The thesis of Sex at Dawn is that human monogamy is unnatural. We spent most of our existence as a species in small hunter-gatherer bands which were radically egalitarian in all matters including those of sexual access. There was no pair-bonding or concept of women as possessions–instead everyone slept with everybody else, and the general sense of fellow feeling and ambiguous parentage this engendered reenforced group cohesion. In support of this claim, the authors deploy arguments from various fields–anthropology, paleontology, primatology. Bonobos feature heavily. Furthermore, the widespread belief that monogamy is natural is, in fact, the result of bad science, special pleading, and just-so stories concocted to bolster contemporary sexual mores. I mostly find the authors convincing, but of course I’m only hearing their side of the story. Due diligence would require that I read a pro-monogamy book to get a sense of whose arguments are more just-so-y, and I probably won’t bother, because I’ve already made up my mind about the contemporary issue. And that’s the problem with arguments about whether or not something is natural.
Years ago I used to listen to Dan Savage’s call-in radio program “Savage Love Live”. (In fact it was an enthusiastic blurb from Savage that led me to Sex at Dawn, and I bet I’m not the only one.) Occasionally a troubled gay teen would call in upset because his relatives were telling him that homosexuality was unnatural, and one answer Dan would offer is, “Fine–homosexuality isn’t natural. Neither is indoor plumbing.” The idea being that calling homosexuality “unnatural” is just another way of calling it “wrong”, and pointing this out defuses the attack. This bit of rhetorical jujitsu doesn’t does just work for Dan Savage, though. For any given practice–monogamy, homosexuality, capitalism, eating oysters–you can have two orthogonal reactions. You can approve or disapprove, and you can can also find it natural or unnatural. There are arguments to support any combination of these reactions whose gist I summarize in the following handy table.
|Approve||Trust your instincts.||Human beings can improve on nature.|
|Disapprove||It is our duty as human beings to rise above our baser nature.||You can feel its wrongness in your bones.|
By conceding the unnaturalness of homosexuality, Dan Savage merely allows himself to be moved from the upper left to the upper right hand corner. Likewise, a homophobe who concedes that homosexuality is inborn merely moves from the lower right to the lower left. Try it yourself. You can’t lose.
This illustrates the two problems with appeals to nature. It allows us to disguise our value judgements as objective claims. Worse yet, it allows us to shirk the important work of arguing value judgements with people who disagree with us by making it seem like we’re engaging, when really we’re all just doing lateral feints.