If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
When people consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable.
From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.
If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.
The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask?
That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex.
I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)
I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.
Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine.
For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations. Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.
(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)
In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information. He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.
As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:
- What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
- What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?
From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:
- Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
- Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
- Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.
It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)
You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:
- All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
- All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
- All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition.
Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):
The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition.
It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far.
I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.
Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.
With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:
When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition.
With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success?
If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)
Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.
To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50.
Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant:
[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.
While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?
Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off.
There’s not a lot of people willing to moralize about ancient and impenetrable books. So if that’s worth something to you consider donating to one of the few who do.