Saturday, September 15, 2007

Revisionist Etiology

[Note to readers: Please keep reading. I promise there is a payoff at the end of this entry!]

Now that I've finished up the Iliad, we're moving on to a three-week study of the Bible. Although I actually began college as a theology student (and I am a preacher's kid), I've never actually taught the Bible in any of my courses. So, I was at a bit of a loss as to how this should be done.

Thankfully, one of my colleagues alerted me to an absolutely fantastic way to begin questioning the various etiologies presented in the Book of Genesis. I'm having my students read a short essay by Scott Gilbert (Dept. of Biology, Swarthmore College) and Ziony Zevit (Dept. of Biblical Literature, American Jewish University), entitled "Congenital Human Baculum Deficiency: The Generative Bone of Genesis 2:21-23." Unfortunately, you can't read the article online, so I will summarize.

Gilbert and Zevit note that there are certain genetic diseases that affect 100% of the human population; for example, gulonolactone oxidase deficiency, a disease that distinguishes us from our otherwise closely-related primates. Another genetic condition, extending to 100% percent of human males, is the congenital lack of a baculum. That's a penis bone, for those who don't know. Humans and spider monkeys are the only male mammals that don't have a penis bone. So, what does this have to do with Genesis, you might ask? Oh, just wait...

As you may remember from VBS, Genesis tells the story of God's creation of Eve. In that account, Eve is created from the "rib" of Adam. Of course, every grade-schooler knows that both women and men have an equal (and even) number of ribs, so the etiological myth is a bit strange, not to mention at odds with basic biological facts of human anatomy that even ancient Israelites would have known. Gilbert and Zevit point out that the Hebrew noun translated as "rib" (tzade, lamed, ayin) is an ambiguous term, that could mean "rib", but also could mean the "the side chambers enclosing the temple," "the supporting columns of trees," or "the planks in buildings or doors." Thus, the authors conclude that it is not only possible, but likely, that the Biblical passage refers to some bone other than a rib that was taken from Adam to make Eve. What bone do the descendants of Adam actually lack? You guessed it, the baculum.

Biblical Hebrew, unlike later rabbinic Hebrew, had no technical term for the penis, and often referred to it through many circumlocutions. (It wasn't until around the 2nd C. BCE, when the Bible was translated into Greek, that the Genesis bone came to be unambiguously enshrined as a "rib.") But there is even more textual evidence for the interpretation of this "bone" as the baculum. The Genesis account contains another, often-overlooked, etiological detail: "The Lord God closed up the flesh." (Genesis 2:21) If, in fact, God took Adam's baculum to make Eve, this second verse would explain one peculiarly visible sign on the human male's penis and scrotum-- the raphé. The origin of this "seam" on the human penis would be "explained" by the story of the closing of Adam's flesh. Again, there is no such congenital "wound" consistent with the reading the "rib" version of Genesis, but only with some connection to Adam's penis.

That's the biology of the argument... but here's the real hermeneutic force. Gilbert and Zevit's last paragraph reads:

A rib has no particular potency nor is it associated mythologically or symbolically with any human generative act. Needless to say, the penis has always been associated with generation, in practice, in mythology, and in the popular imagination. Therefore, the literal, metaphorical, and euphemistic use of the word tzela make the baculum a good candidate for the singular bone taken from Adam to generate Eve.

There are a lot of ways to read this hypothesis that I find interesting, not the least of which is that it combines the etiology of human beings with the etiology of lust or sexual desire. (Men want their bones back!) Unfortunately, my students won't have read Plato's Symposium yet, but at least some congruency with Aristophanes' account therein is undeniable, or so it seems to me. Anyway, I'm really glad to have been clued in to the Gilbert and Zevit article. Any thoughts?


Daniel said...

Leigh - nothing helps pedagogy like some visual aids:

Daniel said...

Oh, I should add that the ever-fecund Richard Dawkins explains the human lack of bacula in the typical evolutionary manner: As humans rely on pure hydraulic pressure to create and sustain erections, one's ability to do so is more indicative of overall health than for those beasts who use a prop.

Doctor J said...

Daniel: First, thanks for the pictures. But, well, I don't know... I feel like I'm already testing the tolerance of the college by having my students talk about this. Visual aids may be pushing the envelope...

Second, I LOVE that explanation by Dawkins. As if hydraulic pressure isn't its own kind of "prop"!

Daniel said...


Lion: 100 copulations a day, but uses a tool.

Man: A few copulations a day, but uses "sheer force of will."

Of course, Dawkin's argument (as expressed by Jared Diamond) also explains why human penises are ridiculously large, in proportion to our body size. That is, obviously women selected the dudes with big penises and extended erections because of their superior cardiovascular health.

Alternatively, human penis size is explained by "conspicuous consumption" a la peacock tails. "Look - I am so awesome that I can spend resources on a really fancy waste disposal system that occasionally has other purposes."

Interestingly enough, this same argument is used by some to explain the evolution of our big brains - "I am so awesome that I can blow the majority of my glucose intake on an organ whose main product is existential dread." It's like putting a jet engine into a Honda Civic.

Chet said...

First off, don't be dissin' the Honda Civic.

Second, great post. Fascinating stuff, which I wish I'd read before I talked about Christianity, love and sexuality, in my philosophy of love and sexuality course.

rosi said...

Hi Nice Blog . I don't really know a lot about Human Anatomy study or art, but that's just my 2 cents. Really great job though, Krudman! Keep up the good work!