Advent offering – 14 December

The past couple of days, I was attending a conference organised by TANSA (Theology and the Natural Sciences Aotearoa), whose theme was “The Future of Sacrifice: Evolution, Gender, and Spirituality.” It was a great conference, with keynote speakers Professors Sarah Coakley (University of Cambridge) and Eugene Rogers (University of North Carolina) dazzling us with their insights, not to mention a plethora of other fascinating presentations by scholars from NZ, Australia, and the US.

So, for today’s advent offering, I’m sharing the abstract of the paper I presented (which seemed to go down well!) along with a suitable illustration, given its topic – beauty, sacrifice, and ethics in the Song of Songs. Marc Chagall painted a number of illustrations for this biblical book and this is one of my favourites. A dreamscape of gorgeous colours and enchanting images, it radiates something of the joy of being in love and makes me smile every time I look at it. I hope you enjoy it too.

Marc Chagall, Song of Songs III (1960)

“My beloved is mine and I am his.” Sexual selection and the Shulammite

Abstract for paper presented at TANSA conference

Since the publication of Darwin’s original theory of social and sexual selection, there has been a propensity within subsequent scientific research to read Darwin’s premises as affirmations of creaturely autonomy, genetic selfishness, and strictly gendered individualism. Within these models of sexual and social behaviour, pushy males of varying degrees of “beauty” compete aggressively to mate with coy, choosy females, both sexes driven essentially by the need to maximize proliferation of their genetic material. Such theorizing about both human and non-human sexual behaviour would seem to dismiss as irrelevant those other elements (or priorities) of relational life which may likewise be under evolutionary control, such as parenting, nurturing, and group co-operation. It also fails even to consider important dynamics of human sexuality, such as the fluidity of gender, the complex aesthetics of desire, and the social inscription and prescription of sexual normativities.

In this paper, I want to explore this propensity to envision human sexual behaviour as a series of “fitness” categories, contemplating alternative vistas that invite thought about the ethical potential of human sexuality, which Sarah Coakley suggests may be a viable “accompaniment” to the evolutionary process. In particular, I will focus on one area of sexual selection – the evolution of beauty – asking if beauty can inspire humanity towards a voluntary and ethical self-sacrifice that promotes human flourishing. Engaging with the writing of Elaine Scarry (On Beauty and Being Just), I will ask if  such self-sacrifice might carry at its heart an evolutionary imperative towards human cooperation and care. As a guide, I will bring with me a much older discourse on sexual and social relationality – that ancient love song of the Hebrew Bible, Song of Songs. While my choice of dialogue partner may seem unorthodox, I believe that this biblical exploration of desire can help us contemplate afresh the multifaceted nature of human sexuality, ethics, beauty, and evolution.