Why Male and Female? Why Did Evolution Invent Gender?
The sperm of the earliest land plants, mosses, swam the equivalent of 2,272 miles just to find a female willing to embrace them. For every moss sperm that managed to find a female, tens of millions of sperm died.
That’s materialism, consumerism and waste on a grand scale. It’s nature’s materialism, consumerism, and waste.
And it’s appalling cruelty. A cruelty meted out by nature herself.
What in the world could these mass murders of males be for? What does sex achieve? Three things.
Number one. The male-female combo is a way of tapping into the power of what game theorists call “mixed strategies.” It’s a way of using the force of a basic natural paradox, that opposites are joined at the hip.
When there are opposing strategies, we do best when we do NOT bet our lives and our passions on a single approach. We do best when we resist the temptation to pick just one. We do best when we pick two things that seem totally at odds with each other. When we pick fire and ice. When we pick day and night. When we pick up and down. When we pick recklessness and caution. When we pick exuberance and fear. When we pick reason and instinct.
Opposites are joined at the hip. And there is a power that comes from turning opposites into a team.
Let’s get back to you, the moss 500,000 years ago. When it comes to multiplying, when it comes to being fruitful and flooding the empty earth with your offspring, one strategy would be to stay in place, to stick with what you know, and to be safe. The opposite would be to take a chance, to roam, to explore, to pioneer, to adventure, to gamble on the unknown, and to ride the tides of the forces around you.
But there’s a third option—don’t just pick one, pick both. The combination of the two—the combination of exploration and homesteading, the combination of rambling and riveting yourself in place–has a name in evolutionary biology. It’s called the fission-fusion strategy. The reach out, then run back and hug strategy. The explore then consolidate strategy. And this fission-fusion strategy is so widespread in nature and in human affairs that it’s shown up in two of my previous books—The Genius of the Beast and The God Problem.
On the human level, the fission-fusion strategy is at the heart of the struggle between ideas and the clash of civilizations. It’s at the heart of economics. And, guess what? The fission-fusion strategy is at the heart of gender. And gender is at the heart of something else: the search engine of the cosmos.
You, the moss, are a sexual pioneer. So you do not put all your chips on staying in place and making a comfortable, predictable home. And you do not put all your chips on feeling out distant possibilities. You put your chips on both. You bet on what will turn out to be one of the most enduring and most breakthrough-generating forms of teamwork in the evolution of the cosmos. A teamwork between opposing strategies. You bet on the team of male and female. You bet on the sexual team, the team of gender.
But here’s the trick. Each of your gender pair—your male and your female—will pursue its extreme approach, its opposite approach, on the other’s behalf. I, the male, will gamble my life and compete with hundreds of millions of others to let you, the female, take your pick. I will swim great distances and adventure to offer you new genetic possibilities from which you can choose as if you were deciding on which fancy chocolate to take from a deluxe mixed sampler box. I will take risks and chances so that you don’t have to. But you will get the benefit of my ramblings. Among other things, if I fail, you will be able to turn your back on me.
And you, by being female and sitting securely in a tried and proven place, will play out your strategy in a way that benefits me. You will give me a base I can count on. Even if you reject me and leave me miserable, suicidal, and alone, you will have favored one of my very distant cousins. And in doing so, you will have favored a rough copy of my genes. At the very least, you will have advanced the cause of the gene team that perpetuates my species. And yours.
What does this pairing of opposites achieve? I am a sperm. When crossing over made the one-of-a-kind gene-string at my center, it put out an audacious new feeler into the hidden potential of DNA. And crossing over expanded the genetic bounds of possibility in you, the female, too. Put those two experiments together and you get a new probe into the potential of cells and DNA. An antenna scoping out the hidden possibilities of life.
This is the sexual game. The game of temptation, flirtation, loneliness, and heartbreak. The game with which nature uses you and me as throwaways. The game with which nature shatters the existing order. The game with which she breaks the boundaries of the status quo. The game with which nature turns a poisonous planet green.
Then there’s sexual payoff number two. Why are you, the ancient moss, taking the path of most effort? Why are you using the ultimate team of rivals, male and female? Why are you taking huge risks and shuffling genes in a process so complex that even a Mensa member has trouble following it? Why are you placing your chips on sexuality’s materialism, consumerism and waste? And why will you soon bet your life on a fourth deadly sin vain display?
Remember that first teaspoon of life on a hostile planet? Remember your earliest ancestor? Remember how it was born in shock, disaster, and catastrophe? Remember how even the change from day to night was a cataclysm that repeated over and over again? Remember the massive climate changes of summer, fall, winter, and spring? Remember the Malankovitch cycles that changed the climate dramatically every 22,000, 41,000, and 100,000 years? Remember the planet’s 235-million-year journey around the galaxy, with its unpredictable clots of space dust and arbitrary storms of climate-shocking cosmic rays? Remember the miscellaneous end-of-the-world scenarios that produced mass die-offs every 26.5 million years?
How did your great, great foremothers survive? By turning poisons into pistons in the engine of life. By turning disasters into opportunities and cataclysms into fields of dreams. By putting feelers into as many puddles, sinkholes, cracks, chemicals, currents, storms, and stews as possible. By stretching out, searching, tunneling, soaring, spreading, inventing, and pirating. By seizing a toehold in every conceivable kind of place. And by building new ways to surf the waves of change.
This is a planet of 142 mass extinctions. And life’s survival strategy has been to invent so many ways of making a living, so many ways of turning wastelands into wonderlands, so many ways to build new kinds of homes, so many chemical assembly lines with which to milk the energy from molecular spats and molecular love affairs, so many ways to turn random spills of photons into power sources, so many new sorts of physical forms, so many breakthroughs that when the next apocalypse arrives, some of life’s bets on the future will die, but some will survive. 142 mass extinctions gave urgency to life’s basic mandate: Be ambitious. Be audacious. Change the nature around you. Feed on it. Or turn it into homes.
Kidnap, seduce, and recruit as many dead atoms as you can and bring them into the grand and impossible project of life. Turn every crack, cranny, and crevasse into a nest. Turn every dangerous chemical twitch into a part of your metabolic machinery. Be imperialistic. Colonize. Conquer. Spread out. Invent. Create capsules, corridors and mansions in every impossible place. Go hog wild for growth. Feel out every invisible opening you can find in possibility space.
Do not simply sit by and watch every form of energy lapse into uselessness. Do not piss and moan over entropy. Do not join the entropists in their worship of the way things fall apart. Make new things fall together. Instead of letting energy lapse into uselessness, invent new uses for everything in sight.
Today, life’s race against disaster is far from over. Global warmings and ice ages are not just things of the past. They are things of the future. Sure things. Things that may not arrive tomorrow or twenty years from now. But things that are guaranteed to arrive someday. Things we may have caused with our carelessness. Things that might have happened without us. Even a return of snowball earth—the total freeze that has smacked this planet three times—is possible someday. This is a planet of climate catastrophe. Climate change is as certain as the change from day to night.
Sex is painful. Sex is wondrous. Sex is expensive. Sex defies the laws of nature. But sex is the ultimate survival device.
And sex is the ultimate generator of the next big thing.