Harnessing Hurricanes of Form The Peacock’s Tail and Anne Boleyn
Sex is not the shortest line between two points. In fact, it’s the longest line this cosmos has ever conceived. And the most twisted. Yet it pulls together the most astonishing things. Things of enormous power and scope.
Take the genome from just one of your 100 trillion cells. It’s knotted, tangled, and balled up with unbelievable precision. It is far too small for you to see. But undo the knots and tangles and stretch your genome, your string of genes, out in front of you and, as you know, it spans three feet, a full meter. What’s more, it’s a community of one hundred ninety-five billion five hundred million atoms, all working together to pull off miracles every minute of every day. The miracles that keep you and me alive.
That string of genes is not the most efficient way of doing things. It is not spare and streamlined. It does not minimize the amount of energy involved. In fact, it’s the very opposite. It’s the longest way to achieve something, the most intricate way that nature has yet invented. Which hints that in the future even more flamboyantly complex tricks of nature are to come.
Or, to put it differently, sex is the very opposite of thrift. It is the most expensive process nature has so far been able to create. And the genetic component of sex is just the beginning. Why? Because context counts. Sex is a harnesser of hurricanes of form. Sex is a rider and changer of the forces of history.
For an example, look at the love story between Henry VIIIth and Anne Boleyn. A process of wooing and winning that took seven years of Henry’s blood, sweat, and tears to consummate. And of Anne’s seductions and negotiations. At least seven years on the surface. In reality, it took over 700. And it influenced the 500 to come.
What’s more, it cost Anne her head.
In theory, the tale of Anne and Henry could have been short, simple, and swift. The sort of thing that would have brought a smile to the lips of those who believe in the law of least effort. Why?
Henry VIII could have done what our bacterial ancestors did. To reproduce, he could have simply split in two. Then the two new Henrys could have split and produced four more. And Henry could have skipped wooing, aching, and mating.
But that is not the way nature operates. She demands the sexual process. With all its obstacles and tortures.
There’s another way Henry could have dodged the longings and agonies of his seven year quest for Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII had almost unlimited access to sex. He could have snapped his fingers and bedded almost any woman in his kingdom he wanted.
What gave Henry this unlimited access? He was an alpha male. One of the most powerful alpha males of his time. And how, pray tell, did Henry get his alpha status? It was not through a simple display of magnificence like a dinosaur’s display of outstretched arms of feathers. It was the product of over 700 years of work. Work by a small army of ancestors.
In other words, Henry’s status had been achieved by harnessing almost a thousand years of social organization. And by family members who made sure that their clan always came out on top.
You know the story of the peacock’s tail. Darwin first used it in 1871 in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex to illustrate one of his most brilliant insights—that evolution is not just shaped by natural selection. It’s also shaped by sexual selection.
Evolution is shaped by the pickiness, tastes, and fashions of females.
Peacocks flaunt astonishing tails and compete to see whose tail is the most magnificent. The one with the most outrageously gorgeous tail gets the girls. He gets to have sex. He gets to reproduce. Yes, the peacock with the grandest display of materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display gets sex. He gets to pass his genes to generations yet to come.
Or, as Darwin put it, “The peacock with his long train appears more like a dandy than a warrior, but he sometimes engages in fierce contests: the Rev. W. Darwin Fox informs me that at some little distance from Chester two peacocks became so excited while fighting that they flew over the whole city, still engaged, until they alighted on the top of St. John’s tower.”
The price the male peacock pays just for a slim chance of sex is enormous, says Darwin. He writes that “we ought not to accuse birds of conscious vanity; yet when we see a peacock strutting about, with expanded and quivering tail-feathers, he seems the very emblem of pride and vanity. The various ornaments possessed by the males are certainly of the highest importance to them, for in some cases they have been acquired at the expense of greatly impeded powers of flight or of running.” Yes, some peacocks’ tails make them poor runners and fliers. Poor evaders of predators. Birds with flamboyant tails, continues Darwin, “must be much more liable to be struck down by birds of prey. Nor can we doubt that the long train of the peacock…must render them an easier prey to any prowling tiger-cat than would otherwise be the case. Even the bright colors of many male birds cannot fail to make them conspicuous to their enemies.”
So an awesome tail increases your odds of a violent death from the talons of hawk or the teeth of a tiger.
But you’ve heard the story of the peacock’s tail before. I wanted a story that would entrance you with something new.
When I was hunting for a good example of just how hideously expensive sex really is, I wanted to know what peacock’s tail human males used in the great romances of history, and just how costly their sexual displays were.
In other words, to show you just how expensive sex can be, I wanted to hunt down a tale of romance in which the sheer cost and complication was beyond belief. But the cost turned out to be far more gargantuan than I had expected. Why? Because in the most expensive acts of lust and love, the future of history and of civilizations can be in play.
The stories I looked into and tossed aside were instructive. The story of the Taj Mahal is one of incredible cost spent on love. But, ironically, Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of India, did not build the Taj Mahal to be an architectural peacock’s tail. He did not build it to woo and win the love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal. He built the Taj Mahal to preserve her memory. He lost her in child birth when she was 38. And he apparently couldn’t take the pain. The Taj Mahal was an extremely expensive soother of his grieving soul. An expense he was privileged to be able to afford.
Privileged by what? By something I failed to notice early in my research. Privileged by a bloody Muslim conquest of India that put him, a Moslem, on the top of India’s heap. And that gave him access to the wealth of every bit of land he possessed. The Taj Mahal was an advertisement of this power.
Neuroscientist Lucy Brown, one of the world’s premiere researchers on love and sexuality in the human brain asked me what i meant when I asked her for research on just how expensive sex can be.
Here was Lucy’s note:
What do you mean by “expensive”? Literally, like how much money it can cost? How much time it takes? The mental cost of rejection to the individual? The social/mental cost, like murder because of rejection, which happened just yesterday on [New York’s] City Island in broad daylight at lunchtime and in public at the base of the City Island Bridge. A woman who holds the stop/slow sign for a long-term construction project on the island was shot on the job by a jealous man who had brought her lunch a few times and then found out she had a boyfriend. The boyfriend was there and chased down the murderer, who was on a bicycle. I had exchanged smiles and waves with the woman in the morning. A troubling reminder of the “costs” of love and courtship and how we never know if we will make it until the evening. Let me know more what you are thinking about.
It turns out that I was still figuring out what I was thinking about. And the further I got into it, the bigger and more expensive romance and sex seemed.
I finally settled on a well-known tale but one with hitherto unseen dimensions, the story of Anne Boleyn and henry VIIIth. what was at stake in their case?
History records more than 400 years in which henry’s family had been attempting to achieve an alpha position, first in wales, then in the embryonic Britain. I suspect there were at least 400 more that history does not record. Then there’s the multi-generational effort that had given Anne’s family a position close to henry’s. A position high in the English aristocracy.
But in the romance between Henry and Anne, a whole new form of human organization was at stake, a nation state. A form of organization that the scramble of the Tudor and Boleyn families for alpha position helped birth.
At stake was more than the shape of the ears, nostrils, or brain of any baby that might emerge from a successful romance. At stake was the fate of western civilization. Literally. Europe was being threatened by the Muslim Turks, who seemed unstoppable in their conquests and who cast terror into European hearts. But it was also in the grip of a subcultural struggle whose results would be massive. That battle was between the Catholics and an explosively growing subculture of heretics anxious to replace the Catholic Church, the Lutherans. it was a sumo wrestling match between a church that said it was the only interpreter of god’s word and a movement that said you could read god’s word yourself–in the bible.
The love affair between Anne and Henry was also a key flashpoint in a literary revolution—yes, a literary revolution. A democratization of reading that was about to shrink the supreme authority of the papacy. In fact, the struggle in Europe was over the ownership of that literacy revolution. And over that revolution’s democratization. A democratization of god himself.
The romance between Anne and Henry harnessed hurricanes of form. It harnessed typhoons of new social structure aching to leave the world of possibility and enter the world of being. It harnessed a struggle, a struggle between whirlpools of social organization based on opposing principles. The Catholic movement called for obedience. Obedience to a holy hierarchy. And the Lutheran movement called for independence. It called on you to read and interpret God’s word on your own. With the help of a new clergy that produced a wild profusion of Lutheran views to choose from.
What was the role of sex in this battle? And did the struggle do what Pierre Louis de Maupertuis decrees—finding the shortest distance between two points? Or did sex do something far more ambitious? Did it harness the hurricanes of history?
Hayley Nolan, Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, Amazon Publishing, 2019.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
Volume 2, London: John Murray 1871