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All Worked Up About Nature

by J.T. Benjamin


J.T. Benjamin

“This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what is its causal nature?”  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,  Book VIII, v. 11 George Long Translation.

True story.

Last month, my Lovely Wife had to have surgery.  (Nothing life-threatening, an outpatient procedure.  Thanks for asking).  A week before the big day, we were talking with a friend of ours, whom I’ll call “Carol.”  Carol, a sweet lady, volunteered to bring dinner for our family during my Lovely Wife’s convalescence, and the conversation ended up being about the procedure itself, and Carol asked my Lovely Wife if she was nervous.

My Lovely Wife answered, “No, not really.  My doctor seems to know what he’s doing.  I’m confident in him.”

I added, “Plus, she thinks he’s cute.”

My Lovely Wife turned three shades of crimson.  “What makes you say that,” she asked.

I responded, “You’re generally a very flirtatious person, but when you’re really attracted to a guy, you kick it up a notch or two.  Whenever you’re with Doctor Hottie, your flirt-o-meter goes into the red.”

My Lovely Wife had no answer for that, because she knew I spoke the truth.  We both turned to look at Carol, whose own cheeks were the full spectrum of red, pink, and crimson blush, and whose jaw was on the floor at what she’d just heard.

Carol spent a good fifteen seconds finding her voice.  “You think you’re doctor’s attractive?”

My Lovely Wife, facing one of those rare moments when I have her on the spot, gulped and nodded her head.

Carol said to me, “And you’re aware of this?”

I said, “I couldn’t not be aware; we’ve been married almost twenty years.”

Carol said, “I just can’t believe it!  It’s just so unnatural!”

I usually leap at the chance for a  spontaneous argument, but I opted not to that time.  As I said before, Carol is a sweet, generous lady, plus she makes a mean lasagna.  In addition, she gave me the idea for this month’s column, so I suppose I should return the favor and bring her family dinner sometime. 

Anyway, part of the reason our friend Carol was so stunned by My Lovely Wife’s and my revelation is that for Carol, marriage is an institution deeply impacted by her religious faith and by that faith’s rules and traditions.  True marriage isn’t just a civil union until death do us part but it’s a bonding of two souls by God, for time and all eternity.  The husband has one role and the wife has another role, as defined by scripture and doctrine going back centuries.  An essential component of marriage through Carol’s eyes is absolute fidelity towards one another, as exemplified by The Gospel of Matthew 5:28, “whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

For poor Carol, the idea that 1) My Lovely Wife had eyes for Dr. Hottie, 2) that she expressed those feelings to me, AND 3) that I wasn’t going “Incredible Hulk” green with rage as a result were incomprehensible. We might as well have admitted to being Kenyan-born Muslim socialists advancing Obama’s secret agenda to undermine the United States from within.

For me, the standout word of the conversation was “unnatural.”  Carol had felt that My Lovely Wife’s and my conduct didn’t comport with the “natural” order of things.  There is a right form of marriage and a wrong form of marriage, and ours didn’t meet with what Carol considers the “right” or “natural” form of marriage.

I should add at this point that both Carol and her husband seem as perfectly happy in their marriage as my Lovely Wife and I are in our marriage, so the “Mind Your Own Business” streak in me is inclined to shrug my shoulders and say, “Hey.  What’s natural for them isn’t natural for us, and vice versa.  It’s no big deal either way.”

However, on a larger, societal, and even species-wide scale, the issue of “natural” and “unnatural” interpersonal relationships has profound applications.

Throughout most of human history, the concept of marriage (as attested to by our friend Carol), has been that of one-man/one-woman, in a bonding that exists for life.  “’Til death do us part.”  My friend Carol (and most other otherwise sensible people) can therefore make the strong case that the one-man/one-woman lifetime relationship model is and always has been the “natural” model, and that correspondingly, any other type of interpersonal relationship is therefore “unnatural” and should likewise be discouraged.

For example, one of the most popular arguments against gay marriage is that it deviates from the “natural” one-man/one-woman model, making it easier to justify opposition.  Other relationship and sexual practices which “deviate” from the “natural” order of things, and which likewise justify opposition or suppression, include multiple sexual partners (or sexual promiscuity), polyamory (multiple love interests), and polygamy, (multiple spouses).  While certain societies have sporadically allowed polygamy, for the most part those arrangements have been among the upper classes, and virtually all have been harem-like one-man/multiple wife arrangements. 

However, what if information came to light that the monogamy model wasn’t so natural after all?  What if it turned out that human beings, through biology, sociology, or both, were geared not so much for the aforementioned “one-man/one-woman-til-death-do-us-part” model, but that the “natural” order of things was in fact geared toward us having multiple sexual partners?  Multiple short-term relationships?  Yes, even homosexuality?

Consider, for example, the bonobo chimpanzee, (Pan Paniscus), native to the Republic of the Congo.  Both the bonobo and the more common chimpanzee are the closest genetic relatives to Homo Sapiens.  Bonobos were discovered only in 1928, and they’ve fascinated zoologists ever since; they make tools, walk upright as much as 25% of the time, have narrow shoulders, larger female breasts and longer legs than the common chimp, so that they bear a stronger physical resemblance to human beings than do common chimps.

However, it’s the bonobo social structure that has zoologists (and human sociologists) in a tizzy.  Unlike virtually every other primate, (including humans), bonobo society is largely matriarchal.  Not only that, bonobos are the only primate species besides humans that has sexual intercourse primarily face-to-face instead of via rear entry.  Take a deep breath, because this is where it gets really freaky.  Bonobos are also the only primates besides humans that have sex at times other than when the female is ovulating.  That’s right, bonobos can and do have sex whenever they feel like it, not just to propagate the species.  And bonobos feel like having sex a lot.  In lots of ways.  They’ll do it rear entry, female on top, anally, orally, homosexually, and even in orgies.  Bonobos use sex to defuse tensions within groups and to resolve disputes.  A bonobo mother can count on several male members in her group to help provide food for her baby, in part because she might have had intercourse with as many as a dozen males the day that infant was conceived.  Scientist characterize bonobo groups (usually of between 100 and 150 individuals) as being “extraordinarily peaceful” and an embodiment of the “make love not war” approach to societal living. 

As astounding as the biological and sociological implications of bonobo behavior may be, the theological implications may be even more profound.  If homosexuality, for example, is an “unnatural act,” yet in the “natural world” of the bonobo (among other species) it occurs all the time, is it possible that maybe homosexuality isn’t so “unnatural” after all?  And what of the bonobo’s immortal soul, if it has one?  If homosexuality is still a sin, can the bonobo be punished for committing such a sinful act?

A reader named “Wes” at “Psychology Today’s” website blog, (full article is here: who happens to be a Baptist minister in North Carolina weighed that question very carefully. Quoting Wes: “(H)omosexuality is a sin…but animals don’t sin…they don’t do righteous or unrighteous acts.  So…what am I to make of these animals that engage in homosexual activity?  It seems to me that this behavior reveals a sense of brokenness in the natural world….just as natural disasters aren’t normative, neither is homosexual activity within animals.  The creation itself is marred with the effects of sin (i.e. death).

A thoughtful, contemplative answer to be sure, but nevertheless confusing.  “A sense of brokenness?”  The natural world is itself…unnatural?

Call me crazy but for me the natural thing to do is to be open to the possibility that “nature,” like every other element of the human experience, needs to be constantly re-evaluated and possibly re-defined.  Whether we’re more like the hypersexual bonobo or more like fallen angels, at the very least we owe it to ourselves to consider the possibility that maybe our natural state isn’t quite what we’ve always imagined it to be.

By the way, my Lovely Wife’s surgery went just fine, thanks.  In fact, while she was being prepped, my Lovely Wife and one of the nurses spent several moments in good spirits, commenting on how Dr. Hottie managed to surround himself with equally-attractive interns such as Dr. Sixpack-Abs, Dr. Tight-buns, and the med student Dr. Bedroom-eyes.

At one point, another person walked by the examination room and my Lovely Wife asked, “Who was that?”

The nurse asked, “Who was who?  I didn’t see.”

I said, “You mean the hot-looking brunette with the spiked heels and the black skirt slit up the thigh and the tight short-sleeve blouse with the plunging neckline and the 36DD breasts in the black lace Victoria’s Secret push-up bra?  Probably a drug rep.”

The nurse asked, “How’d you notice all that?  She passed by the doorway and was gone in less than a second.”

I said, “Hey.  You’ve got your natural impulses.  I’ve got mine.”

P.S.  For a far more effective and scholarly examination of the “natural” state of human (and bonobo) sexuality, may I again recommend Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, published by Harper Collins. [see Rob Hardy's excellent review of Sex at Dawn]  If you decide to buy this excellent book via Amazon, please do so through the link provided. Doing so allows ERWA to have a cut of the take, helping to keep this excellent website going.  Thanks.

J.T. Benjamin
October 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please drop by J.T. Benjamin's blog or send an email to J.T. Benjamin

Get All Worked Up with J.T. Benjamin in ERWA 2010 Archive.

"All Worked Up" © 2010 J.T. Benjamin. All rights reserved.

About the Author:  J.T.Benjamin says, "I'm a generalist. I write about what interests me, which is just about everything." His resume reflects the diversity of his interests. He's been a disk jockey, insurance salesman, private investigator, journalist, college professor, child advocate, political activist, truckdriver, thief,, lawyer, Indian Chief. He's currently trying to start a hippie commune in the Denver/Boulder area.
Email:  J.T. Benjamin

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