Last week at UCL, Sjaak van der Geest of the University of Amsterdam gave a stimulating talk on the topic of faeces. His point of departure was the great 16th-century humanist Erasmus’ observation that his own shit was “bland” to him – not as awful to behold as that of others.
Why should that be? The principal explanatory framework that Sjaak invoked came from the the social anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and Danger, Douglas argued that ideas of pollution in general are explicable on the basis of the degree to which they violate conceptual order. In Douglas’ terms, it’s not the (fecal) “matter” itself that’s dirty, only “matter out of place”. Since our own faeces are necessary and expectable, we’ll not be offended by them – provided we have access to a more-or-less private place to dispose of them.
Sjaak took this further: Next to our own, he argued, we’re likely to find the shit of our children or partners less disgusting than that of others, and so on. The less intimacy with the shitter, the more disgusting the shit.
Some of Sjaak’s examples of shit being “in place” – and therefore not eliciting feelings of disgust – went beyond the sphere of the intimate. For example, night-soil collectors, plumbers working in sewers, and nurses caring for patients who are incontinent, all may handle the faeces of relative strangers regularly, as part of their work. In a different place (for example on their sandwiches at lunchtime) the same stuff would be disgusting.
But in these cases, one might argue, couldn’t the absence of disgust be explained more parsimoniously by habituation? Or could both kinds of learning be involved?
There are other possible explanations too. The same phenomena Sjaak sought to explain by reference to social relations might also be explained from the point of view of disease ecology. A large literature from behavioural science and public health has looked at faeces from this perspective (e.g. Curtis & Biran 2001). From this perspective, we find our own shit less disgusting than others’, most of the time, because our own is unlikely to contain pathogens that are harmful to us. Those of our nearest and dearest, although they may harbour harmful pathogens, are less likely to do so than those of more distant contacts, because of shared environment.
Raising these alternative explanations isn’t to say that social relations aren’t important. They’re simply different levels of explanation.
This reminds me of Robert Sapolsky’s argument that, where human behaviour is concerned, explanation in terms of any one level of causation is almost always inadequate. Multilevel causation is the norm. Much of what we do and feel is shaped by culture: the network of concepts, symbols and habits that we learn as we grow up. But not all of it. A large part of what we feel and do is not explicable purely in terms of individual or social learning.
Nevertheless there’s a tendency within disciplines to focus on their own favoured explanatory frameworks to the exclusion of others – symbolism for social anthropologists, pathogen exposure for public health folks, and so on. It’s challenging to speak from a position of confidence about what makes humans tick – even about something as at first sight as simple as our relationship to dirt – without denying the validity of other levels of explanation. But that’s the challenge of a catholic anthropology (that is to say, one that embraces multiple ways of thinking about humankind).
This post originally appeared on the UCL Medical Anthropology blog, where it is accompanied by a response from Sjaak van der Geest.
Curtis, V., & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease. Is hygiene in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44(1), 17–31.
Douglas, M. 2000 . Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.