Healthy celibacy

For millennia, Tibetan families have sent one of their sons to the local monastery to become a monk living in celibacy until death. This was usually the fate of one in seven village boys.

Celibacy is usually present in news reports and commentaries as a jumping-off point for journalistic outings or memes - either anticlerical or outright anti-Christian. The fact that other monastic traditions, often older than Christianity, such as the Buddhist or Hindu traditions also require it of their adepts, is spoken of in a semi-cloak or not at all. In an age in which proposals for asceticism are only addressed to one organ, the stomach (and even then only with a view to preventing an epidemic of obesity or diabetes), phrases about the positive role of sexual abstinence hardly pass the lips of the authors.

Be active!

For more than half a century, multitudes of sexologists have been zealously pushing for a true "catch-as-catch-can" on the issue of sexual activity. They insist that it is essential to life, they enumerate the thousandfold inhibitions resulting from celibacy (and the damage it entails). The consequences of celibacy can be a premature decrease in the levels of certain neurotransmitters and hormones, which can cause, among other things, prostate hypertrophy, a tendency to depression and even an acceleration of the ageing process. Meanwhile, the negative effects of sexual abstinence depend on genetic predisposition, the place of sex in a person's hierarchy of needs or the ability to realistically locate one's vigour and feelings in other areas.

Stanislaw Majcher, a Jesuit from Zakopane, used to say tartly that since sex is for health, he must already be a very sick man. It is worth adding (not everyone knows this great retreatist) that Fr Majcher does not look like a lame man. But... It is also thought-provoking to hear Maks exclaim from the film 'Sexmission': "You've f*cked up because you haven't had a boyfriend in a long time. You need a man!". Both may be true.

Sexual purity (and also the very definition of sexual inactivity as " purity ") is at an incomparably lower price today than it was a generation or two ago. However, for various reasons (not just philosophical or religious), it had value in the past. Why? To find the answer, the natural sciences and new computational methods were involved, allowing reality to be modelled mathematically.

For we are confronted with a serious question from the field of evolutionism: in the case of the voluntary renunciation of offspring (and this is the effect of consistent celibacy), can we still speak of evolutionary benefits at all? It seems impossible: evolutionary success is, after all, to have as many healthy grandchildren as possible. However, anthropologist Ruth Mace from University College London, together with colleagues at Lanzhou University, decided to seek answers to these questions by studying lifelong celibates in Tibet.
Buddhist monks at Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest site. Currently only 1,400 monks remain in Tibet; many fled, others were persecuted, arrested or expelled after the failed uprising in 1959. Previously, over 110,000 monks lived in Tibet. Photo Bettmann / Getty Images
She was not the first: demographers and evolutionists have been pondering these questions for a long time. Thomas Malthus, a pioneer of demography, argued that " preventive restrictions on population growth", which might include celibacy, were one strategy for the survival of the human race. Later evolutionists, in explaining the existence of celibacy, argued that practices that are a burden on individuals (and this is what not having children is) can be undertaken when people adapt to norms that benefit the group.

We are then dealing with cooperation, as much a component of human evolution as the struggle for existence, which is differentiated by all cases. Other scholars have argued that people create religious (or other) institutions because it serves their selfish or family interests, and those who do not engage in it are shunned. Thus, submission to the rigours of celibacy would maintain social peace.

Son, go to the monastery!

Of great relevance here is the issue of the redirection of altruism that people are prone to towards relatives (with whom we have much in common genetically) to unrelated people. As Hector Qirko stated in the Journal of Religion and Science (2004),religious institutions that require celibacy and other forms of altruism from some of their members use the human predisposition to favour genetic relatives in order to maintain and reinforce these behaviours towards unrelated people.

Let us return to Tibet and the Buddhist monks recently studied by anthropologists. For millennia, Tibetan families have sent one of their sons to a local monastery to become a monk living a celibate life until death. This was usually the fate of one in seven boys. Families usually invoked religious reasons, but economic and prestige considerations could also come into play, as well as that property of human populations known today as cross-linking, and in the past as ustowing. Reproductive issues were 'secured' by the other children, while the related monk formed the abutment in the monastery.

During the British research, 530 households of villages in the eastern Tibetan plateau, Gansu province, were interviewed. These villages are inhabited by patriarchal Amdo Tibetans who herd yak and goat herds and cultivate small plots of land. In these communities, property is generally passed down through the male line. Their genealogies have been reconstructed, establishing whether any of the family members were monks.

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It turned out that men who had a brother monk were richer and had more yaks than those who had no brother in the monastery. Whoever has a priest in his lineage does not suffer poverty? Not necessarily: the sisters of monks did not benefit at all. Why then did the brothers benefit? In these agro-pastoral communities, they are the ones competing for their parents' resources, i.e. land and livestock.

Meanwhile, monks are not allowed to own property and do not maintain contact with their families. So by sending one of their sons to a monastery, the parents weaken the conflict between the brothers: the number of competitors decreases. The parents' household is usually inherited by the first-born sons; subsequent ones have the chance to go to the monastery. Do relations in Eastern Tibet differ little in this respect from those in the extended families of the noble Republic?

Beloved uncle monk

Such a comparison would, of course, be somewhat exaggerated: in the Republic celibacy was chosen (or agreed to) more often by daughters than sons. It was certainly also more consistently practised by them (if only for its visible effects). In both cases, however, it was a conscious policy of planning the future of children in a patriarchal family model. Diversifying risk and getting rid of competition for resources is important.

Most interestingly, however, according to research in Tibet, the act of celibacy also determines the later shape of the family! Indeed, brothers of monks had more children than other men, and their wives tended to give birth at a younger age than women without celibate brothers-in-law. As a result, although this qualifies as a paradox, grandparents who had a monk among their sons had more grandchildren!

It seems simple: less competition for resources means more resources to distribute and therefore more healthy children as a consequence. The practice of sending a son to a monastery, which is not costly for the parent, ensures reproductive and therefore evolutionary success: the brother monk makes men richer and therefore more competitive in the marriage market. In other words, the monk does not have children, but helps his brothers to have more.

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What about the contemporary, increasingly prevalent tendency to 'choose childlessness'? Obviously, it is in no way related to the choice of celibacy or the 'sublimation of the libido'. But does this mean that it in no way affects the reproductive strategies and opportunities of contemporary families?

On the surface, this seems unlikely, especially considering how many families in the West are single-child households, in which case, once the only "heir" has chosen childlessness, further family strategies are simply out of the question. The family model has also changed - it is no longer the parents who send their offspring either to the bridal suite or "behind the cloister". And yet - perhaps it is time for the trend that fascinates cultural anthropologists to also be examined by specialists in evolutionary theory?

- Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
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