Nature Goes For Broke – The Most Complex Trick In History, Sex
The experts agree. Says William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 129, the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action
Adds Lord Chesterfield, “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.”
Then there’s late 19th century poet A.E. Housman:
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
What are Shakespeare, Chesterfield and Housman moaning about? Sex. In reality, sex can be a lot more joyful than Shakespeare and Chesterfield make it sound. But the three of them put their fingers on a key aspect of sexuality, an aspect we often disregard, its cost, its astonishing “expense.”
Here’s how Swiss/British essayist, TV personality, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Alain de Botton sums up your sex life and mine. “We are universally deviant,” he says. We all want very odd things to bring us to a sexual climax. We want our partner to call us baby or daddy. We want to make love like dogs or cats. We want to pretend to be a patient and his nurse. Or we want our partner to wear her highest heels to bed. Sometimes we are more interested in the shoes than in our partner. Meanwhile, we are obsessed with pushing “a hand inside an unfamiliar skirt or pair of trousers,” to quote Botton. But the opportunities to do that pushing are few and far between. Explains Botton, “the majority of people we encounter will be not merely uninterested in having sex with us but positively revolted by the idea.” And what does all this expense of your energy and mine on things that will never happen, this daily preoccupation that seldom leaves our mind, lead to? Says Botton, “To feel only intermittent affection for a spouse, to have mediocre sex six times a year, to keep a marriage going for the wellbeing of the children.” Hmmmmm.
If this is a thrifty cosmos, a cosmos that pinches its pennies and nurses its resources, a cosmos that always takes the simplest path, how in the world did the “expense” of sex come to be? To find the answer, let’s do a quick recap from a slightly different point of view. 3.85 billion years ago, life shattered the natural order, the “harmony” and the status quo. It imprisoned water in membranes and created macromolecules. Massive, unaccountably complex macromolecules. Macromolecules of roughly 7,709,842 atoms each. These macromolecules were not just big and intricate they were capable of doing something radically new in this cosmos. Something acquisitive and materialistic. Something that showed no respect for the environment. They were able to grab dead atoms and enslave them, turning them into links in the chains of yet new macromolecules. Turning dead atoms into the raw ingredients of precise copies of themselves. How absurdly selfish. How ridiculously vain. Making copies of themselves. Yes, life sinned against the existing order 3.85 billion years ago when it invented cells, RNA, and DNA.
And when it invented narcissism. Then life bashed the status quo again when it saturated the ocean and turned the waters from a virginal and pure, life-free chemical soup into the muddy, polluted puddle of a biosphere. And when it committed an absolute outrage. When it dared to reengineer the very atmosphere, poisoning the air with oxygen.
2.2 billion years ago life became outrageous once again. It defied gravity and lifted itself to the shelves of rock above the sea. This new stuff, life, was not thrifty. It did not live in harmony with its environment. It was uppity and pertinacious. It did not worship the status quo. It did the very opposite: it remanufactured nature.
But remaking the nature of the sea and probing the cracks of the land were just the beginning. 1.2 billion years ago congregations of cells invented a whole new way to work together in teams. For 2.65 billion years, cells had worked by the trillions within colonies. But inside those colonies and on their margins, cells had been free to swim around on their own. Well, not exactly on their own. It turns out that even on the outskirts of their colonies, restless, rebellious cells preferred to join groups of ten thousand travelers, migrating armies. Armies of scouts, discoverers and pioneers. Armies marching into the wilderness to probe their environment hunting for new riches and new homes. But, still, cells had possessed a relative independence.
Now a mother cell gave birth to a whole new kind of multitude. She commanded her daughter cells to stay in place and perform just one role each. The new, tightly-bound, totalitarian congregations of cells that resulted were the first multicellular beings, the first plants and animals. And five hundred million years ago some of these cheeky new totalitarian sheets and towers of cells, these new multicellulars, followed the path of the bacteria who had gone beyond the seas 2.2 billion years ago. The new multicellulars, too, defied gravity. They sinned against nature’s old water-bound ways and, like astronauts setting up colonies on another planet, they left the comfort of the oceans to join the bacterial pioneers in moving on up and raping the rock of the land.
When these first multicellulars—plants–arrived on the rock face, they fed off the heaps of garbage and toxic waste that the bacterial land-pioneers had left behind. But they did more. Like the bacterial land pioneers, the plants despoiled the purity of the landscape. They dug their roots into the microscopic slits that temperature changes had made in the stone and they split the virgin rock even farther than the first bacterial explorers.
Was this rape? Was this shattering of nature’s status quo a sin? ^^??earthworms have to go later in the book??^^ If Charles Darwin is right, every fruitful field now covered with soil is the product of a massive landscaping effort left to us by millions of generations of earthworms who sinned against nature by doing plastic surgery on our untouched planet’s face then sinned again by littering a virginal wasteland of stone with their droppings. In 1881, Darwin dedicated an entire book to the topic: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Said Darwin, the earthworms turned jagged outcrops and crevasses into the vast, flat fields we cherish today. Or, as Darwin put it, “When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection,” Darwin concludes, “that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms.”
Or, as Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee sum up the modern view:
Across the globe, earthworms have dramatically changed the structure and chemistry of soil by burrowing, dragging plant material into the soil, mixing it up with inorganic material such as sand, and mulching the lot by ingesting and excreting it as worm casts. The scale of these earthworks is vast.
In other words, the worms left the trail of their toxic waste, their feces wherever they went. We use the worms’ violation of Mother Nature… and the worms’ sewage… to grow our harvests of food and our back yard flowers. What’s more, we worship the worms’ pileup of material throwaways, their garbage. Their vast litter, their materialist, consumerist legacy, includes soil, rainforests, and greenery. Earthworms did not honor nature. They changed her. They coated her with their shit. And we worship that shit as, guess what? Nature. In fact, once upon a time, that shit was radically unnatural.
But we are skipping forward too fast. Earthworms would not evolve for roughly another 360,000 thousand years. Let’s go back to 500,000 years ago. Long before the earthworm, nature would reveal her favor for landscape desecration and for the radical remanufacture of her face. 500,000 years ago, multicellulars would dare invade the cheeks of stone in the open air above the sea. The first multicellular beings to perform plastic surgery on granite, basalt, and slate were plants.
And the first plants, the first land despoilers, bring us back to sex.