Sextasies – Is Sex the Trigger or the Gun?
At the heart of sex are genes. It’s been over 70 years since we first detected genes, and we still know less than we think about how they work.
We don’t know, for example, how a string manufactures a box. We don’t know how a thread-like genome builds the walls and interior scaffolding—the cytoskeleton–of a cell. We don’t know how a hundred trillion gene strings make the tower of 100 trillion boxes stacked together as you and me.
Yes, we are getting a handle on how genes make proteins, but protein-making doesn’t give you the walls, ceilings, and floors called cell membranes. Or the architecture that turns these membranes and the cytoskeleton struts within them into housing. It only gives you a soup.
We also have only the faintest clues to how and why the cosmos invented the most intricate process it has ever conceived—sex. Why not just stick with duplicating what you’ve got? Why go through the agonies of materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display—not to mention what Shakespeare calls “the expense of spirit”, the pains and tortures– that Henry VIII expressed in his letters to Anne Boleyn?
We have very little idea of what nature got out of the very different products of romance, sex, and gene-mixing that produced two one-of-a-kinds: Bloody Mary and her half-sister, Elizabeth I.
A lot of what genes achieve has to do with context. Put a one of a kind gene string into just the right one-of-a-kind position among the hurricanes of history, and you can harness those hurricanes. And those hurricanes can harness your genes.
Put one of a kind gene strings into one of kind historical storms and you can change the perceptual lens of a nation. Henry VIII’s seven-year pursuit of Anne Boleyn gave England Shakespeare. It gave England the seminal scientific thinking of Francis Bacon. It gave England a leader who could protect the nation from the catastrophe of the Spanish Armada. It gave England its golden age. It gave England Elizabeth I.
New ways of seeing lead to new ways of being. Elizabeth 1 pulled together a vast concatenation of Englishmen and women. She helped literally change the English mind. In the process, she contributed to the global brain, the evolving group mind of all humankind. And of all life.
But the materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display of sex prove two of modern science’s holiest assumptions wrong. They prove that the law of least effort does not always apply. And they prove that one core concept of current science is wildly inaccurate. That dogma?? That everything tends toward chaos.
Yes, the sins, excesses, and intricacies of sex disprove the concept that every modern scientist must swear allegiance to if he or she does not want to be cast down in utter humiliation. They disprove the 19th century doctrine of entropy.
Remember, the excesses of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display are not limited to humans. Plants invented an astonishing advertising device to entice insects into acting as the UPS and Federal Express of their sexual projectiles, of their pollen. The plant’s billboards were flowers. They were intricate, expensive, and flamboyant. But they were one-use promotional items. Once they had served their purpose, they were tossed away.
Those plants and their extravagant throwaways were not the products of smokestacks, tailpipes, and paternalism. They were the products of nature. In fact, they were nature incarnate. So was the plants’ gaudy self-advertising and their production of single-use throwaways. Pure nature. But there was a reason for nature’s lavish expenditures on petals. That reason was the most byzantine, twisted, and tangled course of action nature has ever conceived. Sex.
If sex is the ultimate maker of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display, why does nature cling to it with such ferocity?
In reality the cosmos is not just thrifty. She is also flamboyant. Thrift and flamboyance are not either or. Opposites are joined at the hip. Thrift and flamboyance are part of a bigger strategy.
The tiny “water bears” called tardigrades, for example, have to know which to use when—thrift or flamboyance. When conditions are bad, these “water piglets” become one of the greatest masters of thrift this cosmos has ever conceived. They look freeze-dried. They go into what’s called “cryptobiosis.” They become what’s called “tuns.” In fact, for all practical purposes, it looks as if these tiny beasts are dead. They use no energy. They need no water. They become super savers. They insert a sugar called trehalase where water used to be. And they cut their metabolism down to one-thousandth of the norm. Yes, they become the ultimate puritans. The ultimate misers. They are thrift taken to the nth degree.
The result? These pinch-penny tardigrades can stand temperatures from minus 272 degrees centigrade up to plus 150 degrees centigrade. And according to Harvard researchers, tardigrade tuns can even survive the rigors of outer space. An Oxford University and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics paper claims that tardigrades will be around until the sun dies. In fact the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists claim that tardigrade tuns can weather “asteroids, supernovas, gamma ray bursts” and hang in there for ten billion years. Tardigrade tuns can survive in the zero pressure of a vacuum and in the 1,200 atmosphere mega-pressure of the sea at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Tardigrade tuns can even keep it together under radiation levels of 5000–6200 grays. Five grays is enough to kill you or me. Hiroshima atom bomb victims were killed by less than ten grays. 6,200 grays, the radiation a tardigrade in Puritan-mode can handle, would kill you and me more than a thousand times over. In fact, the Harvard Gazette speculates in a headline that tardigrade tuns could someday be “the last survivors on earth.” That is thrift.
Or is it? Never forget that nature’s flamboyance is centered around sex. When water arrives, the seemingly-dead tardigrades burst into life again. In fact, if things look really good, a female tardigrade becomes a spendthrift. She goes for materialism, consumerism, and waste. She generates 30 eggs and indulges in romance. As many as nine male tardigrades walk slowly toward her, crowding around hoping to climb on her back and inseminate her eggs. Or the hopeful males march around the external envelope she exudes with her eggs in it. These excess males, these ambulating disks of raw material, hope for the chance to penetrate the female’s sexual opening, “the posterior end of a female exuvia containing eggs.” In fact, they apparently fight for that chance. The lucky male that gets to hook up with the female can spend an hour ejaculating. That is a huge expenditure of time and energy in a beast whose entire lifespan is between two months and two years. It’s the equivalent of 3.3 days in human time. Copulating. That’s self-indulgence. That’s extravagance.
Then there’s another display of materialism and waste– the mass of male suitors who came calling. Nine is eight more than a female tardigrade needs if all she’s after is reproduction. But she’s apparently after something more. She’s after upgrade. She’s after self-improvement. She’s after perfection. And so is nature. Nature drives her species to produce an excess of sexual choices. In order to improve herself.
Nature yokes thrift to extravagance all over the place. In fact, coupling thrift to extravagance is one of nature’s favorite strategies. The hummingbird of the Andes mountains, like the tardigrade, also goes into what researchers call a near-death state She does it every night to wait out the darkness. That’s thrift. But when daylight returns, she bursts into a wild expenditure of energy. She flaps her wings as many as 50 times per second. That’s extravagance. Her goal? To hover like a helicopter over the sexual parts of a flower, drink in the flower’s nectar, and accidentally get the plant’s powdery pollen on her beak and head. When the hummingbird moves on to another flower she does more than drink more nectar. She helps consummate the plant’s sexual act. She deposits one plant’s pollen on a new flower’s sexual parts. She deposits male pollen on a distant plant’s female organ—her stigma. Yes, the hummingbird acts as a plant’s flying penis.
Then, when night comes, the Andean hummingbird swaps extravagance for thrift once again and goes back into an energy-saving near death state. Like the tardigrades, the hummingbird switches from thrift to excess and back again. Why? To deal with the crashes and lifts of climate change. Not to cope with man-made climate change. But to deal with the climate change dictated by the planet itself.
Meanwhile the hummingbird is part of a commercial network, a network of trade, a network of exchange. A network of plant pornography. A plant feeds a hummingbird nectar in order to achieve a primal goal: sex.
Kenta Sugiura & Midori Matsumoto (2021) Sexual reproductive behaviours of tardigrades: a review, Invertebrate Reproduction & Development, 65:4, 279-287, DOI: 10.1080/07924259.2021.1990142, https://doi.org/10.1080/07924259.2021.1990142
Sloan, D., Alves Batista, R. & Loeb, A. The Resilience of Life to Astrophysical Events. Sci Rep 7, 5419 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05796-x