Cultural anthropology made me do it
One of man’s persistent dreams is to find a good reason he can’t help sinning. It started with Adam’s trying to blame Eve. Modern man naturally turns to science for this, and as he has learned more about himself and the world around him, he has also grown more ingenious in finding ways to explain why he cannot help breaking the moral law. On the one hand we have cell phones and brain surgery, on the other sophisticated defenses of sexual treachery.
One popular excuse for sinning I call the “Margaret Mead Method.” I was reminded of it when flipping through my files and finding an article titled “The Virtues of Promiscuity,” the kind of title that gets your attention.
According to a journalist named Sally Lehrman, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle, anthropologists have found that “‘Slutty’ behavior is good for the species. Women everywhere have been selflessly engaging in trysts outside of matrimony for a good long time and for excellent reasons. Anthropologists say female promiscuity binds communities closer together and improves the gene pool.”
Some primitive tribes, these anthropologists claim, assume that women having sex with more than one man will help them survive, and even thrive. At least twenty “accept the principle that a child could, and ideally ought to, have more than one father.”
For all I know, this may be true. Every culture gets sex wrong, and female promiscuity may be these tribes’ peculiar way of getting it wrong. Sluttishness may be the sort of thing from which Christianity could deliver them, as it could deliver the American male whose culture demands sexual conquests as a sign of success.
As you might expect, the writer doesn’t leave it there. She uses the Mead Method to draw her Lessons for Today. In the 1920s, the natives of Samoa fooled an ambitious and adulterous young scholar into believing that they rutted like rabbits and had a simply smashing time, and her book reporting this good news, Coming of Age in Samoa, made her career.
The book was conclusively exposed many years ago in Derek Freeman’s book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, but modern Americans still love the idea, even if they have never heard of Margaret Mead. It makes sense to them for many reasons, ranging from a romantic idea of the purity of primitive cultures to sexual self-interest.
Today, however, we have a new version, which I will call the Modified Mead Method. This adds to Mead’s basic appeal to primitive example an appeal to evolutionary theory. As Lehrman explained, anthropologists argue that “evolution has nudged women a bit toward promiscuity and sexual adventure. In all well-studied primates, females exhibit a polyandrous tendency when given the opportunity to stray.”
The Christian, if he accepts the evolutionary claim, only notes that in a fallen world such mechanisms of development will develop things badly. He is not surprised that evolution might produce women who want to commit adultery, as it produced the ebola virus and presumably men who want to commit adultery. It is yet another burden of life in a fallen world.
For others, however, evolutionary theory reconciles the idea that the sexual life they want to promote is natural with the idea that all such customs and rules are social constructions no better or worse than any others. It lets them privilege the primitive against the modern. The moral instructions of Christianity are socially constructed, while the behavior of the adulterous women of the tribes is evolutionary.
Sexual freedom of this sort is wired in, so to speak. It is not so much constructed by society as given us by nature. That being the case, Christianity’s “Thou shalt not commit adultery” can be relativized, but primitive “female promiscuity” cannot.