Van Lewis and Nobel Laureate George Wald: Against Circumcision
This article was originally published at the Daily Kos in Jan 2007 by RealityBias. It is here with permission to preserve the original work. For further information about Van Lewis, visit his memorial page on Facebook: FB.com/HonoringVan
Van Lewis first brought the issue of circumcision to the attention of his professor and Nobel Laureate, George Wald.
The worldwide human rights movement for bodily integrity has support from some of the world’s finest scientists, among them Nobel laureates in Physiology and Medicine Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of the DNA molecule, and George Wald, discoverer of vitamin A in the retina of the eye and how it functions with light there to form the molecular and energetic basis of vision.
The genital integrity movement is not new, and is destined to be revisited by every generation of males as they mature, understand what was done to them, and take up the cause.
Van Lewis met George Wald at Harvard University, as a biology student:
"The Nature of Living Things" was much more than a standard introductory college biology course. It was a tour of the then known physical universe, living and not, with a consummate tour guide who soon would win the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of Vitamin A in the retina of the eye and how visual pigments there work with light to form the molecular and energetic basis of vision. A top research scientist, George was also later declared by Time magazine one of America’s 10 best teachers. He was certainly the best I ever had.
Professor Wald became an intactivist, but he didn't start out that way, and circumcised his own son before his eyes were opened to the issue.
Wald (1906 - 1997) –– child of immigrant New York Jewish parents, beloved Harvard biology professor, and an important U.S. social activist for peace and justice –– worked for many important social causes, among them human genital integrity, both male and female.
Professor Wald was an expert in the field of sensory perception, but the nature of the human propensity to remove a sensory part of the male (and female) genitals eluded his scrutiny until late in life:
"George, have you ever thought much about circumcision, from a biological point of view?"
His eyes grew big.
He was surprised by my question, I think, not because I had asked it, but because he –– a Nobel laureate Harvard biologist who had spent his scientific career studying a human sensory system in molecular detail –– he never had. Not my question; it was his own answer that shocked him:
"No", he said. "I never have. I’ll have to go home and do that."
Perhaps the greatest minds are those not locked in by previous presumptions and actions. George had circumcised his own son. So what? Changing your mind is an integral part of using it effectively. Keeping it open is the life-blood of intelligence.
"I hadn’t thought at all about circumcision until that conversation in Tallahassee; but now that I have thought about it –– ... I could not bring myself to have another infant of mine circumcised.
Sometimes discovering an essential question is even more important that discovering an answer. The question of why we circumcise was one of those questions George saw immediately was crucially important. He deliberated considerably over the answer.
"There is a complication, for I am a Jew, circumcised as is my son. A non-observing Jew, a non-believer in anything supernatural, yet deeply involved, a Bible reader -- of both Testaments -- and very much a Jew. For me there are special barriers against deciding not to circumcise; for it is hard to break with a tradition that one’s ancestors have observed for thousands of years, however else one feels."
Likewise for Mr. Lewis, once he understood the gravity of the habit of genital cutting, disturbing as the subject was, he could not turn his back on it. It was too important.
The questions I had asked at Harvard and afterward about the anatomy, anthropology, biology, history, mythology, neurology, religion, psychology, and psychopathology involved in mutilating human genitals had been followed by some often disturbing but –– with hindsight –– inevitable answers. Often I wished I had never asked these questions, nor listened to nor heard their tragic answers, but I had, and for me there was no turning back to the blindness and ignorance of my earlier years in my genitally mutilating culture of origin.
A novel theory attributable to Van Lewis and affirmed by George Wald, but rarely heard of since, is as follows: It may be that some part of the reason people have been cutting off foreskins for so long is its identification with the feminine.
The foreskin seemed to me at that moment to be very much like a male vagina. And then I realized that maybe one reason the doctor circumcised my infant penis in May of 1943, and maybe a reason circumcisers on this planet for millennia before and ever since have been chopping off boys’ healthy foreskins, is that they regarded the male foreskin, perhaps usually unconsciously, as being, of all things, feminine.
Once professor Wald made up his mind on the practice of circumcision endemic both to his American and Jewish cultures, he minced no words. From his still yet-to-be-published essay:
"For it is a barbarous thing to meet a newly born infant with the knife, with a deliberate mutilation. And the part that is removed is not negligible; it has clear and valuable functions to perform. Not circumcising a boy will not only spare him a brutal violence as he enters life; it will promise him a richer existence. And that not only because the possession of a foreskin will increase his genital sensitivity and make possible more satisfactory and pleasurable sexual activity; but also because of the consideration with which this essay began: that the foreskin is the female element in the male."
The notion that genital cutting in some way aims to remove that part of the other sex in an individual is outside the scope of biology and science, but nevertheless a fascinating view on this strange practice:
"To be sure, that is only a primitive insight, and has no standing in science. Yet that is hardly a criticism. What we consider to be male or female is largely cultural in any case; many of our conventional notions in this regard are now in flux and being challenged. This one has more basis in reality than most. Also unlike many unscientific interpretations of reality that are misleading and dehumanizing, this one can sustain, enrich and illuminate. It offers some redress where it is most needed, in a world increasingly devastated and threatened with destruction by a rampant machismo, a mindless exercise of organized aggressive maleness." ...
"For every child is born into the world with much of one sex and a little of the other. The mistake is by a mutilation to take that little of the other sex away. It should be left as nature evolved it, as in the child, so that all our lives we can go on being much of one sex, and always a little of the other."
That was in the mid-1970s. We don't still have all these problems with violence in our culture, do we? Well, yes, we do. How we are raised as young children probably has a much more profound effect than any video-game somebody might want to ban. Considerable scientific study has been done which correlates violent and anti-social behavior with early childhood experiences.
"... The circumcised organ is only the beginning of it, and kept hidden. What are displayed, like so much male plumage, are the penis surrogates and aggrandizements: the guns; the cars, named for predatory beasts, driven to and from work like PT boats; the flaunting of power and status; the devastation of the earth and the cultivation of a technology of death and destruction beyond any former imagining, all in the pursuit of an obsessive accumulation of wealth far beyond any possibility of use –– all the brutal, gaudy, pretentious and infinitely dangerous panoply of male aggression that now envelopes and threatens our lives."
We recognize that beating ones child is a form of abuse, and greatly increases the chance of a child being violent as well. Can we overlook what is violently done to a child's genitals when they are just days old? Can we say it has no effect because they are too young to remember? Professor Wald certainly didn't think so.
"This is no time to circumcise males. They need all the female element they can get."
Van Lewis has George Wald's 39 page essay on circumcision. The Nobel Laureate couldn't get it published. In his time, he couldn't break through the public taboo on the topic. That taboo is alive and well today, although there has been progress. The circumcision rate in America is down substantially. George would certainly be happy about its continued decline since his death in 1997.
Wald told me later that The New Yorker had found his essay "too radical." Yes, it was. He was getting to the root of the matter, and nearly nobody wanted that in 1975, same as today.
Like all those comprising todays genital integrity movement, George was ahead of his time. Regardless of risk to his reputation, his conscience took precedence.
...he was born of immigrant Jewish parents in New York City), in 1975, at 68 years of age, he is able, long before most of us, and after being confronted only briefly with the issue in a passing conversation, to study circumcision seriously and carefully, and to differentiate the past –– including the long human past, his distant ancestors’, his present family’s, and his own past –– from the clear responsibilities and requirements of the human future, and to come out with correct answers for important scientific, medical, and human questions he asked himself in response to the simple question I asked him on the way to the airport.
George fully understood the great difficulty of fighting this de-humanizing act still practiced worldwide:
I don’t think it’s easy for any of us, especially for those of us who have been genitally mutilated. Usually we’d rather not know, so most of us still don’t. I believe it is this deep and widespread preference of adults in genitally mutilating cultures for ignorance on the subject, and this blinding preference alone, which makes the journey to freedom from genital mutilation for the world's children such a long, torturous, dangerous road.
There is danger of offending those who's strong preference is to ignore this pressing human rights issue. They have in the past been successful in branding the topic too taboo to discuss. But they are on the wrong side of progressive human thought, on the wrong side of history, and they will fail to silence the movement for the integrity of every child's body.
Add your name in support Universal Declaration on Circumcision, Excision and Incision and The Ashley Montagu Resolution.