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Persons are not Born, they are Made

By Edited Apr 4, 2014 0 0

As early as the 4th century B.C., prominent Western philosophers ranging from Aristotle to John Locke have argued in favor of the theory of tabula rasa—the notion that humans are born as ‘blank slates’ prior to the acquisition of knowledge through experience and perception (Locke 1689: II.I.26). The premise of tabula rasa is appealing to many because it serves as a fundamental proponent for explaining the wide range of paths of development in which humans can and do take. Countless case studies and anthropological ethnographies reiterate the sentiment that different social, cultural, biological, and economical backgrounds either limit or extend opportunities for each and every individual. Humans may have some sense of free will, but it is undeniable that individuals are at the mercy of their surroundings that are primarily influenced by cultural tendencies and beliefs. Bearing the aforementioned ideal in mind, reproduction is one area that is strongly influenced by culture. With a nonreligious, Western background, for instance, one may surmise that the majority of cultures take a very liberal approach towards sex and reproduction, follow a two sex and gender system, and rely on Western science as a basis for knowledge of reproduction. However, as evidenced in cultures ranging from the Gitano, a society of gypsies located in Spain, to the renowned Filipino Tasaday tribe, sex and reproduction in many cultures are treated very loosely or sacredly dependent upon beliefs pertaining to masculinity and femininity. Often times, beliefs are accompanied by subjective practices and rituals that reveal reverence to their ancestors or to supernatural beings who they believe dictate aspects of their fate. And while Westerners do relish the opportunity to use science to support an assertion, scientists are hardly unbiased as their culture always accompanies them, at the very least subconsciously, when they study a particular subject. Due to the fact that culture plays such a key role in how certain societies view reproduction, it is vital that comparison between the West and other cultures is invited. For ultimately, aspects of reproduction that Westerners perceive as innate or obvious, and vice versa in the case of other cultures, may actually be heavily influenced by how men and women are viewed, how reliable scientific evidence really is, and whether what is ‘natural’ is merely attributable to how a culture is ‘nurtured.’ Comparison between the West and the rest is vital in the sense that comparison invites social progression for persons of all backgrounds; neither side of the aisle may be completely right or wrong per se, but a global outlook on how reproduction is viewed from culture to culture can only help us answer questions relating to the human condition, nature vs. nurture, science, religion, gender roles, and the field of anthropology as a whole.

            One focal facet of reproduction is how gender roles determine the concept of reproduction from a cultural and personal vantage point. For instance in Western society, men and women are consistently portrayed as equal entities, and consequently the concepts of intercourse, reproduction, and the mutual raising of a child are all considered to be pleasurable experiences for both parties. In contrast to this utopian scenario though, Emily Martin notes whilst deliberating how scientists describe the processes of male and female reproduction, “The [biological] stereotypes imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts but also that women are less worthy than men” (Martin 1997: 485-486). Similar to the depiction of a fearless knight rescuing the helpless princess, science has generally portrayed sperm as the ‘penetrator’ and the egg as the ‘passive recipient.’ But when confronted with new scientific evidence conducted by Johns Hopkins University which shows that the egg is actually the aggressor when confronting the sperm, Martin observes, “Although this new version of the saga of the egg and the sperm broke through cultural expectations, the researchers who made the discovery continued to write papers and abstracts as if the sperm were the active party who attacks, binds, penetrates, and enters the egg” (Martin 1997: 493). The first problem here is that science, supposedly objective, cannot shake cultural stereotypes; the second problem is that the cultural stereotypes that Westerners consider themselves to identify with reveal a society oozing with inequality. To further illustrate this point, a recent article in Time Magazine noted that American women with the same occupation as American men still only make 77 cents to the man’s dollar (Fitzpatrick 2010: 26). So, if society is hardly equal for men and women in the West coupled with open gender inequality in many non-Western societies (one such example being how the Gitano men are encouraged to experiment sexually with those outside of the Gitano culture whereas the women are bound to virginity until marriage), it is quite inevitable that reproduction is explained worldwide with a general phallocentric male bias (Gay 1997: 520-528). In comparison to other societies, the West may exhibit more equality, but the fact that science is misconstrued in order to maintain gender stereotypes reveals that the West still maintains a pro-male instinctiveness that coincides with less-industrialized and typically more socially conservative societies. Comparison with other societies can teach the West that there is hardly much difference between the way we explain reproduction through science manipulated by gender stereotypes and how more primitive cultures explain reproduction solely through gender roles; in turn, and quite fortunately, the entire world has room for improvement in utilizing pure science rather than outdated biases to approach and explain reproduction.

              Despite the fact that science loses objectivity at times, it is undeniable that technological advancement has revolutionized reproduction, and most notably, now transcends obstacles to pregnancy that have existed for centuries. As anthropologist Susan Franklin explains, “The narrative of the facts of life is consequently changed by the advent of assisted conception technologies” (Franklin 1998: 103). Predominantly taking place in the West, new treatments and alternative forms of assisted conception turn previously unattainable wishes into realities, and unconventional ways of initiating pregnancy are widely accepted in Western culture. However, whereas technological advancement may provide new opportunities pertaining to the creation of life, Franklin dually notes, “…a much remarked–upon implosion of natural facts and technological assistance blurs the boundary between ‘natural’ and assisted conception” (Franklin 1998: 104). This not only raises the question of “how much assistance until it [alternative ways of creating life] becomes ‘unnatural,’” but it extends into more ethical dilemmas such as abortion, cloning, and posthumous conception. Moreover, the simplistically miraculous nature of birth is arguably nonexistent in a scientific era in which every miniscule detail is largely scrutinized and consequently acted upon. While it is inhumane to argue against scientific deliberation if it is facilitating the process of safe conception and birth for all parties involved, observing other cultures without as much technological advancement can steer the West away from overcomplicating reproduction. Rather than shifting towards a realm of science that rivals Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which humanity succumbs to scientific advancement in a dystopian way, developed nations should remember that reproduction is meant to be humanity’s greatest gift—a gift signifying intimacy and the eventual passing of the torch to a new generation. In order to ensure that this remains the case, the West and the rest should learn to embrace both the scientific and simplistically miraculous aspects of reproduction as mutually inclusive. Otherwise, as Victor astutely warns mankind of in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 1818: 42). Through a balanced approach of dually utilizing science and nature without allowing science to abolish nature nor nature to restrict necessary scientific advancement, humanity has the potential to use science as a means of assisting reproduction in a straightforwardly beneficial manner all over the world.

            In conjunction with gender roles and the emergence of technology, the practices and rituals of Western and non-Western cultures are also prevalent in shaping the scope of reproduction. And similar to the aforementioned conclusions, while rituals can range from young Sambia boys’ intake of sperm in New Guinea to pro-choice and pro-life campaigning in the West, the motives are predominantly culturally driven. And in fact, some practices can actually exist in all areas of the world, and the motives generally pertain to universal cultural interpretation of gender roles, religion, and science. But, rather than acknowledge the overlapping qualities between Western and non-Western practices, the extreme differences are typically highlighted as a means of reiterating that the West is ‘more normal.’  For instance, as scholar Nancy Scheper-Hughes ironically asserts, “Where are the passionate voices of our Western, male medical anthropologists—some of them circumcised, some of them not—speaking out on the practice of male genital surgery in the United States? Why isn’t male circumcision also one of the places…‘where we ought to draw the line,”’ when considering anthropological bias against non-Western cultures on the topic of male circumcision (Bell 2005: 129). The recipe of Western bias and the Western assumption of having superior scientific knowledge at their disposal creates a ‘hungry’ culture—hungry in the sense that every aspect of life is constantly debated until a law is established or, in the medical field, a ‘cure’ is found. For although the constant journey of acquisition of knowledge is formidable, the West runs the risk of finding answers and establishing precedents for ideals that currently cannot be restricted to a simple generic conclusion. For example, whereas in many cultures women are revered for being infertile, women feel obligated to find alternative ways to become pregnant in the West because science offers so many potential avenues—even though so many are very emotionally distressing and rarely successful (Daynes 2010: 91). Another such instance in which the West, especially the United States, is adamant about settling once and for all is the topic of whether fetuses constitute personhood, and if so, when? The topic is debated frequently on Capitol Hill, and politicians’ stances on abortion are scrutinized by the media. In contrast to a widespread Euroamerican understanding of fetuses obtaining personhood, anthropologist Lynn Morgan writes of the Ecuadorian Highlands peoples stance on fetuses lacking personhood, “This [the concept that fetuses are not persons] results not simply from differential access to sophisticated scientific or technological knowledge or equipment but also from a constellation of embedded social practices that render the contents of the womb as ambiguous and uncertain” (Morgan 1997: 324). In other words, the fetus is personified in many Western cultures whereas personhood is earned either through social experiences or traditional baptism in other cultures. From an impartial perspective, non-Western cultures’ decision to designate personhood once a child conducts himself or herself in a humane manner makes sense; personifying a fetus, on the other hand, appears to be overcompensating for one’s thirst of knowledge—using science in a way to give life to something that is still in the process of formation. By all accounts, the rituals of either becoming a human through experience or being preordained ‘human’ are very reflective of culture. Since science gives the West such opportunity for insight, the West is starving for a lone consensus on nearly every issue; yet since life is so circumstantial, perhaps some things should be left ambiguous.

             Summarily, comparison between cultures ultimately teaches us that there is room for improvement for peoples of all backgrounds in regards to understanding and carrying out the process of reproduction. Rather than succumb to gender stereotypes, all cultures should be able to approach reproduction from an objective viewpoint. Additionally, scientists and anthropologists alike cannot continue to manipulate scientific or observable evidence. Simply put, the West has science but is guilty of trying to find answers for processes that extend beyond human capability, and quite arguably, should remain openly ambiguous according to circumstance. In contrast, non-Western cultures are sometimes guilty of being too skeptical of science that would greatly benefit the welfare of their societies. Overall, in an age of heightened globalization, humanity has the potential to enlighten each other in the field of reproduction and beyond. If the global community can strive towards a common goal of knowledge for the sake of social improvement, comparison can only facilitate the cause.

 

Bell, K. (2005) ‘Genital Cutting and Western Discourses on Sexuality’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 19: 125-148.

Daynes, Kerstin 2010. Infertility: Help, Hope, and Healing. Springville, Cedar Fort, Inc.

Fitzpatrick, L. 2010. Why Do Women Still Earn Less Than Men. Time Magazine, 1, 1, 26

Franklin, S. (1998) ‘Making Miracles: Scientific Progress and the Facts of Life’, In S. Franklin and H. Ragone (eds.) Reproducing Reproduction: Kinship, Power and Technological Innovation,

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gay y Blasco, P. (1997) A ‘Different’ Body? Desire and Virginity Among Gitanos, Journal of the  Royal Anthropological Institute 3: 517-535. 

Herdt, Gilbert 2006. The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea. Belmont, Wadsworth

Huxley, Aldous 1931. Brave New World. London, Chatto and Windus

Lawless, R. 1992. The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing the Evidence. American Anthropological Association, 28, 1, 1-280

Locke, John 1689. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company

Martin, E. (1997) ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’, Signs, 16 (3): 485-501.

Morgan, L. M. (1997) Imagining the Unborn in the Ecuadorian Andes, Feminist Studies, 23,

(2):323-50.

Shelley, Mary 1818. Frankenstein. London, Penguin Classic

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