Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Relating an incident that occurred on an expedition to South America, Charles Darwin wrote:

In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.

As Darwin discovered, while we may differ about what evokes the response, disgust is one of the few universally shared human emotions. The native was expressing what psychologists call “core disgust.” Unlike animals, which instinctively seek out certain foods, humans have to learn what to eat and are justifiably cautious about sampling new foods. Since Darwin’s cold, soft piece of preserved meat had a tactile resemblance to animal feces, the native was understandably disgusted by the thought of eating it. The revulsion was triggered by the idea that “like produces like”; since the preserved meat had many similarities to feces, the native assumed it might be similarly contaminated.

Darwin’s unease was also based on a variation of the same core disgust. While his dinner companion worried that an object (the meat) could be contaminated because of its similarity to another object (feces), Darwin feared the contagion could be spread by contact with the native .

Since this incident was published eighteen years before Robert Koch proved the germ theory of disease, it’s unlikely that Darwin understood the connection between dirty hands, microbes, and contamination. More likely he was simply reacting to a pre-rational intuition that belied his scientific understanding.

But where did this emotion come from? Is it possible, then, that the emotion of disgust was a result of natural selection? Can revulsion be classified as an adaptive mechanism that prevents us from coming into contact with contaminants? Not likely, as anyone who has ever come in contact with a human baby can attest.

Infants, as any parent can attest, have no concept of disgust. They will, quite literally, put anything they can get their hands on into their mouths. While most other animals instinctively avoid contact with certain objects, human infants do not possess such scruples. Unable to make a distinction between a piece of food and the dropping the puppy left on the carpet, they will attempt to eat both.

Because we lack an innate sense of what to avoid, the full range of disgust triggers must be taught. Disgust, as an emotion, must be learned. And as with any knowledge that is not inherently in our biological makeup, disgust can be culturally relative and passed on through successive generations.

By this we can conclude that there is such a thing as what bioethicist Leon Kass calls “wisdom of repugnance,” at least with regard to core disgusts such as our taste for food. But does disgust have any meaning in a social context?

Before that question can be answered we must first examine the relation between core disgust and a concept that psychologists classify as socio-moral disgust.

In the seminal psychological research paper “Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship Between Disgust and Morality”, Jonathan Haidt and his coauthors note that disgusting events remind us of our animal nature. Because we feel the need to hide these markers of our kinship to lower creatures, we develop 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 not generally regarded as disgusting is the only one 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 bodily 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.

But if disgust is a human emotion, how does it become 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. Reactions to the repugnant may be similar, for instance, to the way that “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” responses work. When confronted with a dangerous situation, we don’t have to wait until we can develop 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.

Of course, as our example of the little dung-eaters shows, not every harmful situation elicits fear. This 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 disgusts guard 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 certain forms of “contamination” should disgust us. This pre-rational wisdom, though, allowed us to survive as a species until our knowledge caught up with our intuitions.

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 core disgust do? Should this form of cognition be dismissed simply because it may hinder progressivism?

The wisdom of core-disgust preceded the knowledge of science by thousands of years and served to protect our bodies from harm. What if a similar wisdom is protecting human dignity? On what grounds do we have for rejecting thousands of years of socio-moral wisdom?

Revulsion is not an argument , as Leon Kass once noted, and “some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted”though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.”

Indeed, the wisdom of repugnance is not an argument; it is merely a stop-gap in the onslaught against the degradation of human dignity. Like all products of a culture produced by a fallen humanity, it can contain error and be in need of correction. But the process should be taken carefully and its discernment should be based not only on our own limited understanding but also on the received wisdom and tacit knowledge of those who have come before us.

Those who reject the concept of the wisdom of repugnance must be prepared to deliver solid arguments against incest, bestiality, necrophilia, and other moral horrors that lie within the Pandora’s Box of taboo behaviors. If all ethical arguments must withstand the rigors of analytical reasoning then we will have to reject a great deal of our deepest moral presuppositions. Are we prepared to do that in order that radical individualism may advance unimpeded?

Joe Carter is web editor of First Things . His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Jonathan Haidt, Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship between Disgust and Morality
Leon Kass, The Wisdom of Repugnance

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles