The Gregorian Paradox

In the late eleventh century the Gregorian programme of church reform declared war on the concept of marriage hitherto espoused by the aristocracy, namely, the patriarchal disposal of women in the interests of the noble house. It introduced the startling novelty of bridal consent. This was often a dead letter, not least when, as was often the case, the bishop was the secular ruler’s younger brother. The church was nevertheless obliged to defend a woman who preferred to take the veil rather than marry the man her parents had chosen for her. Small beginnings indeed, but nevertheless an idea that never died, and the seed of our modern concept of marriage as the free choice of the partners. Ultimately, therefore, our Western system of untrammelled female choice of sperm donor is the invention of the Christian Church. Or rather re-invention, assuming that primeval hunter-gatherer societies mated on the basis of personal attraction rather than the consolidation of the landed property that they in any case did not have. This would mean that Christianity has accelerated the processes of sexual selection identified by Darwin in his second book; or, from the opposite point of view, put a spoke in the wheel of lineage politics and planned breeding.

A second surprise is that Catholic opposition to contraception and abortion may also somewhat favour a pheromone-driven reproductive system. The reproductive control found in some mammalian species, whereby the female can choose which sperm to be impregnated by, would work to speed up sexual selection. At first sight one might think that our artificial contraception would have the same effect. On the other hand, the animals that possess such control mechanisms are probably employing it to fall pregnant to the superior male specimen, whereas in those human societies where paternity is considered important – which is almost all of them – women may be employing contraception and abortion to do the exact opposite; that is, to counter the proven biological mechanisms that make conception twice as likely per sexual act with the exciting new lover than the boring old husband. That is, protecting their marriage by producing legitimate children. It would seem to follow, therefore, that a woman who refuses to use contraception has a higher chance of falling pregnant to the lover.

It is true that Catholicism also opposes adultery and pre-marital sex, but for every Catholic who obeys both sets of injunctions, there is probably another who considers reproductive control a greater sin than fornication. The latter position is a gift to our biological nature, which is to get pregnant by the genetically superior male. And of course the most theocratic countries do not make contraception and abortion available anyway. If a Catholic woman “falls”, therefore, and is not employing contraception, she has a good chance of becoming pregnant with the man who greatly excited her at the expense of the official partner, even if she meets her lover only once a week. Genes for male attractiveness and seduction skills might thus multiply more rapidly in Catholic countries than in Protestant and secular ones. Which might explain the ‘Great Latin Lover’ syndrome.

Recent papal encyclicals appear to witness to an extreme reluctance to interfere with human reproductive mechanisms in any way; John Paul II taught that every act of sexual intercourse must be “open to” the creation of new life, thus provoking Monty Python’s “Let Not a Sperm Be Wasted”. Whether or not the Pope was consciously thinking in evolutionary terms, such a policy of non-interference greatly strengthens the Darwinian mechanism of sexual selection through the free female choice of mate.

The Gregorian reform, by promoting monogamous and indissoluble marriage, may also have made men more cautious about their liaisons, as all their economic resources were now on the line, forever. At the same time, primogeniture meant that families no longer wanted to see younger sons married at all, and clerical celibacy took yet another group of men out of circulation. Concubinage to rich men no longer being respectable, women generated greater demand – but also faced greater competition – for “official” husbands. We would thus expect women to develop and propagate social ideologies that counteracted these new, sudden and unpleasant market constraints. And behold, the twelfth century soon brought forth Courtly Love, which is all about the moral superiority of the woman, and how she needs to be won by service and flattery rather than allocated by fiat.

At the same time, the medieval church’s acute suspicion of Eros – and so naturally of the whole Courtly Love schtick – testifies to an opposition to sexual selection. Saying that couples should be united by dilectio, or steady respectful affection, rather than the storms of animal passion, is tantamount to saying that people should live together and make babies on the basis of calm, rational and friendly relations rather than pheromones and the natural agenda. Given that they said this while actually laying the basis for modern attraction-based marriage suggests that the Gregorian reformers had absolutely no idea what they were doing.

Posted on June 27, 2009 at 09:25 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, "Love" Contra Social Stability

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