|History and biology: Evolutionary perspectives on the foreskin|
Advocates of circumcision have never been able to explain why all primates (monkeys, chimps etc), and indeed all mammals, have foreskins, or how humans became the most successful mammal on the planet while carrying this supposedly pathogenic burden. For 99 per cent of the million or so years during which modern humans have prospered, males have lived and died with their foreskins intact, and in that time our species managed to colonise just about every corner of the earth. Perhaps the foreskin was a factor in that triumph. There is good evidence that the human foreskin became longer, more luxuriant and more richly networked with sensory nerves than those of our near relatives, suggesting that it must have conferred a selective advantage: the more foreskin you had, the more offspring you left behind, and the more your extra-foreskin genes spread through the population. This could not have happened if the foreskin had been as troublesome as its enemies claim: what has naturally evolved must be presumed to be beneficial or harmless unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This point was recognised by many early critics of the British circumcision mania, such as a certain Dr Tweedy in 1920, who commented that "had never satisfied himself that the craze for circumcision was justifiable. According the laws of evolution the foreskin must have been greatly needed by the human race or it would not have persisted." (British Medical Journal, 5 June 1920)
On this page are collected a selection of comments from Charles Darwin and other biologists which seem relevant to this issue.
Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked,* for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor. If a fair balance be struck between the good and evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous. After the lapse of time, under changing conditions of life, if any part comes to be injurious, it will be modified; or if it be not so, the being will become extinct.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), Chapter 6 (Penguin edition, p. 229).
As all the living forms of life are the lineal descenants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
Chapter 14 (Penguin edn, p. 459)
* William Paley. The reference is to a passage in Chapter XXVI of his Natural Theology
When God created the human species, either he wished their happiness, or he wished their misery, or he was indifferent and unconcerned about either.
If he had wished our misery, he might have made sure of his purpose, by forming our senses to be so many sores and pains to us, as they are now instruments of gratification and enjoyment: or by placing us amidst objects, so ill suited to our perceptions as to have continually offended us, instead of ministering to our refreshment and delight. He might have made, for example, every thing we tasted, bitter; every thing we saw, loathsome; every thing we touched, a sting; every smell, a stench; and every sound, a discord.
If he had been indifferent about our happiness or misery, we must impute to our good fortune (as all design by this supposition is excluded) both the capacity of our senses to receive pleasure, and the supply of external objects fitted to produce it.
But either of these, and still more both of them, being too much to be attributed to accident, nothing remains but the first supposition, that God, when he created the human species, wished their happiness; and made for them the provision which he has made, with that view and for that purpose.
The same argument may be proposed in different terms; thus: Contrivance proves design: and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer. The world abounds with contrivances: and all the contrivances which we are acquainted with, are directed to beneficial purposes. Evil, no doubt, exists; but is never, that we can perceive, the object of contrivance. Teeth are contrived to eat, not to ache; their aching now and then is incidental to the contrivance, perhaps inseparable from it: or even, if you will, let it be called a defect in the contrivance: but it is not the object of it. This is a distinction which well deserves to be attended to. In describing implements of husbandry, you would hardly say of the sickle, that it is made to cut the reaper's hand; though, from the construction of the instrument, and the manner of using it, this mischief often follows. But if you had occasion to describe instruments of torture or execution; this engine you would say, is to extend the sinews: this to dislocate the joints; this to break the bones; this to scorch the soles of the feet. Here, pain and misery are the very objects of the contrivance.
Now, nothing of this sort is to be found in the works of nature. We never discover a train of contrivance to bring about an evil purpose. No anatomist ever discovered a system of organization calculated to produce pain and disease; or, in explaining the parts of the human body, ever said, this is to irritate; this to inflame; this duct is to convey the gravel to the kidneys; this gland to secrete the humour which forms the gout; if by chance he come at a part of which he knows not the use, the most he can say is, that it is useless; no one ever suspects that it is put there to incommode, to annoy, or to torment.
William Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 12th edn, London 1809, Chapter XXVI, "The goodness of the deity", pp. 454, 465-8
On-line edition published by University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative, Ann Arbor, USA.
Everyone who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to the possessor) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, together with use or habit, will admit that these organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings, and thus increase in number.
Charles Darwin, Autobiographies, ed. Michael Neve and Sharon Messenger, (Penguin Classics edn), p. 51
In the earlier editions of my Origin of Species I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition … so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure; but I am convinced, from the light gained during even the last few years, that very many structures which now appear to us useless, will hereafter be proved to be useful, and will therefore come within the range of natural selection.
The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs. May of these are terrible to think of – such as the sacrifice of human beings to a blood-loving god; the trial of innocent persons by the ordeal of poison or fire; witchcraft etc – yet it is well occasionally to reflect on these superstitions, for they shew us what an infinite debt of gratitude we owe to the improvement of our reason, to science and to our accumulated knowledge.
From Chapter 19, "Man – Love of ornament", concerned with the various modifications which tribal peoples make to the body in the name of beauty, custom, duty or other obligation.
Hardly any part of the body which can be unnaturally modified has escaped. The amount of suffering thus caused must have been extreme, for many of the operations require several years for their completion, so that the idea of their necessity must be imperative. The motives are various; the men paint their bodies to make themselves appear terrible in battle; certain mutilations are connected with religious rites, or they mark the age of puberty, or the rank of the man, or they serve to distinguish the tribes. Amongst savages the same fashions prevail for long periods, and thus mutilations, from whatever cause first made, soon come to be valued as distinctive marks.
Charles Darwin, The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (1879), ed. James Moore and Adrian Desmond (Penguin Classics edn, 2004), pp. 81, 119, 643
Dr Douglas Gairdner's defence of the foreskin is certainly not the first, but equally certainly one of the ablest critical reviews of the barbarous custom of circumcision written in our times. That no one will take the slightest notice of what he says is equally certain.
A world which for many thousands of years has accepted the intellectual affronts of ecclesiastical dogmata, only finally to throw them over with much misery and bloodshed in favour of dialectical materialism, can scarcely be expected to use its reasoning on such a little matter as a tag of skin. What is strange, however, is that doctors everywhere do not protest more vigorously, if not necessarily with the reasoned clarity of Dr Gairdner, at the continuance of this surgico-religious insult to normal physiology – and that in spite of the fact that at least three generations of doctors have sat during their student days at the feet of biologists whose principal function was to teach and explain by example to us the nature, the wonder and the universality of the relationship in the living world of structure to function.
Nature continues in fact, and in spite of our efforts to impede her, to strive towards the perfect specimen of man. Perhaps one day we shall grow weary of sticking skewers through his nose and ears, cutting off his foreskin, tattooing his skin, and even conditioning his mind to intellectually untenable legend and political slogan and decree, and leave him free to develop to his best what he has and where he wants it.
Geoffrey Parker, Letter, BMJ, 21 January 1950, p. 181
See also A ritual operation (BMJ editorial)
Geoffrey Miller, The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature (London: Heinemann, 2000)
Comments by Robert Darby
Geoffrey Miller's intriguing book The mating mind includes a fascinating discussion of the influence of sexual selection on the evolution of the genitals, and I would like to offer some comment on Dr Miller's expression of outrage at the mutilation of the female genitals as practised by a number of east African and Islamic cultures. Naturally I concur with his opposition to this practice, as would most people in the West, but I would draw attention to a common double standard on this question. All of the cultures which practise various forms of genital mutilation on young women also practise circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation on young males, and a few other cultures (notably doctors/parents in the USA and some other countries) routinely circumcise male infants while expressing horror at similar procedures on girls. As a male born in Cincinnati in 1965, Dr Miller had a 90 per cent chance of being subject to such an operation himself; growing up among other boys in the same condition, it would be easy to regard the circumcised penis as a normal thing, instead of the cultural anomaly it really is.
I think the issue is relevant to his discussion of the evolution of the human genitals: back in the Pleistocene, when our ancestors were turning into humans, the penis was definitely sheathed in a thick double-fold of tissue, later identified as the foreskin. Although several ancient cultures decided at some much later point to cut this off, there is little definite evidence as to when the procedure became a requirement among them: contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptians did not practise widespread circumcision, though it might have been a ritual obligation for priests at certain periods (Hodges 2001). Over the previous million years or so the foreskin must have grown to its present bulk and prominence on the human penis, and the most likely reason for its developing to a far greater extent than in other primates, and in the opposite direction to the one it took in other mammals, is probably the result of sexual selection. This is certainly the argument of Kristen O'Hara (2001), who reports that women find sex, and especially intercourse, with uncut men generally more satisfying and significantly less violent than with the circumcised. If this conclusion is valid, it seems likely that the foreskin originally evolved in response to female sexual choice, and probably in tandem with the clitoris.
In his discussion of the evolution of the genitals I think Dr Miller's comparison of the clitoris to the penis is open to question. Most male animals have a penis and most females a receptacle for its insertion, or at least a spot for the reception of sperm, but what is unusual about humans is that the penis is covered with a moveable sleeve of ultra-sensitive tissue (the prepuce), while the vagina is guarded by the equally responsive clitoris. It is thus the foreskin which is the correct analogy to the clitoris, as recognised by both the tribal cultures which insist on cutting both off before a person can be considered an adult, and the nineteenth century doctors who sought to control masturbation in girls and boys by clitoridectomy in the former case and circumcision in the latter (Spitz 1952). The reasons for the tribal initiation rituals are obscure: many conflicting explanations have been offered, but I think there is a clue in the fact that boys are generally cut younger than girls. The operation has to be done earlier in boys because if it was delayed until they were fully mature they might have the strength and the will to resist, or at least be strong enough (both mentally and physically) to make the procedure difficult. Women can be left until later because they are naturally weaker and culturally more subordinate, so effective rebellion is less of a danger. In other words, the operation is primarily about the imposition of religious or social authority (Gollaher 2000, chapter 3).
The history of medical understanding of the penis, as of the female genitals, is a neglected subject. Renaissance anatomists knew that the foreskin was the most sensitive and the most erotically significant part of the penis, and Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (c. 1460-1530) went so far as to describe the glans as "hard and dull to sensation so that it may not be injured in coitus" (da Carpi 1959, pp. 72-3). This knowledge was lost in the eighteenth century, as the one-sex model of the human body was replaced by the two-sex model (Laqueur 1990), and as anxiety about sexual "excess" (especially masturbation) increased, reaching panic levels towards the end of the nineteenth century. When the far greater innervation of the foreskin as compared with the glans was scientifically established between the 1890s and the 1930s, doctors in the anglophone world were hell bent on introducing mass circumcision of male infants in the belief that it would deter masturbation, as well as protect them from a vast range of other ailments; they were thus in no mood to listen to the news, much less face up to its implications (Cold and McGrath 1999). Clitoridectomy had been employed in Britain to treat masturbation in women, but the practice was discredited in the late 1860s (Moscucci 1996); following the false analogy of the clitoris with the penis, doctors decided it was wrong to excise the former, however great the health benefits, but legitimate to amputate the foreskin of the latter. In the USA various forms of female circumcision, including clitoridectomy, were practised on a limited scale until the 1950s.
From a moral perspective, anybody who is horrified by female genital mutilation ought to show equal abhorrence of male genital mutilation. If, as Dr Miller rightly suggest, "sexual selection theory offers a powerful scientific rebuttal to the argument that we should accept female genital mutilation … as part of traditional tribal practices" (Mating mind, p. 241), the same principle applies to male circumcision, whether the justification offered is a divine command, a religious/ethnic requirement, a social or family custom or a medically rationalised precaution (Szasz, 1996). The fact that the USA still carries out widespread circumcision of young males (between 50 and 60 per cent of newborns) undermines and discredits its commendable efforts to discourage similar operations on girls in African and Islamic cultures.
Cold, C.J. and J.R. Taylor (1999), "The prepuce", BJU International, Vol. 83, Supplement 1, January, pp. 34–44. Full text available here
Cold, C.J. and K.A. McGrath (1999), "Anatomy and histology of the penile and clitoral prepuce in primates: Evolutionary perspective of specialised sensory tissue of the external genitalia", in George C. Denniston, Frederick Hodges and Marilyn Milos (eds), Male and female circumcision: Medical, legal and ethical considerations in pediatric practice, New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers
da Carpi, Jacopo Berengario (1959) A short introduction to anatomy, translated by L.R. Lind, University of Chicago Press
de Meo, James (1997), "The geography of male and female genital mutilations", in George C. Denniston and Marilyn Fayre Milos (eds), Sexual mutilations: A human tragedy, New York, Plenum Press
Gollaher, David L. (2000), Circumcision: A history of the world's most controversial surgery, New York, Basic Books
Hodges, Frederick M. (2001), "The ideal prepuce in ancient Greece and Rome: Male genital aesthetics and their relation to lipodermos, circumcision, foreskin restoration", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 75, pp. 375-405. Full text available here
Laqueur, Thomas (1990), Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press
Moscucci, Ornella (1996), "Clitoridectomy, circumcision and the politics of sexual pleasure in mid-Victorian Britain", in Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams (eds), Sexualities in Victorian Britain, Bloomington, Indiana University Press
O'Hara, Kristen (2001), Sex as nature intended it, Hudson, Mass., Turning Point Publications. Further information
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1991), "Virgin territory: The male discovers the clitoris", Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 5, pp. 25-8
Spitz, Rene A. (1952), "Authority and masturbation: Some remarks on a bibliographical investigation", Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 21, pp. 490–527
Szasz, Thomas (1996), "Routine neonatal circumcision: Symbol of the birth of the therapeutic state", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 21, pp. 137-48
Taylor, J.R. et al (1996), "The prepuce: Specialised mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision", British Journal of Urology, Vol. 77, pp. 291-5. Full text available here
[The foreskin] is an odd and apparently trivial appendage whose symbolism is more discussed than its biology. Even anatomy texts tend to ignore the structure and may dismiss it (without evidence) as a relict organ, rather like male nipples. As Aristotle noticed long ago, the prepuce resembles the eyelid, a fine membrane well supplied with blood and nerves, firm on the outside and moist on the inner surface. It covers a large part of the flaccid penis and in some men extends beyond the tip. When retracted, the inner surface reveals a ridged band, filled with sensory cells rather like those on the tips of the fingers and on the lips.
Like the hand and the mouth, the prepuce is a sense organ. Its sensitive self is more important to enjoyment than the glans, which is less responsive to touch than the sole of the foot. Quite what else it might do is not clear, although its cells pump out a lot of prostaglandins, and in rats its secretions are so attractive to females that a male who lacks the structure finds it hard to obtain a mate. In the newborn child the foreskin is attached and may be difficult to draw back. Later in life it becomes looser … [and] at the time of erection the sheath withdraws to provide the extra cover needed for the enlarged organ - as the great surgeon, John Hunter, noticed in the eighteenth century.
All mammals possess a prepuce, but Homo sapiens alone has the urge to destroy it. Nemesis comes in various styles, some more heroic than others. Americans go in for a radical "high and tight" option which removes more than half the skin of the penis, while the original Judaic method ( … abandoned at the end of biblical times by the Jews because their rabbis were concerned that their flock were passing for Gentiles) was far less destructive. After the operation the glans thickens and loses some of its already limited sensitivity.
Steve Jones, Y: The descent of men (New York: Little Brown 2002), pp. 103-4
The author criticises the American medical industry's determination to turn as much human diversity and behaviour as they can into diseases and syndromes requiring medical interventions and cures (which they can provide), and she gives circumcision as an example:
If you're a man, don't think you're safe: you also have a congenital medical condition – your penis. In the 1960s 95 per cent of American-born boys were circumcised. Then, in the 1970s, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared there was "no medical indication" for circumcision. But in 1989 the academy reversed its decision, reporting "potential medical benefits". In 1999 it concluded that the "benefits" are "not significant enough". Imagine a species in which all males have a penis requiring surgical repair. Ridiculous.
Joan Roughgarden, Evolution's rainbow: Diversity, gender and sexuality in nature and people (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 303