Thursday, 7 February 2013

What if Zaphod Beeblebrox wanted to get married?

Zaphod Beeblebrox is a character in Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". He's an alien, who looks humanoid, but has two heads and three arms. What if  Zaphod Beeblebrox wanted to get married? Who would be married, one head or the other? It sounds like a strange question, but it has a good deal to teach us about our understanding of marriage.

There's a lot of heat been generated over whether or not "marriage" is a suitable term for gay people, with one side saying it has to be, by definition, between a man and a woman, and some people that it does not need to be so. But the basic idea of marriage, as defined in Wikipedia, is pretty much common ground:

"Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their children, and between the spouses and their in-laws."

I come to the debate not from a religious point of view, but looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology. And here matters are not so clear cut. Evolution has a nasty habit of throwing up mutations, which upset all the kind of pigeonholes we would like to place people in. How do we define a man or woman? What makes a person individual? These are not nearly as obvious as you might imagine.

One example is the hermaphrodite, a mutation with both male and female characteristics. This occurs in human beings, as well as in other species. It is a rare condition, but it shakes the sure foundations of how we view gender. Here's one example.

On November 8th, 1973 at age 23 Harris was clinically diagnosed by a team of specialists as possessing a rare, complex, congenital condition known as "True Hermaphroditism" with undescended, sub-sized ovotestes i.e. "gonadal mosaicism" found in approximately 1-in-25,000 births. [Statistic source: New England Journal of Medicine, 01/14/98.]

Due to ambiguously-formed genitalia at birth [stunted penis; divided scrotum; and vagina], Harris, (mal)assigned "female" by both parents and
pediatrician, was raised as such and continued living in said social gender role until age 29 (1979) --- six years after the disclosure of this fixed, irreversible, yet-evolving biological state.

After puberty, minor neurological problems eventually abated. Sexual development remained at a pubertal level while naturally-occurring
virilization of secondary characteristics compounded. As Harris' anatomy had developed clearly along non-female lines i.e. no breasts, no milk glands, no child-bearing hips, no menses, sterility; early beard growth, male vocal chords, male skeletal structure, male musculature, male libido, male genetic patterning, he felt justified to elect to live full-time in the male social gender role beginning February, 1979.

For the following four years (1979 to 1983) he lived in a sexual legal limbo, still carrying the original-and-only, valid female I.D. which now
appeared both obsolete and fraudulent. On numerous occasions when asked for proof of identification, he was accused of strangely utilizing a
'counterfeit' or 'stolen' I.D. card belonging to some woman. Desire for a permanent legal remedy to rectify all I.D., thus making it consistent with his outward persona, had become crucial. The subject approached the Superior Court, County of Los Angeles, wrote his own petition and pled his own case for 1) a change of middle name from "Elizabeth" to "Edward"; and 2) a re-issued birth certificate changing the sex designation from "female" to "male".

The case of Harris shows how problematic the legal definitions of gender can be, and how much of a problem it can be when it comes up against the legal system, which was not designed for anything outside its fixed limits. But the same kind of problem can occur with people who undergo a sex change, using hormones and surgical interventions; they too can find themselves in a legal limbo. If they compete in sports, are they men or woman? In effect, what they are doing is very much what nature herself has done in the case of Harris.

The history of hermaphrodites goes back a long way. The book "Early Modern European Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews & Other Heretics" by Richard L. Kagan and Abigail Dyer has a case in question; it shows how it is very difficult for religions, which have based their ideas of male and female on rigid fixed boundaries, to cope with those people who fall outside those bounds:

The oddest prisoner was born in Valencia to a Moslem slave and a Christian father, but her troubles with the Holy Office owed nothing to this religious miscegenation. Instead, she was a clever and ambitious hermaphrodite; briefly and unhappily married to a man, she later passed as a man, becoming a licensed surgeon and ultimately marrying a young woman in a village near Toledo. Secular justice arrested her for sodomy in 1587, but the Inquisition took the case, charging her with "disrespect for the marriage sacrament" and ultimately punishing her for bigamy (of which she was probably guilty). Including such a case immediately dates this collection to the age of same-sex marriages. (2)

It is clear that Islam also has problems with addressing human beings who transcend the normal discrete boundaries that legal definitions make of male and female. Dr. Muhammad Abu Laylah, professor of the Islamic Studies & Comparative Religions at Al-Azhar University comments that:

It is clear juristically that, given his/her yet undetermined gender, hermaphrodites cannot mix with either men or women until after medication, carried out by a Muslim and competent doctor, which will determine his/her sex. The prohibition of mixing with males or females aims at evading any corruption that may occur in that case. (3)

In other words, a decision will need to be made as to whether a hermaphrodite is "officially" male or female before they can be married, or have any sexual engagement. And yet that is an arbitrary decision, and serves only to create a religious or legal identity whereby the traditionally laid down rules can apply. It doesn't really solve the problem; it evades it by a religious or legal decision to assign a putative gender.

But stranger still is the mutation known as "dicephalic parapagus", where twins are born conjoined.

These conjoined twin brothers are lucky to be alive after being born sharing the same torso because of a rare one-in-a-million medical condition. Sohna and Mohna have defied all the odds to celebrate their ninth birthday  despite their condition killing most at birth. In an orphanage in Amritsar, India, the pair go to lessons and live life to  the full even though they share the same torso and two legs - each boy has  their own two arms. The birth of such twins is more common in south-west Asia and Africa. However, there have been instances of dicephalic parapagus twins in the  West. (4)

Where is ownership and identity in these case? We are used to human beings being single wholes, so that these kind of mutations come as a shock. Well known in the USA is the case of the Hensel twins, Abigail "Abby" Loraine Hensel and Brittany "Britty" Lee Hensel, who share one body from the shoulders down, but have two heads. As we can see, the question about Zaphod Beeblebrox is not so hypothetical after all. A blogger commented:

For those that don't know about the Hensel's, they are "dicephalic parapagus twins" which roughly translates to mean they are connected as conjoined twins via- one single symmetrical body that has two fully functional and sentient heads of roughly accurate proportion that are able to have their own thought process and communicate separately as such. Each twin controls ½ half of their body, operating one of the their arms and one of the legs. This obviously requires some serious bodily coordination and skill. Marriage, what if one gets married and the other head doesn't - could this be considered polygamy?

When the body is shared, who has ownership of it? And what if one twin decided to get married, and the other did not? Or what if both do? This is a conundrum which shows how the fixed parameters of identity do not fit neatly into the range of human biology.

Jesus answered, "Haven't you read the scripture that says that in the beginning the Creator made people male and female? And God said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one.' (Matthew 19:4-5)

But are conjoined twins to be excluded because an accident of biology puts them outside this religious idea of marriage, of one male and one female? There is simply no proof verse that can deal with these cases, because it is outside the experience of the biblical writers. And it is just as problematic for lawyers.

Conjoined twins do deviate from the norm, but the language of abnormality tends to bring pejorative implications: deviation from the norm does not necessarily require that conjoined twins be reshaped or reconstructed to better fit the norm....Conjoined twins provide an excellent example of the problem associated with the use of the welfare principle: our perceptions of children's well-being are constructed around certain normative values. Conjoined twins exist outside many of those norms and it may be that those normative standards of well-being cannot necessarily be applied to conjoined twins. (6)

We can see the legal problems arising in a simpler case than marriage. This is well laid out in the following though experiment:

As the situation stands now, Abigail and Brittany are legally separate people in spite of the fact that one cannot be in a different place from the other or even perform basic bodily function without at least some participation from the other. Yet, when they drive, we are required to accept that there are two people holding the same steering wheel at the same moment, each of them with separate will. Now suppose they have an argument on where to go (separate wills, remember), and Abigail wants to turn right and Brittany wants to turn left. For a split moment, Abigail wins and happens to run over a child.

The law in this situation requires that we punish the person responsible. But, do try to put in jail guilty Abigail without also placing there innocent Brittany. You do that, and Brittany can claim injustice and wrongful imprisonment because she didn't do anything and in fact tried to prevent it. But, if you disallow punishment on the principle that you cannot punish one without punishing the other, you in fact are giving they a license to do any crime they feel like doing without ever fearing any punishment. (7)

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould looked at conjoined twins, taking the example of conjoined twins Ritta and Christina who were born on March 23, 1829, to poor parents in Sardinia.  Their skeleton can be see in La Grande Galerie of the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris, and shows two distinct vertebral columns nearly joined at their base, and only two well-formed legs extend below. The label reads monstre humain dicéphale, or "two- headed human monster." But they were born live, survived several months, were baptized and given names. They are identified by a simple label: "Ritta-Christina." 

Their bodily independence did not extend below the navel and appeared to be two people above and only one below. It was another case of conjoined twins. As Gould noted:

The same question underlay public fascination in 1829. When Ritta-Christina died, a Parisian newspaper wrote: "Already it is a matter of grave consideration with the spiritualists, whether they had two souls or one." (8)

The great medical anatomist Etienne Serre looked at the matter and considered it from a biological viewpoint:

The cultural criterion of head and brain might have suggested an easy resolution-two heads, two people. But as a scientist, Serres resisted this facile answer, for he had also studied Siamese twins with one head, two arms, and four legs. He reasoned that a uniformity of process must underlie both types of twinning. (8)

But the problem remained:

No one quarreled with the double verdict on Ritta and Christina from the waist up; the dilemma had always centered upon their well-formed, but clearly single, lower half -one anus, one vaginal opening, two legs. If she were two people all the way from stem to stern, how could her lower half form so well in the shape of one? How could the incomplete parts of two separate creatures fuse and blend into a form indistinguishable from the lower half of such unambiguous singletons as you or me?

Conjoined twins span the entire conceivable range from a single individual bearing a few rudimentary parts of an imperfect twin, to superficially joined, complete individuals like Chang and Eng. Ritta and Christina fall squarely in the middle of this continuum. (8)

Gould's answer to the question is to place the answer firmly outside of the range of those people who like nice neat pigeonholes, and want to categorise human beings in such a way as to exclude the sport, the strange deviations from the commonplace. It's not clear cut, and part of the problem is that we would like our world to be clear cut.

We inhabit a complex world. Some boundaries are sharp and permit clean and definite distinctions. But nature also includes continua that cannot be neatly parceled into two piles of unambiguous yeses and noes. Our congressmen may create a legal fiction for statutory effect but they may not seek support from biology. Ritta and Christina lay in the middle of another unbreakable continuum. They are in part two and in part one. And this, I am sorry to say, is the biological nonanswer to the question of the centuries.

If this argument leaves you with an empty feeling after so much verbiage, I can only reply with the paradoxical phrase that is, so often, the most liberating response to an old mystery: The question has no answer because you asked the wrong question. The old question of individuality in Siamese twinning rests upon the assumption that objects can be pigeonholed into discrete categories. If we recognize that our world is full of irreducible continua, we will not be troubled by the intermediate status of Ritta and Christina. (8)

The debate over gay marriage has centered on contrasting and competing definitions of marriage - the legal, and the religious. What biological mutation teaches us is that such definitions are limited; they cannot address the greater complexity of human biology, and its propensity for throwing up mutational forms that simply don't fit any definitions.

When we look at some of the terms used to judge gay people - "a concept of human nature that has proven defective," that are not "fully-developed" human beings, this is a moral or religious judgment which is masquerading as biology . But biology simply is: nature is non-moral. The hermaphrodite or the conjoined twin are biological sports, but they exist; and to say that they are defective is to make a judgment that is outside of the natural world. All human beings are defective, our bodies are not perfect, and they wear out eventually, and we die.

Do we cast out the hermaphrodite or the conjoined twin, because they do not fit into our narrow and discrete definitions, or do we look again at those definitions in the light of biology? While these are mutations from the norm, we tend to make moral judgements about that norm; the normal is not merely a statistical tendency reflecting how a population is distributed, but also becomes a means of judging the value of those human beings outside that range. It is perhaps about time we became more accepting of the diverse biological spectrum of humanity, and a applied a little more humility to how we make definitions of identity and the limitations of those definitions.

(2) Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews & Other Heretics. William Monter, The Catholic Historical Review, 2005
(8) The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould


James said...

You don't know your H2G2 well enough.

Zaphod was able to hide the second head and third arm to gatecrash the party in Islington and pick up Trillian (chapter 13, first book refers), therefore the other head cannot be a second independent being.

TonyTheProf said...

I bow to your superior knowledge!