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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 220-223 ( 11 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/darby.html


From Dr. Robert Darby

Comment on David Barash, review of Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

When I first read The Mating Mind a year or so ago I was particularly impressed by its discussions of the evolution of art and language, and of the development of the human genitals.

As an Australian I was especially touched by Geoffrey Miller’s obvious fondness for bower birds (one of our national treasures!), and I must agree with Dr Barash that his projection of how one of them might have explained his passion for collecting to Artforum is so instructive and amusing that the book is almost worth reading for that alone; also entertaining is Dr Miller’s impish insights into the difference between elite and folk verbal display when it comes to appreciating the paintings of Constable. In relation to language, I understood his argument to be that the capacity and impulse towards courtship display and other status seeking in conversation arose from sexual selection, while the styles employed vary according to cultural fashion. I would thus expect the “Early Adolescent Mumbled Dialect” he discusses to be an artefact of the late twentieth century, when teenagers consider it the height of uncoolness to be thought articulate, but it was not always so, as suggested by the following example of eighteenth century adolescent eloquence:

Pray, Sir, do not suffer yourself to be melancholy. Think not of your having missed preferment in London. They who have obtained places and pensions etc have not the fame of having been the biographer of Johnson or the conscious exultation of a man of genius. They have not enjoyed your happy and convivial hours. They have not been known to Johnson, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Garrick. In short, would you, rather than have enjoyed so many advantages, have been a rich, though dull, plodding lawyer? You cannot expect to be both at the same time.

That was written by James Boswell’s 16-year old son (Martin 1999, p. 543), though I don’t imagine he was trying to date his dad.

I was thus surprised to see Dr Miller’s statement that “What we say is generally more important that how we say it” (p. 357), since the whole trend of his argument seemed to be against the conventional view that conversation was mainly about the communication of information. If it is not, and if talk is mainly courtship or other status-seeking display, how we say things should be more important than what we say, particularly as the content of most conversations is quickly forgotten. I expect that what I should have understood Dr Miller to mean is that what is most important about conversation is the other intelligence (about fitness, breeding potential etc) which we reveal about ourselves in the course of such otherwise forgettable exchanges.

The other part of The Mating Mind which particularly interested me was its fascinating discussion of the influence of sexual selection on the evolution of the genitals, and I would like here to offer some comment on Dr Miller’s expression of outrage at the mutilation of the female genitals as practised by a number of east African and Islamic cultures. Naturally I concur with his opposition to this practice, as would most people in the West, but I would draw attention to a common double standard on this question. All of the cultures which practise various forms of genital mutilation on young women also practise circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation on young males, and a few other cultures (notably doctors/parents in the USA and some other English-speaking countries) routinely circumcise male infants while expressing horror at similar procedures on girls. As a male born in Cincinnati in 1965, Dr Miller had a 90 per cent chance of being subject to such an operation himself; growing up among other boys in the same condition, it would be easy to regard the circumcised penis as a normal thing, instead of the cultural anomaly it really is.

I think the issue is relevant to his discussion of the evolution of the human genitals: back in the Pleistocene the penis was definitely sheathed in a thick double-fold of tissue, later identified as the foreskin. Although several ancient cultures decided at some point to cut this off, there is little definite evidence as to when the procedure became a requirement among them: contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptians did not practise widespread circumcision, though it might have been a ritual obligation for priests at certain periods (Hodges 2000). Over the previous million years or so the foreskin must have grown to its present bulk and prominence on the human penis, and the most likely reason for its developing to a far greater extent than in other primates, and in the opposite direction to the one it took in other mammals, is probably the result of sexual selection. This is certainly the argument of Kristen O’Hara (2001), who reports that women find sex, and especially intercourse, with uncut men generally more satisfying and significantly less violent than with the circumcised. If this conclusion is valid, it seems likely that the foreskin originally evolved in response to female sexual choice, and probably in tandem with the clitoris.

In his discussion of the evolution of the genitals I think Dr Miller’s comparison of the clitoris to the penis is open to question. Most male animals have a penis and most females a receptacle for its insertion, or at least a spot for the reception of sperm, but what is unusual about humans is that the penis is covered with a moveable sleeve of ultra-sensitive tissue (the prepuce), while the vagina is guarded by the equally responsive clitoris. It is thus the foreskin which is the correct analogy to the clitoris, as recognised by both the tribal cultures which insist on cutting both off before a person can be considered an adult, and the nineteenth century doctors who sought to control masturbation in girls and boys by clitoridectomy in the former case and circumcision in the latter (Spitz 1952). The reasons for the tribal initiation rituals are obscure: many conflicting explanations have been offered, but I think there is a clue in the fact that boys are generally cut younger than girls. The operation has to be done earlier in boys because if it was delayed until they were fully mature they might have the strength and the will to resist, or at least be strong enough (both mentally and physically) to make the procedure difficult. Women can be left until later because they are naturally weaker and culturally more subordinate, so effective rebellion is less of a danger. In other words, the operation is primarily about the imposition of religious or social authority (Gollaher 2000, chapter 3).

The history of medical understanding of the penis, as of the female genitals, is a neglected subject. Renaissance anatomists knew that the foreskin was the most sensitive and the most erotically significant part of the penis, and Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (c. 1460-1530) went so far as to describe the glans as “hard and dull to sensation so that it may not be injured in coitus” (1959, pp. 72-3). This knowledge was lost in the eighteenth century, as the one-sex model of the human body was replaced by the two-sex model (Laqueur 1990), and as anxiety about sexual “excess” (especially masturbation) increased, reaching panic levels towards the end of the nineteenth century. When the far greater innervation of the foreskin as compared with the glans was scientifically established between the 1890s and the 1930s, doctors in the Anglophone world were hell bent on introducing mass circumcision of male infants in the belief that it would deter masturbation, as well as protect them from a vast range of other ailments; they were thus in no mood to listen to the news, much less face up to its implications (Cold and McGrath 1999). Clitoridectomy had been employed in Britain to treat masturbation in women, but the practice was discredited in the late 1860s (Moscucci 1991); following the false analogy of the clitoris with the penis, doctors decided it was wrong to excise the former, however great the health benefits, but legitimate to amputate the foreskin of the latter. In the USA various forms of female circumcision, including clitoridectomy, were practised on a limited scale until the 1950s.

From a moral perspective, anybody who is horrified by female genital mutilation ought to show equal abhorrence of male genital mutilation. If, as Dr Miller rightly suggests, “sexual selection theory offers a powerful scientific rebuttal to the argument that we should accept female genital mutilation as part of traditional tribal practices” (p. 241), the same principle applies to male circumcision, whether the justification offered is a divine command, a religious/ethnic requirement, a social or family custom or a medically rationalised precaution (Szasz, 1996). The fact that the USA still carries out widespread circumcision of young males (between 50 and 60 per cent of newborns) undermines and discredits its commendable efforts to discourage similar operations on girls in African and Islamic cultures.

(Dr) Robert Darby


Cold, C. J. and J. R. Taylor, (1999), The prepuce, BJU International, 83, Supplement 1, January, 34­44. [PubMed]

Cold, C. J. and K. A. McGrath (1999), Anatomy and histology of the penile and clitoral prepuce in primates: Evolutionary perspective of specialised sensory tissue of the external genitalia, in George C. Denniston, Frederick Hodges and Marilyn Milos (eds), Male and female circumcision: Medical, legal and ethical considerations in pediatric practice, New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

da Carpi, Jacopo Berengario (1959) A short introduction to anatomy, translated by L. R. Lind, University of Chicago Press.

de Meo, James (1997), The geography of male and female genital mutilations, in George C. Denniston and Marilyn Fayre Milos (eds), Sexual mutilations: A human tragedy, New York, Plenum Press.

Gollaher, David L. (2000), Circumcision: A history of the world’s most controversial surgery, New York, Basic Books.

Hodges, Frederick M. (2001), The ideal prepuce in ancient Greece and Rome: Male genital aesthetics and their relation to lipodermos, circumcision, foreskin restoration, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75, 375-405. [PubMed]

Laqueur, Thomas (1990), Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Martin, Peter (1999), A life of James Boswell, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Moscucci, Ornella (1996), Clitoridectomy, circumcision and the politics of sexual pleasure in mid-Victorian Britain, in Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams (eds), Sexualities in Victorian Britain, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

O’Hara, Kristen (2001), Sex as nature intended it, Hudson, Mass., Turning Point Publications

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1991), Virgin territory: The male discovers the clitoris, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 5, 25-8.

Spitz, Rene A. (1952), Authority and masturbation: Some remarks on a bibliographical investigation, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 21, 490­527.

Szasz, Thomas (1996), Routine neonatal circumcision: Symbol of the birth of the therapeutic state, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 21, 137-48. [PubMed]

Taylor, J. R. et al (1996), The prepuce: Specialised mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision, British Journal of Urology, 77, 291-5. [PubMed]

© Robert Darby.


Darby, R. (2002). Comment on David Barash, review of Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind [letter to the editor]. Human Nature Review. 2: 220-223.

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