Committed to an Institution

Taenia solium, commonly known as the pork tapeworm lives its adult life coiled comfortably in the warm folds of intestines. But before it can reach its 2-3 meter final form, it begins post-morula life as an itty-bitty little larva. And as anyone who has ever witnessed a toddler knock over a tray of crafting supplies that had an open container of glitter on it can tell you, itty-bitty little things end up in places you wouldn’t ordinarily want.

Like a human brain.

Cysticercosis most commonly happens when some unfortunate sod breathes in fecal particulate from someone with a pork tapeworm infestation. Extended, the (extremely simplified) infestation route goes a little something like this:

  1. Swine inhales tapeworm eggs from poop-fertilized field. Cysts form in flesh.
  2. Human eats undercooked, cyst-riddled pork chop. Obtains classic in-the-gut tapeworm. Maybe slims down a little.
  3. Infested human, lacking modern plumbing and sanitation, leaves egg-laden feces out in the open.
  4. Feces dries out, turns to dust. Dust gets kicked up by mechanical agitation (weather or traffic perhaps).
  5. Passerby (perhaps even the original human) aspirates egg-rich poop dust.
  6. Poop dust enters lungs, then bloodstream, then blood/brain barrier.
  7. Eggs hatch, and unable to grow to normal adult tapeworm size, form brain cysts.
  8. Brain lesions, epilepsy, madness, death.

Some of the dietary prohibitions enumerated in Leviticus (or in other holy texts) serve useful game theoretical purposes: by raising the costs of group membership, by making in-group signals more costly, tribal shibboleths retain their integrity. But there are some diet restrictions that serve plain and simple public health purposes. In a human settlement without a functioning sewer system or without sufficient water for regular handwashing, swine husbandry is a particularly foul crapshoot.

Of course, a cyst-riddled brain isn’t the worst human-specific parasitic infection you might contract. Botflies aren’t shy about burrowing into a human brain and devouring themselves a nice little bachelor pad. Imagine conducting an autopsy and after you saw the skull open, you find half a lobe missing. It’s astounding really just how much damage a brain and take and still provide the basic functions needed to keep a person alive. Still, even though there are worse infestations than cysteicercosis, it easily ranks as the most common of the serious parasitic infestations worldwide.

Anika: “As far as you know, anyway.”

Me: “Yes, as far as I know.” I was fighting the tide using a listless headwind. By shore reckoning, we were standing still at best, maybe even going backwards. “Guys, I think we’re going to have to paddle. Clay, can you get the dinghy oars please?” My arm was growing tired of waggling the tiller. “There’s no such thing as medical data anymore, so the best I have to go on is what I knew from before.”

Brigit: “So the Scaphists are here to what, enforce kosher laws?” She took one of the oars and hitched it to a stanchion. “Seems a little brutal, don’t you think? And why just men?”

Me: “Brutal? Yeah, I suppose. But if you want to enforce dietary restrictions in the general population, you need to be pretty persuasive.”

Clay: “I don’t think ‘persuasive’ is the word you’re looking for.” He pointed to the flotilla. “Let’s review what they do to offenders.” He started ticking off fingers. “First, they strip you naked. Then they tie you to the bottom of a modified canoe, your arms, legs, and head sticking out. Then they force-feed you honey and milk until you have enough to guarantee you’ll get diarrhea. Then they pump that same mixture into your colon. Then they give you dozens of little cuts in the tender parts of your body: armpits, crotch, navel, solar plexus. Then they anoint those cuts with more honey. Then they put another canoe atop that, this one inverted, which they attach to the first canoe with baling wire. Then they tie that contraption up to a buoy and let the honey and your diarrhea attract flies, which slowly eat you alive. They come by a couple times a week to give you more milk and honey to make sure you don’t die of dehydration or exposure first.” His oar rig was ready and now both he and Brigit were pulling for the coast. “If that’s ‘persuasion’ I’d hate to hear what you’d describe as torture.”

Brigit: “I think I see what he means. It’s not persuasion for the people they’re brutally murdering. It’s persuasion for everybody else. I just thank whatever gods live out here found the two of you.” She glanced at Clotho wagging his tail forward of the mast. “Sorry, three of you before they found you.”

Clay: “Sam’s little monologue about what was it?’

Me: “Cysticercosis.”

Clay: “Cysticercosis was plenty convincing for me.”

Brigit: “Well, you’re not the type.”

Anika: “Type?” Anika had been helping sheet the jib as I tacked my way to nowhere. “What type?”

Brigit: “I hope you boys won’t take this the wrong way, but the stereotypes about snips and snails and puppy dog tails has a germ of truth to it.” She rolled her shoulders, adjusting to the unfamiliar strain of rowing. The afternoon rescue mission had already tested her endurance. I figured I’d give her a few more minutes, then swap tiller duty with her. “The type of man likely to eat undercooked pork is also the type of man unlikely to wash his hands thoroughly before eating. He’s probably also the type of man to poop any old place instead of burying it properly.”

Anika: “So what types of man do we have?”

Brigit: “Ours are domesticated, honey. Not only do they have us and our sharp noses to look out for them, but they grew up in civilization. 2008 may have robbed them of hope like it did the rest of us, but stripping atavistic disgust is a tougher trick to pull. Disgust is deep. It’s animal.”

Anika: “So those guys” she pointed back at the canoes “didn’t learn how to wash their hands right? And they had to be killed for it?”

Brigit: “I don’t think you have to be taught to know what disgust is, but I do think you have to be taught to know what to be disgusted by. It’s possible that those poor guys never learned to be disgusted by raw pork.”

Anika: “And you guys have?” She aimed that question at Clay and me.

Clay: “Yeah.”

Me: “Big time.”

Anika: “I don’t get it. Why just boys? Girls can be gross too sometimes.” She conjured a half-condescending, half-mocking expression and aimed in generally aftward. “Trust me.”

Me: “I’ve been on the road with you long enough to agree, but you’re missing the point.”

Anika: “Oh? Do enlighten me, sir.” Brigit was beginning to rub off on her. I’m not sure I entirely approved of the shift in tone.

Me: “It’s a matter of statistical distributions. Among young men of marriageable age, maybe 25% are nasty enough to eat raw pork or wipe their butts improperly.” I paused for rhetorical effect. “Or both at the same time.”

Clay: “Is that necessary?” His wrinkled nose told me everything I needed to know about how well Clay had retained his more delicate sensibilities. Brigit mimicked gagging.

Me: “Women, contrarily, usually have a narrower distribution. If you want real fastidiousness or real slovenliness, you need a man. But if you want someone who’ll roll up her sleeves to do a dirty job but then make sure her fingernails are spotless afterwards, cherchez la femme. If 25% of men are revolting as a sun-popped herring corpse, you might be able to dig up a tenth of that among the female population if you look hard enough. Temperance is a feminine virtue.”

Anika: “Okay, but so what? And why mention marriage?”

Me: “The answer to the first question also contains the answer to the second question. Foul women are already a fringe part of whatever still passes for society around here. If they want to risk having tapeworm larvae cysts contaminate their brains, that’s no one’s problem but theirs. But men? A quarter of all men is a problem for everyone.”

Brigit: “Especially without good water treatment facilities or sanitary slaughterhouses.”

Clay: “So the 5 nastiest percent of men can go ahead and pair off with their loathsome counterparts and kill each other with brain parasites, and the rest of us suffer no ill consequences other than a little cry of conscience. On the other side of the distribution, the clean 75% is just fine on their own. It’s the remaining 20% that poses the public health threat.”

Me: “Ordinarily, wives would keep their slovenly husbands in line.” I was about to finish the thought before I was abruptly interrupted.

Brigit: “Or if not their wives, then at least the dating and marriage competitions would induce many men to maintain elementary hygiene and housekeeping standards.”

Me: “Took the words right out of my mouth. If anyone ever tells you human relationships are only about love, it’s because they’re trying to sell you something. A lot of it, especially during the search phase is about signalling fitness, which usually means trying to outdo the competition.”

Anika: “I’m still not sure what that has to do with brain parasites. Oh hey, I think the tide is easing up. Look at those trees over there. I think we’re moving.”

Me: “Marriage is dead.”

Clay: “First you understate, now you overstate. Make up your mind.”

Me: “Well, if it’s not dead, then it’s at least critically wounded.” Anika was right. We were starting to make some headway. Not much, but better than nothing. “Tell me something. What’s marriage for? What’s its purpose?”

Clay: “It’s a common law contract. It specifies privileges, benefits, conditions, and penalties for the spouses.”

Brigit: “It’s commitment technology. Men and women have slightly different objectives for pair bonding, and marriage aligns disparate ends for common purpose. If it’s done right, both parties are better off than they otherwise would be.”

Anika: “What are you guys talking about? What about love? Marriage is what two people do when they’re in love. Forever.” The wind was starting to pick up, so she adjusted the jib cleat to compensate for the extra roll. “It might not always work out in the end, but love is the most important thing.”

Me: “I guess I asked a bad question. You’re all talking about the private purposes of marriage. What I’m asking about is the social function. Marriage is an institution. Institutions arise to fulfill common interests. If it were a private matter, it’d be negotiated privately. You know, like property line negotiations or business contracts. The very fact that marriage has a common law definition suggests that it’s relevant to more than just the wedded couple.”

Brigit: “Where do you come up with this stuff? The common law is nothing but codified pairwise dispute resolution agreements. Easements, rights of way, much of malum in se criminal law, all this stuff comes from actual complaints between actual people. The source of English common law is deliberations between individuals. Legislation is social, common law is private. You have it backwards.”

Me: “I don’t think I do. A court decision may be the origin of a rule, but the rule survives widespread adoption only because others find it to be in their interest. Fundamental procedural unfairness won’t long pass the test of public outrage. Tyrannical legislation can survive so long as it’s backed by the force of the sovereign. The common law is the law of peers. Legislation is the law of dominance. Of the two, only a law of peers and by peers can reliably be a law for peers.”

Brigit: “Pollyanna.”

Anika: “What?”

Brigit: “Old movie. Maybe it’s a book too. Put it on your library list for Astoria. Anyway, I’m still waiting for Sam to defend his claim that marriage is some kind of a public good deserving a social institution.”

Sam: “I forget how the actual quote goes, but G.K. Chesterton said something like ‘family is the factory in which humanity is manufactured.’ I like this notion. When I first read it, I thought he meant that civilized children grow up to be civilized adults.”

Clay: “You changed your mind?”

Me: “A little. Being cared for is fine, but doing the caring is at least as civilizing, perhaps even more so. The output of Chesterton’s factory isn’t just children who reach majority age, but young husbands and fathers who learn how to nurture, how to protect, how to build. The family produces young wives and mothers who learn the disciplines of management and rigorous practical economics.”

Clay: “Sounds like an idea so good it should be mandatory.”

Me: “Very funny. But Chesterton also warned us about knocking fences down without first understanding what purpose they served. I think having a more complete picture of the social nature of the institution of marriage is wise when thinking of the effects of changes.”

Brigit: “Okay, but the world ended already. We’re pretty far out of sample.”

Me: “Are we still talking about the scaphists? It’s too soon to tell if the slack they’re picking up is the tendency of marriage institutions to civilize young men. I might be giving them too much credit.”

Clay: “You’re giving them too much credit.”

Me: “They’re only like one gang though, right? They’re out to prohibit bad behavior. There are two big deterrence tools: detection and severity. They probably have a hard time recruiting new members, so they rely on grotesque punishments to get what they want.”

Anika: “I’m still sort of stuck on this factory idea. I kind of think of you guys as my family now. Does having me, a kid, around make you guys civilized or something?”

Me: “That’s flattering, and I think I have a responsibility to you, but if we’re family, we’re family by water, not blood.” She looked a little crestfallen. “I’m not kidding about my obligation, but you have to agree that we have a bond of mutual affection rather than a sacred obligation, right?”

Anika: “I didn’t take you for the religious type. Especially since religion is dead.”

Brigit: “Religion and sacredness is a partnership of convenience. Can we stop rowing yet?”

Me: “Yeah, I’ve got enough wind. Go ahead and stow those oars. Brigit is right. I’m not sure exactly how the two formed such a strong bond, whether they were accidentally coeval, but even if the organization vanishes, people still crave the sacred.”

Anika: “If the sacred is something that can stand on its own, why does it have to be attached to marriage then?”

Me: “Good question. I’m not sure I have a good answer. Tradition maybe? Marriage is a weak promise of children, so there are implied non-signatory parties to the contract if we want to go with Clay’s analogy. That makes it important enough to give it a splash of sacredness.”

Brigit: “That assumes all the other domestic institutions. We’re used to the idea of biological parents rearing children in a nuclear home.”

Anika: “Nuclear? Like bombs?”

Brigit: “Like nucleus: mother, father, and children. The alternative is the extended family, the clan, or even the whole tribe.” She carefully coiled the line she’d used to secure the oar and stowed in a port side locker. “That’s kind of unusual, really. Child-rearing in most places is shared among kin. Before you mock me about the ‘it takes a village,’ remember that domestic institutions work together as an integrated whole. You can get away with communal child rearing with thick enough community bonds.”

Clay: “So what you’re saying is that a la carte changes to family structure are doomed to failure?”

Brigit: “Not necessarily. You can probably add to it, but making substitutions might be dangerous.”

Me: “How do you mean?”

Brigit: “Well, take same-sex marriage for instance.” Clay groaned audibly. I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Brigit nobly ignored our reactions. “Same sex marriage doesn’t diminish anyone’s ability to raise a happy, healthy family. At worst, it might make folks who still strongly associate sacredness with marriage uncomfortable, but it can’t actually harm anyone in any legally actionable way.”

Clay: “Those same people usually claim that adopted children in same-sex households are at greater risk for abuse or neglect or that they’re raised in a per se toxic environment.”

Brigit: “That’s an empirical claim, and even if it’s true, it does nothing to obviate the argument at hand. At most, it might require legal intervention.”

Me: “Legal intervention? Do I really have to remind you that there’s no such thing as the rule of law anymore?”

Anika: “Sure there is. It’s just that we have more than one now.”

Me: “Okay, point taken.”

Brigit: “Where was I?” We were cross-wind now, so she let out the kick strap a little. “Oh yeah. So same-sex marriage isn’t actively harmful, but compare that with, say, polygamy.”

Me: “Polygamy?”

Brigit: “If you’re right about the social function of marriage and the family, polygamous relationships will transfer a great deal of the output of that factory of humanity away from that bottom 20% we were talking about and put it under the control of the top 10% or whatever. Powerful men will attract multiple mates. Mates that would have otherwise gone to middle or low status males. Those males, now bereft of domestic comforts, with no one to nurture, to care for? Well, they might turn to hooliganism or sloth or something. Crime.”

Me: “So polygamy destabilizes society in a way that same sex marriage can’t?”

Brigit: “Holding the other institutions constant, yes. But there might still be ways to make it work, so long as you’re willing to be a little flexible.”

Clay: “I can’t wait to hear this.”

Brigit: “Simmer down, tiger. How about this: men want what out of marriage?”

Anika: “Breakfast?” I couldn’t help but laugh.

Brigit: “Don’t laugh. She’s at least partly right. They want domestic comforts. Including sex. And what do women want?”

Clay: “Security, protection, resources.”

Brigit: “Right. And they both want children, or at least most of them do. One way to make a polygamous society work is to make it normal for women past their child-bearing years to part from the poly household and seek a younger mate. She’ll have her share of the household wealth, the poly household will free up some space for a new bride, and the young man gets his starter wife there to help things get established and to, you know, give him those creature comforts.”

Clay: “So it’s intergenerational wife swapping.”

Anika: “Gross.”

Brigit: “I’m not saying it’d be palatable to us, but it could overcome some of the social disruption objections.”

Me: “It’s academic anyway. America already tried polygamy. It ended poorly. It always does.”

Brigit: “I guess.” She stretched in the sun as we approached the mouth of the bay. It felt good to breathe clean air again. “Have any of you guys been to Utah since the thing?”

Me: “Nope.”

Clay: “Uh-uh.”

Anika: “Do you mean Smithland?”

Brigit: “Is that what they’re calling it now? Pity. The old name was from an Indian tribe.”

We sailed on in silence. I found myself absorbed with thoughts of what a polygamous household would resemble absent the self-flattering romance and glamour of running a harem. It was not a pleasant fantasy.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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