Mutilated Humanity

By Montagu, Ashley | The Humanist, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Mutilated Humanity

Montagu, Ashley, The Humanist

Perhaps the most profound name ever bestowed upon a species was that given to human beings by Karl Linnaeus in 1753 in his great book Systema Naturae - namely, Homo sapiens. Linnaeus briefly epitomized this with the words: "Man, know thyself" (Homo nosce Te ipsum). This sounds like an injunction, and it is; but it was also intended to underscore the fact that human beings are the only creatures in the world capable of self-consciousness and contemplation and characterized by an unparalleled creativity.

Yet an impartial survey of Homo sapiens' record since 1753 would suggest that Oscar Wilde, as usual, was on the mark when he said that Homo sapiens was the most premature definition ever given a species. A possible improvement might be, in demotic English, "the wise guy, too clever by far for his own good." Perhaps the more appropriate appellation at this stage of human maldevelopment would be Homo sap, "the addlepated one." Not that wisdom is not there as a potentiality. It is. Every child is born with the wisdom of its body and of its mind, striving to develop and grow in an environment that satisfies its basic behavioral needs, to grow and develop in physical and mental health. By mental health I mean the ability to love, to work, to play, and to think critically. Alas, this ability has been confused and adulterated by adults, who have rarely consulted the child and have instead ritually imposed their own adult confusions upon the child. Perhaps that explains why most adults are largely deteriorated babies. That is why to be born into the human family is to be in danger of suffering the usual mental and sometimes physical mutilations to which children are made to submit.

I think it would be greatly to our advantage if, instead of calling ourselves Homo sapiens, we called ourselves Homo mutilans, the mutilating species, the species that mutilates both mind and body, often in the name of reason, religion, tradition, custom, morality, and law. Were we to adopt such a name for our species, it might focus our attention upon what is wrong with us and where we might begin setting ourselves right.

In surveying the history of humanity, we find that there is hardly a visible part of the human body that has not been submitted to some form of mutilation. For instance, some prehistoric peoples, to judge from their mural art, left negative impressions of their hands from which parts of the fingers had been removed. Such figures are known from several caves associated with the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic Perigordian phase of culture of the Pyrenees, dating back to some 25,000 years before the present. Such mutilations have been not uncommon among indigenous peoples of our own day. The story of bodily mutilations would occupy a large volume in the story of humankind, and few would be more strange and interesting than those relating to male and female circumcision.

By circumcision we understand the cutting away in the male of the whole or a part of the foreskin of the penis. In the female the operation is properly described as excision and consists of the abscission of either a part or the whole of the external genitalia; to this is frequently added the operation of infibulation, the sewing together of the parts of the vulva, leaving only a small opening for the release of urine and menstrual blood.

Infibulation - "the locking of the gate," as one Egyptian woman puts it - represents the male invention of an artificial chastity girdle. Together, excision and infibulation are known as Pharaonic circumcision, from the fact that it is first known to have been practiced in the time of the pharaohs. As a generic term, both operations may be referred to as circumcision.

The most difficult question with which the anthropologist is confronted is the origin of any custom. The truth is that it is generally not possible to answer most questions relating to origins. All sorts of explanations have been offered for the origin of circumcision, and those speculations seem almost as numerous as the autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa. …

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