Defending the Wisdom of Repugnance:
Part 2 of 3 — Disgust as a Form of Cognition

In 1980, cult-movie director David Lynch released “The Elephant Man,” a film that told the story of John Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman who had the disfiguring congenital disease, Proteous Syndrome. After spending most of his life as a side-show freak, Merrick wanted nothing more in life than to regain his dignity. In the most memorable line of the movie, Merrick cries out in anguish, “ I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a man!”
Ironically, the very emotion that led people to treat Merrick as an animal is one that is peculiarly human. One of the most essential needs of humanity is a recognition of our inherent dignity, which entails separating us from the other species. In the seminal psychological research report “Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship Between Disgust and Morality”, the authors note:

One of the most widely shared features of disgusting events, we believe, is that they remind us of our animal nature. Human beings in many cultures feel the need to distinguish themselves from animals and to hide the markers of our animal nature behind humanizing rituals and practices. If you wanted to convince yourself that you were not an animal, your body would confound you in certain domains: you would still eat, excrete, and have sex, and you would still bleed when your outer envelope was breached, or when you menstruated or gave birth. Every culture prescribes the proper human way to handle these biological functions, and people who violate these prescriptions are typically reviled or shunned.

As an example of this animal-reminder view, the researchers point out that the only bodily secretion that is generally not regarded as disgusting is the only one that is peculiar to humans: tears. (To prove their point they provide the following illustration: “Imagine that you lend your handkerchief to an acquaintance, who returns it wet with mucous, urine, sweat, saliva, breast milk, semen, or tears. In which case would you be least uncomfortable?”)

This animal-reminder view of disgust also highlights a common quality of food, sex, and envelope-violations. In all three domains there are many safe options available to human beings, yet many or most options are taboo. Almost all animal flesh is edible and nutritious, yet most human societies taboo many of the animal species available to them. All human beings (and some animals) are potential sexual partners, yet most human societies taboo many of the possible pairings of partners (and many of the possible sexual acts). There are dozens of safe modifications of the body envelope, yet most human societies taboo all but a few (e.g., ear-piercing, “nose jobs”, body building, and perhaps breast enlargement or reduction for Americans). Americans would consider it monstrous (i.e. inhuman) for a person to engage in unrestricted sex, unrestricted eating of animal flesh, or unrestricted body modification.
Food and sex taboos may have a further similarity in that the middle-distance is often the preferred range. Tambiah (1969) reports that in the Thai village he studied, animals cannot be eaten if they are too close to humans (pets, monkeys, humans), or too distant from humans (invertebrates and other “anomalous” animals; wild animals of the forest). And sexual partners cannot be too much like the self (same sex, same nuclear family) or too distant (animals, people of other races). In many societies the existence of an incest taboo combined with a preference for cross-cousin marriage exemplifies this preference for the middle distance.

But if disgust is a human emotion how does it become embodied as a cultural artifact?

The answer may perhaps be found in a controversial but growing view of human cognition: that it is embodied, and that it may involve metaphors and pattern-matching more than propositions and reasoning. Margolis (1987) argues that language and propositional reasoning are so recent in the evolution of the human brain that they are unlikely to be the basic processes of human cognition. He proposes that cognition, for humans as well as animals, is primarily a matter of quick and intuitive pattern matching, in which patterns get “tuned up” gradually by past experience. This view of cognition is consistent with current research on neural networks, which do not process information by manipulating symbols. Rather, we apply past patterns of action or recognition, quickly and intuitively, in new situations that resemble the original cuing conditions.

Repugnance, therefore, may be a form of knowing that precedes rational thought in the same way that “fight or flight” responses work. When confronted with a dangerous situation we don’t have to wait until we’ve formed a reasoned response based on propositional knowledge before we react. Our autonomic responses, which are conditioned to respond to similar situations, take over and allow us to respond quickly. But not every harmful situation elicits fear, which may be why we’ve developed the emotion of disgust:

Anger, fear and disgust may be responses to different kinds of threats. Anger is a proper and effective response to threats to one’s rights, or one’s property, which can be challenged. Fear is an effective response to threats that can not be challenged, which one can run away from. Yet there are threats for which fear and anger are not appropriate. There are threats that one can’t simply run away from or fight off. Some of these threats, such as oral contamination, may be inescapable aspects of human bodily experience. Other threats, such as individual meaninglessness, may be cultural constructions unique to a particular time and place. We suggest that disgust, or some subset of its embodied schemata, is the emotional response to this heterogenous class of threats. Disgust makes us step back, push away, or otherwise draw a protective line between the self and the threat.

Whereas core-disgusts guard against contamination of the body, socio-moral disgust guards against contamination of the “soul.” Where one protects the health of the human body, the other protects human dignity. Prior to the germ theory of disease, scientific knowledge was inadequate to explain why we should be disgusted by certain forms of “contamination.” This pre-rational wisdom, though, allowed us to survive as a species until our knowledge caught up with our intuition.
If socio-moral disgust is an offshoot of core disgust, then shouldn’t we be careful before we dismiss it as a relic of an outmoded cultural bias? What if the “wisdom of repugnance” protects us from harm in the same way that core disgust do? Should this form of cognition be dismissed simply because it may hinder scientific advancement? That’s the question we shall turn to next.
Part 3 – Science and the Need for Intellectual Humility

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Boonton

    As an example of this animal-reminder view, the researchers point out that the only bodily secretion that is generally not regarded as disgusting is the only one that is peculiar to humans: tears. (To prove their point they provide the following illustration:

  • mumon

    As an example of this animal-reminder view, the researchers point out that the only bodily secretion that is generally not regarded as disgusting is the only one that is peculiar to humans: tears. (To prove their point they provide the following illustration:

  • Carridine

    In the Teachings of the Lord of Hosts is the declaration that, “…the Rational Soul becomes associated with its body at the moment of conception.”
    Linguistically, the Sanskrit word hu-man recogizes this, being translated in English as ‘god-creature'; the Rational Soul marks us as god-creatures, able to rationally recognized repugnance and disgust when confronted by violations of our god-like nature in favor of our animal-creature nature.

  • Blogotional

    What Disgusts You?

    What would we be capable of if we quit arguing about things that were settled centuries ago and starting working on things that were not?

  • Boonton

    I must say this hardly proves the point: Imagine, instead, you lend your hankerchief to your sexual partner…
    From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense as well. If you’re ‘hard wired’ to not feel as much disgust at the secretions of someone you love (either a sexual partner, child, or even just close friend) you’re able to help them when they are sick or injured. Like all our natural functions, these sometimes get out of hand causing us to go a bit overboard when it comes to fetishes etc.

  • Lancelot Finn

    Clothes have always seemed to me one of the most obvious, and strangest, pointers to our not-merely-animal nature. Humans wear clothes; animals do not.
    Clothes are, in part, a useful tool. They protect us against cold, against sunburn, and occasionally against injury. Some kinds of clothes have other uses: camouflage marks a soldier, boots help us walk over rough surfaces, water-proof knee-boots allow us to wade through rivers without getting our legs wet, etc. Some clothes also improve our personal appearance.
    Yet none of those are the reason that we wear clothes. There are two proofs for this, one indirect and one direct. The indirect proof is that when none of the reasons apply, we still wear clothes. In warm climates, where clothes are not needed for protection against the cold, clothes are still worn. If you walk into a warm room, you take off your hat, but you don’t take off your pants. No matter how warm the day gets, you don’t see people walk around the city streets nude. The direct proof is simply that physical needs are not what most people think about when they put on clothes (though sometimes you might take the weather into account when choosing a sweater over a T-shirt). As for beauty, the spectacle of the human form that is most sought-after of all is precisely the naked human form. If clothes are meant to be comfortable, beautiful and to protect us against the elements, nakedness is more comfortable and beautiful, and in hot weather it is also well-suited to the elements. Yet it is forbidden.
    Clothes lie at the heart of the story of the Garden of Eden, which describes the Fall as closely related to shame: “their eyes were opened, and they were ashamed.” Unlike the animals. According to Genesis, the mark of the Fall is this weird fact that we are ashamed to be seen naked by others. I have never heard of any remotely satisfying effort to address this by people of a physicalist or secularist worldview, and I strongly doubt that any such effort exists. In this sense, the evolution/creation debate is a sideshow. Whatever the facts about natural history (and I don’t presume to know them), the Genesis account poignantly highlights a mystery in the human condition. And that mystery remains, to this day, embarassing to a Darwinist account that tries to blur out the distinction between humans and animals, which has been well understood to every past civilization, and which the most convinced Darwinist demonstrates every morning when he puts on clothes.
    While I’m here, I thought I might interest your readers in an effort I made last fall to lay a Christian foundation for capitalism. Here’s my article “Work, Service and Worship.”

  • Boonton

    Obviously you have never noticed that many tribes who live in very warm environments often wear little to no clothes

  • corrie

    True, but they almost always cover the genitals, even in the rain forest.
    I’ve thought long and hard about what it is that makes us human, and I’ve long ago concluded that it is the ability to make moral choices. You’ll never see a lion become a vegetarian because he’s decided that killing for food is wrong.
    Now I wonder if innate disgust may be tied to that somehow. This was a very interesting post – I’ll have to return to the series when I have more time.

  • Boonton

    True, another factor is language. As far as we know humans are the only animals that have fully developed language (as opposed to ‘communication’ which is what dolphins and other animals have). As for moral choices, that’s kind of tough. Mutual aid, helping those suffering and such have been observed in some animals. Are they making moral choices or is it simply a instinct that helps them as a species survive?