Is Sex Seven Dimensional Chess?
Why did nature allow you, the gaudiest and most wasteful plants in history, you flowering plants, you angiosperms, to thrive? Why did she favor you despite your sins, your sins of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display? Because your sins were blessings in disguise.
With your sins, you harnessed two opposites joined at the hip—cooperation and competition. Remember, you flowering plants drove ferns and cone-bearers to the margins. Competition played a critical role in your success.
But despite your victory over the ferns and cone-bearers, your success was not just at the expense of others. It happened because you, a plant, genuinely looked out for my needs—the needs of an insect–in exchange for my looking out for yours.
Opposites are joined at the hip. Cooperation and competition worked together in the evolution of you, the flowering plant. Cooperation and competition worked together to increase the amount of living matter in the spaces that trees failed to conquer. Cooperation and competition worked together to spur the expansion of the biosphere. Cooperation and competition worked together to increase the GAL—the gross amount of life—on this planet. Cooperation and competition worked together to increase the percentage of the atoms on this planet woven into the bio-mesh, stitched into the eco-net, the percentage of atoms knitted into the tissue of the living. Thanks to cooperation and competition, you plants and us insects flashed together like knitting needles, stitching a growing weave of green. You, a plant, turned a cantilevered solar panel into a recruitment device—a tool that multiplied your powers by convincing insects like me to help you out. A tool with which you sutured together teams of specialists who worked on each other’s behalf. And teams can outcompete individuals.
The flowering plant and insect explosion happened not because we struggled against each other to divide a tiny pie. It happened because we worked together to grow that tiny pie into a wedding cake. And it happened because we worked together to turn that cake into a bakery.
But behind it all, behind the flower and insect partnership, was sex. Why?
What else does the wild success of the flower say about our current assumptions in science and popular culture? What does it say about basics like the concept of least effort and the second law of thermodynamics, the concept of entropy? What does it say about evolution and the nature of the cosmos within which evolution operates? What does it say about a nature that allegedly pursues harmony and sustainability? And what does it say about materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display?
When you are pondering nature’s supposed skinflint ways, her insistence on bare bones asceticism, her push toward doing things in the most economical and energy efficient way, her stress on harmony, sustainability, and balance, put one simple fact at the very forefront of your brain. Nature invented death, the ultimate materialist waste. Yes, death is nature’s invention, not the invention of capitalists, industrialists, paternalists, or of humankind. Since life began 3.85 billion years ago, quadrillions of creatures have died. Just to make things worse, nature invented pain. What does that say about nature? What does that say about her benevolence? What does that say about her tendency to do things in the most harmonious way?
Let’s be blunt, death is a tipoff to a brutal and disturbing fact: that nature is deeply addicted to manic mass production of material things, then to throwing those things away. Nature is hooked on industrialism. She is also hooked on the industrial production of something that is ephemeral beyond belief—life. Life that is dear to you and me but to nature is cheap, cheap, cheap.
Think of all the energy, matter, and time that’s gone into making you. And you and I will be discarded someday. Thrown away. By who or what? By nature. That is excess. That is materialism and consumerism. That is waste. That is a cosmos of throwaways.
Is life in a world of death worth living? Is part of what makes life worthwhile the exuberance of display? Is part of what makes it worthwhile beauty, a beauty that has sex at its base?
More important, does nature get breakthroughs from sex’s vain and flashy waste? Does nature use mindless bling to break her own rules, to shatter her status quo, and to reinvent herself?
Let’s reframe our question. Why do females of thousands of species, including ours, put males through artificial games, competitions that seem very far removed from the basics of life? Competitions that waste vast quantities of material goods, energy, labor, and ingenuity? Competitions that demand consumerism and vain display? And why do these arbitrary and artificial competitions, these high-priced mating games, work? What do they contribute to the evolutionary process?
Competitions of gaudy display accomplish far more than those with a pinch-penny view of nature seem to realize. Sexual tournaments contribute something that nature seems to prize. The very opposite of entropy. Sexual competitions produce elaborations and ornamentations that are really inventions in disguise. Elaborations and ornamentations that do the seemingly impossible. Elaborations and ornamentations that break nature’s rules. And in the process of breaking her rules, these ornamentations and elaborations help Nature reinvent herself. They help her give herself upgrades.
Elaboration and ornamentation help nature work out the unseen possibilities in her current state of play. Elaborations and ornamentations help nature find new moves. Moves that sometimes fly off the game board and create entirely new forms of play. Elaborations and ornamentations that help nature advance her position in the biggest game of all. The transformation game. The game of self-reinvention. The game of self-upgrade.
Take, for example, one way in which insects are seized by materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display: the evolution of an expensive luxury we’ve looked into before, a perfume. That perfume allowed female insects to produce an us versus them. It allowed females a new freedom. A new choice. The luxury to follow their tastes. The luxury to accept only males with one specialized perfume, and to reject those who showed up with the wrong odor. And this difference in female taste allowed insects to form groups that walled themselves off from each other genetically and went down different paths. The paths that led to breakthroughs. The paths that led to new kinds of bodies. The paths that led to new genomes—new gene teams. The paths that led to new kinds of habits. New tactics and strategies. New ways of making a living. New ways to turn a poisonous environment into a paradise. New ways to make a harsh environment warm and friendly. And entirely new ways to get together in a society. In the case of orchid bees, euglossine bees, two hundred and fifty different new tactical approaches—two hundred and fifty different species– With different tongue lengths and different recipes for the perfumes that seduce females.
Occasionally one of these new ways or a network of them will produce a breakthrough. A radical invention. A dramatic innovation. And that innovation will carve out a whole new kind of ecosystem. Like the insect’s invention of wings and flight. Like the plant’s invention of the flower. And inventions of this kind radically rework this planet’s landscape To repeat, nature wallows in waste and luxury to reinvent herself. She produces waste and luxury—materialism and consumerism–to make upheaval and change. She produces waste to give the finger to entropy. She produces waste to achieve her most astonishing feat—innovation.
In many species the male himself is a materialist, consumerist excess good for only two things: competition and semen. Yes, the very existence of the male is an example of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display. A drone in a bee hive does nothing of value. And he’s expensive. He needs to be fed, housed, and tended to. That’s why his very name, a drone, has come to be associated with high-cost, lazy humans who relax and do nothing but demand continuous care and upkeep. So why have males?
At one brief time of the year the males of six to eight neighboring hives are sent out of their hive to the air above a meadow to compete with each other and with the males of other hives. What prize are these males competing for? To get their semen into the sperm-storing sacks of queen-bee wannabees. When a male succeeds, when he manages to mount and penetrate a female. what’s his reward? His semen-carrying equipment explodes. The internal shrapnel is fatal. Winning is deadly. The very sex act kills the triumphant male. And nature literally tosses the male’s body and whatever its living energy may have been away. At the ritual mating meadow to which neighboring hives send their sexually ripe males and females—their drones and would-be queens—to compete, the bodies of males literally pile up on the ground. Yet the hive gets enough out of this competition to make it worth a steady fifteen percent of the hive’s yearly budget. But why?
And what do flowers get out of the expensive transport economy, the insect-bee partnership, to which they’ve committed between ten and fifty percent of their budget? What do flowers get out of increasing the distance their sperm can travel and the precision of its targeting? What do flowers get out of long-distance mating? What do they get out of even the most minimal sex, not to mention this extraordinary commitment to cross-species barter with insects. What do they get out of sexual commerce? Why not just insert your pollen into your own remarkably convenient stigma, your female organ, and have done with it? Or why not let the wind carry your pollen to a neighboring flower only a foot or less away? Or, better yet, why not do away with sex altogether and simply send out shoots and let them plant roots and become new plants, something plants from dumb canes to strawberries do? Why bother with commerce and exchange? Why bother with long-distance sexual trade? What do plants get out of consumerism, materialism, waste, ornateness, and sexual games? What do they get out of a sexual economy? Come to think of it, what do birds, bees, and human beings get out of the materialism, consumerism, and vain display of sex? Why is sex so important?
Or, to put it differently, why does nature have a libido? Why does she put so many resources into sex? One answer is that she has a special place in her heart for gene shuffling. She has a special place in her heart for oddballs.
Your remember gene shuffling—the guy with tattoos all the way down to his wrist on the window seat who ended up in the aisle seat, then who became a part of a whole new gene string?
Look, raw duplication of your self is not why nature drives you to find a mate. None of your kids will look, walk and talk like you. Not to mention think like you. Thanks to gene shuffling, no individual duplicates his or herself. Far from it. Every child is a wild mix. A shot in the dark. A mix of something old making something new. If one of your freak, geek, or rebel children finds others of his or her kind, they will hang out together and these outcasts will have kids. Kids whose oddities will be a new normal. Kids whose oddities will be a new antenna for the search engine of the cosmos. And just possibly a new species.
Remember, this cosmos is a search engine constantly probing her potential. Sex is one of the most effective antennae this cosmos has ever created to feel out the unseen creases and cracks in possibility space. Sex is one of the most effective probes with which nature has ever discovered new means of construction and new things to construct. Sex is one of the most effective sensors nature has ever created to feel out realms of the impossible that can be turned into realities. Like the first moss and liverworts that did the impossible and left the sea to live on the land. Like the first trees that did the impossible, defied the law of gravity, and dared to pump water 30 to 380 feet high. Like the first insects that did the impossible by growing wings and taking to the skies. Like the first plants that did the impossible and built the most extravagant billboards this universe had ever seen: petals, blossoms and bouquets.
But here’s the bottom line. How genes manufacture cells and organisms, organisms of hundreds or trillions of cells, organisms like you and me, is hundreds of orders of complexity beyond what we understand today. Which means that everyday nature, the nature right under your nose and mine, is so complex that even basics like what life is defy our most advanced scientific understanding.
The shortest path indeed. Nature shuns simplicity and plays seven dimensional chess. In fact, she invents seven dimensional chess, then she finds seven dimensions beyond even that, and she invents entirely new games.
As we’re about to see in the case of the loony dinosaurs who flew.