The Three Payoffs of Sex

by | Aug 26, 2021 | The Case of the Sexual Cosmos

So sex has three big payoffs.

    • Payoff number one.  The male-female combo is a way of tapping into the power of what game theorists call “mixed strategies.”  Males are gambles on wild exploration.  Exploration so dangerous that less than one in a million sperm strike home. Females are bets on the safe, the tried and true. Sex uses male and female to harness opposites—to use both risk and caution simultaneously.  
    • Sexual payoff number two is the production of innovations.  Innovations that allow your species to open so many new niches that it survives the next of 142 mass extinctions.  Innovations that generate new species so that even if the parent group dies off, the unconventional offspring survive.  And thrive.

Then there’s sexual payoff number three, the hardest to grasp.  But the most important.  And the most revealing about the real nature of nature.  The most revealing about the nature we live with every day but fail to see.  

Sex is not about replication.  It’s not about duplication.  It’s about attempting something that’s never been tried before. Sex is not about making replicas.  It’s about generating one-of-a-kinds.

With sex, you make double strands of genes this cosmos has never seen.  You make the only gene string in the world that has the guy in shorts reading a neurobiology paper in row 14 and the man  with the broken nose and the tattoos down to his wrist in row 25 on the very same string of genes.  And that uniqueness is the real goal of sex.  

Stuart Kaufman has a useful concept.  He calls it the “the adjacent possible.” Those of us who have been influenced by him call it “possibility space.”  Possibility space is an invisible landscape of hills and valleys.  Invisible because it’s the topography of all the things the future could possibly hold.  It’s all the possible implications of the past and the present.  It’s the terrain of all the things the cosmos could possibly be next. And possibility space is the landscape of everything that you and I could do in the next minute, the next hour, or the next century.

Each utterly unique gene string is a feeler into a previously unexplored corner of possibility space.  Each is a potential discoverer of a paradise, a potential inventor of a breakthrough, a potential contributor to the cosmos’ next supersized surprise. Each is a gamble on hauling an impossibility into the realm of the real.

But there’s more.  Each one of a kind gene team is a probe for the search engine of a cosmos feeling out her possibilities.

And that is nature’s most basic game.  Expanding her envelope of possibility.  Reinventing herself.  Making the impossible ordinary.  Nature’s steady crawl into the realm of the inconceivable is what makes the tortures of sex worthwhile.

Let’s go back to you, a moss 500,00 years ago.  You’ve unsnarled your ball of genes into separate keychains, you’ve pulled off a gene reshuffle, To repeat, you’ve made single-stranded strings that are unlike anything this cosmos has ever produced.  And you’ve packaged your eccentric single strands in eggs and sperm.  You’ve managed to pull off some grittily demanding, enormously intricate chores.  Chores riddled with room for error. And chores intolerant of the slightest misstep.  Then you’ve taken even bigger chances by looking for a distant mate.  

You’ve gone through processes with impossible names like meiosis, mitosis, and crossing over,  You’ve used tools with arcane names like chromatids, chromatin, chromosomes, chiasmus, metaphase, interface, nucleotides, histones, and haploidy. 

Why did you go through all of this toil? And why did you force yourself through all of this intense precision? Why bother?  How did your ancestors even manage to invent a process so crazily concatenated, so bizarrely embroglioed, so fastidiously rigmaroled, and so finaglingly tangled?   

If entropy were for real, none of this exquisitely precise molecular engineering would have been possible.  To be “natural,” your genome would have tumbled into the path of least effort. Your genome would have fallen apart.  Your keychains would have whoozled their beads into an arbitrary spew like a sugar cube dissolved in a glass of water.  Which means that the processes at the heart of sex are radically unnatural.   All of them.  

Sex is unnatural?  So why is it all over the place?  Could it be that our ideas of “nature” are slightly off base?

But there’s more.  There’s one the biggest reasons of all to invent sex.  Charles Darwin spoke of a ‘struggle for existence’.  In reality the cosmos is in a struggle for both existence and exuberance.  A struggle for thrift and for flamboyance..  The cosmos is in a struggle for the power to exult, to rejoice, and to do  a victory dance.  What is the swirl of a galaxy but a victory dance over our very heads?  And what is sex but a victory dance over entropy, chaos, and stinginess?  Yes, life is not just a struggle for existence.  It’s often a struggle for jubilation, a struggle for excess.

And you, the land plant lifting your spore-carriers to the sky 500 million years ago, are a part of this struggle of the cosmos to exult.  You, the land plant, are pulling off very intense stuff.  Not least-effort stuff, most-effort stuff.  Stuff so appallingly tricky and so basic to the fabric of life that one day the comedian Woody Allen could quip, “I don’t know the question, but sex is definitely the answer”?