You Only Get Answers to the Question You Ask

This simple thought seems too obvious to state, but here we go: the very approach to an issue can dictate the type of result you gain.

Stephen Jay Gould’s elegant essay, ‘Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples’ provides the perfect illustration. It was first published in Bully for Brontosaurus and you’ll never regret buying an SJ Gould. So go on.

The conundrum of the male nipple is insoluble if you ask ‘why?’ They are, after all, they are of no obvious use in males. But start with ‘how?’, and we have the more useful insight that they are specialised sweat glands whose prototypal form was present in males and females before becoming more fully developed in one sex for lactation.

Male and female foetuses develop along similar lines for their first few weeks. Later, hormones start to influence differentiation into male and female. Too late to erase the nipples though. Males are left with vestigal nips with no purpose other than to indicate chill-factor, or delight that Man U has just scored.

Similarly, the Victorian female (and all her daughters, up to the 1960s) was beset with the notion that she needed to have a vaginal orgasm to be ‘mature’. Thanks Freud. After all, the purpose of an orgasm was to provide sexual satisfaction, and proper grown-up sex is penetrative sex with a penis. The function must surely follow the intent. This is the answer to the ‘why?’ question.

Except a lot of women – most actually – think their ‘G’ spot is just south of Narnia on the map, and get their climaxes from their clitorises. Or is that clitori? Who knows? Anyhow …

If you ask ‘how?’ … sort of rerun that thingy with the male nipple. Different types of tissue develop in different ways under the influence of hormones in-uteri to produce morphologically distinct males and females.

Our Victorian and early 20th century grandmothers probably suffered unusually compared to everybody else, before and since. After all, without a formidably authoritative, ideologically-driven, guilt-inducing impediment, the simple expedient of “Oy, rub this” has probably sufficed for years. We may not all have a magic button in our vaginas, but contriving sex for female orgasm isn’t that hard with an understanding partner.

So we can see that the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions are of vital importance, because they are often a good indicator of the a-priori assumptions of the questioner: ‘how’ is usually asked by scientists, and ‘why?’ is asked by mystics and magicians. And the answers to the ‘why?’ often create a lot of needless guilt, scapegoating and looking for G-spots.

Peter Tatchell made a Channel 4 documentary ‘The Trouble With The Pope’ to explore the issues surrounding opposition to the Pope’s state visit to the UK in September 2010.

In it, Tatchell discusses with Fiona O’Reilly of ‘Catholic Voices’ the notion that homosexual people suffer with “a strong tendency towards intrinsic moral evil”, as Joseph Ratzinger while Cardinal put it. O’Reilly explained that (45:45):

‘What is the purpose of sex … In the Catholic understanding, sex is ordered to the creation of children and the strengthening of the union between a man and a woman. If that is the starting point, then it makes sense”

And she’s right … if you assume that it really is the starting point.

But I think that we can see from male nipples and clitoral ripples that it isn’t necessarily the starting point, unless you want it to be.

Religion is suffused with the notion that there is a meaning, which is why religious people go looking for it. There is an assumption of purpose. In ‘England’s Child Witches’ I wrote:

‘People in charismatic African churches are not looking for the ‘how’ – they know perfectly well that microbes cause diseases and cars mechanically fail. They are looking for the ‘why’: why me; why not my enemy; why now; why here. It’s a question that empiricism can’t answer without leaving the empty and unsatisfying answer: “shit happens, sometimes more to you than other people”.’

The scientific method is counter-intuitive to human beings. It takes a great deal of education to think that way. Purpose-based explanations, on the other hand, are natural. They come without prompting to children. Our evolutionary history has probably favoured people who can draw meaning from events.

The purpose-based explanation is likely to create a lot of unhelpful false positives (I walked past that tree and fell over, so that tree is probably unlucky). But a false negative would be more dangerous (I ate that lobelia, but the projectile vomiting was probably a coincidence). Wherein lies the relative value of the system.

Some Catholic theologians, including the present Pope, have concluded that gay people are “intrinsically morally evil”.

But they should not kid themselves that they are starting from first principles with their reasoning. By the time they have asked ‘why?’, a preference for mystical thinking has already been settled upon and the conclusions will bear the marks of such a choice.