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Truths You Cannot Utter

The phrase politically correct has its origins in the Stalinist left. Its revival not so long ago by America’s New Left was an ominous development. Its pertinence to the present discontents points to a propensity visible now, even among mainstream liberals, for politicizing nearly everything.

There was a time, however, in American life when the personal was not considered political and the political was not regarded as personal. The distinction was, in fact, a principle central to American life – for the modern liberal republic stands or falls on the conviction that religion and politics are separable. It is this notion – that what is primordially personal (religious faith, first and foremost, but other things as well) can be made for the most part politically irrelevant – which distinguishes the limited government peculiar to modern times from all prior government, which assumed the contrary. When the personal is made political and the political, personal, it is no longer theoretically possible to distinguish public from private, and it is no longer politically possible to restrict the government’s reach. This inability brought with it considerable disadvantages in earlier times. In an era in which modern technology has extended the reach of surveillance in manifold ways, it is a catastrophe.

It is, of course, an open question whether these distinctions can in practice be sustained. In the eighteenth century, figures such as Denis Diderot presumed that it was possible to sustain a civil society in which the citizens were atheists. Diderot’s erstwhile friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau harbored grave doubts about this. The history of the 20th century suggests that Rousseau may have had a point, for the totalitarian movements that first emerged in Europe in the wake of World War I – at the very moment when the world had purportedly been made safe for liberal democracy – were secularized religions. Communism in Russia, fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany were all-encompassing. All three subscribed to a secularized vision of salvation history. All three denied the distinction between private and public, between the personal and the political. All three re-occupied the space from which, within liberal democracy, religion had been made to withdraw.

None of this would much concern us today, all of this would be a matter of mere antiquarian interest, were there not powerful indications that the totalitarian temptation persists – not least in the countries never subject to communism, fascism, or National Socialism. I was put in mind of all of this by a trivial but nonetheless revealing, recent event – a tempest in the teapot of surgical science.

In the February issue of Surgery News, a distinguished surgeon named Lazar Greenfield, the lead editor of the journal and president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, published a light-hearted editorial regarding St. Valentine’s Day regarded as so offensive by some of his fellow surgeons that he has been forced to resign his editorship and may tomorrow be barred from assuming his presidency. Since the editorial has been suppressed and the pertinent issue of the journal is no longer available online, I will reprint it, as others have, in its entirety. The offending passage can be found in the final two paragraphs:

One of the legends of St. Valentine says that he was a priest arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II for secretly performing marriages. Claudius wanted to enlarge his army and believed that married men did not make good soldiers, rather like Halsted’s feelings about surgical residents. But Valentine’s Day is about love, and if you remember a romantic gut feeling when you met your significant other, it might have a physiological basis.

It has long been known that Drosophila raised on starch media are more likely to mate with other starch-raised flies, whereas those fed maltose have similar preferences. In a study published online in the November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators explored the mechanism for this preference by treating flies with antibiotics to sterilize the gut and saw the preferences disappear (Proc. Nad. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2010 Nov. 1).

In cultures of untreated flies, the bacterium  L. plantarum was more common in those on starch, and sure enough, when L. plantarum was returned to the sterile groups, the mating preference returned. The best explanation for this is revealed in the significant differences in their sex pheromones. These experiments also support the hologenome theory of evolution wherein the unit of natural selection is the “holobiont,” or combination of organism and its microorganisms, that determines mating preferences.

Mating gets more interesting when you have an organism that can choose between sexual and asexual reproduction, like the rotifer. Biologists say that it’s more advantageous for a rotifer to remain asexual and pass 100% of its genetic information to the next generation. But if the environment changes, rotifers must adapt quickly in order to survive and reproduce with new gene combinations that have an advantage over existing genotypes. So in this new situation, the stressed rotifers, all of which are female, begin sending messages to each other to produce males for the switch to sexual reproduction (Nature 2010 Oct. 13). You can draw your own inference about males not being needed until there’s trouble in the environment.

As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I have no idea whether the most recent of the studies referred to in the penultimate paragraph is sound. We live in the era of junk science. But what got Dr. Greenfield in hot water was not his citation of any particular studies. It was his presumption that the “bond between men and women” is natural and runs deep. In short, what every student of biology knows – that within nature there is a teleology having to do with the survival of the species which underpins the distinction between the two sexes and produces between them a natural affinity for one another – no surgeon who knows what is good for him may now say.

It is telling that Dr. Greenfield has not defended himself and that he is abject in his apologies. It is even more telling that, within the community of surgeons, no one has stepped forward to speak up publically in his defense. To an ever-increasing degree – in the academy and in the professions – we live in a moral and intellectual atmosphere that is stifling. We live in a time in which those who want to advance in the professions must pretend to believe what we all know to be untrue. The totalitarian temptation persists. I doubt that it will ever go away.

UPDATE: On Sunday, Lazar Greenfield resigned his position as president-elect of the American College of Surgeons.

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