossible to change one's biological sex, because biological sex is impressed on our body and brain early in fetal and neonatal life.

Gender dysphoria, she argued, is not a medical problem requiring physiological or surgical treatment but a psychological problem requiring psychiatric counseling.  Those with gender dysphoria are suffering from the mental delusion that their mental sexual identity differs from the sexual identity of their body.  So doctors who try to help them undergo a biological sex change are not curing them but rather supporting their delusional disorder.  This explains why although patients often feel better initially after sex-change procedures, later on they often become depressed, anxious, and suicidal.

Moschella made a comparison with anorexia. The cure for anorexia is not liposuction, although the patient might initially feel better, because the problem is not obesity but the psychological delusion of being too obese.

Moschella also pointed out the incoherence in the "wrong body" idea.  It is said that a person's gender identity is in the mind not in the body.  But then it is said that the sex of the body must be changed to be in harmony with the true gender identity of the person, which concedes that the sex of the body really is essential for sexual identity.

Moschella seemed to be agreeing with Dr. Paul McHugh at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, who was responsible for shutting down the sex-change treatment program that had once been supervised by Dr. John Money.  Money was the one who invented the idea of "gender identity" as different from "sex identity," with the thought that "gender" is a mental or social construction that need not conform to biological nature.  This has supported the claim that while animals have "sex," only humans have "gender."  Moschella's animalism seems to deny the gender/sex dichotomy started by Money.

It should be said, however, that biological nature does sometimes throw up anomalous cases that cannot be clearly identified as male or female--the most obvious case being those who are born as true hermaphrodites, who combine male and female traits.  In response to a question about such cases of intersexuality, Moschella conceded that these cases show a biological disorder creating confusion about biological sex identity, but gender dysphoria is not an intersexual anomaly of nature like this.

For Moschella to sustain this claim, she would have to refute the "developmental mismatch" theory of gender dysphoria.  According to this theory, in utero the sexual differentiation of the genitals occurs separately and earlier than the sexual differentiation of the brain, so that it is possible for the sexual identity of the body to differ from the sexual identity of the brain (Bao and Swaab 2011; Williams 2018).  This is not a dualist theory that denies animalism, because both the body and the brain are biological realities of the human animal.  As far as I can tell, the evidence for this developmental mismatch theory is disputed.  But Moschella would need to at least respond to this line of reasoning.

My argument here is that the central tendency of animal biology is to distinguish the sexual identity of males and females as determined by their complementarity for reproduction.  But while this holds "for the most part," there are exceptional cases in nature where the bipolarity of male and female becomes confused.

I have written a series of posts on sexual identity, hermaphroditism, and transgenderism herehere, and here.

As you can see, I left Latrobe pondering many questions about the nature of the human animal and what it might mean for public policy.  (I am still struggling to get that image of The Trump House out of my head!)


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Bao, Ai-Min, and Dick F. Swaab. 2011. "Sexual Differentiation of the Human Brain: Relation to Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Neuropsychiatric Disorders." Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 32 (April): 214-226.

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Williams, Shawna. 2018. "Are the Brains of Transgender People Different from Those of Cisgender People?" The Scientist (March).


Roger Sweeny said...

Thanks for the post on the conference. It's a mitzvah that you're still posting, still thinking, still reading and writing and contributing to answering the question, "who are we and how should our societies be organized?"

Roger Sweeny said...

Speaking as a professor of philosophy, Melissa Moschella argued against this "wrong body" narrative as based on a false dualist view of human nature that should be rejected in favor of an animalist view. Dualism is false because the body is intrinsic to our personal identity. Animalism rightly sees that our personal sexual identity as male or female is rooted in the biological identity of our body. We are our animal bodies. And therefore men are those with male bodies, and women are those with female bodies. It's impossible to change one's biological sex, because biological sex is impressed on our body and brain early in fetal and neonatal life.

From what I understand, at a certain point in fetal development, genes are turned on that cause a body to have male or female parts, the program for body sex. (Of course, some times the program doesn't work perfectly). It is not till later in fetal development that the genes for "mental sex"--for "gender identity"--are turned on and some times this program doesn't match the body sex laid down earlier. This leads to a feeling, "I'm in the wrong body."

This "mental sex" program works by making connections in the brain. It makes physical changes to the developing brain. There is no rejection of "animalism" in this view. Quite the contrary. It just says that fetal development is a complicated thing. Some times the results are not what a competent engineer would want. Some times the results are hurtful. In fact (again, "from what I understand"), half of all conceptions are spontaneously aborted very early on because so much is going wrong.

Roger Sweeny said...

Apologies for basically repeating what you said. The point I was struggling to get out was that 1) the "genetic code" for making a human being is not elegant. An intelligent designer would do a much better job. What we have is full of repurposed code, "kludges", and what may do nothing or may have some purpose we haven't figured out ("junk DNA"), and 2) the machinery for expressing the genetic code doesn't work perfectly (e.g., exposure to sex hormones in utero can affect the sexuality that the code would otherwise assign). Thus, many "birth defects", and perhaps "gender dysphoria".

Professor Moschella seems to assume that the code is elegant (e.g. male parts and feeling like a man are all in one non-separable subroutine) and that it runs properly--at least that is the natural order of things. But that is more a Platonic than a Darwinian attitude.