The Human Difference and the Design of Sex
Editor’s note: Dr. Simmons is the author of What Darwin Didn’t Know and Billions of Missing Links. He is a Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.
Was sex designed to be fun? That may sound like a silly question, but finding the answer might be paramount in knowing how we humans came about, and why.
It’s doubtful that human beings would exist if the sex act were compulsory or pure drudgery; and, it’s a no-brainer that we have to reproduce to endure. Animals operate on instinct, but humans are different. The difference cries out for an explanation.
Before going further, I’ll say only a few words about the intricate mechanics we share with other creatures. Just the steps needed to repeatedly manufacture an ovum and millions of sperm, then deliver them in a reasonable way to a practical place for the maturation of the egg, require an astronomical number of coincidences in design and timing.
There’s a unique set of pheromones for each species. Mind you how difficult life would be if the buffalo and the prairie dog had identical pheromones or dogs didn’t smell different from cats. What if all bird mating calls were identical? Might the warbler accidentally pursue the sparrow? Trees would be alive with fights, not songs. And no babies.
To Be Fully Human
But that’s without adding all of the tantalizing aspects that dogs and cats, among other mammals, know nothing about. Obviously, procreation can be accomplished under other circumstances, but to be fully human it has to be enticing, gratifying, exciting, memorable, and loving for both partners.
It’s safe to say that human intimacy, at its best, surpasses that of any animal, even the most intelligent. Darwinists (like Darwin himself) would likely reply that this is a matter of degree: quantitative rather than qualitative. Really?
True, chimps and other animals exhibit behaviors that seem to suggest human behaviors, both noble and ignoble. An upsetting 1992 study in PNAS documented sexual behavior among male dolphins including aggressively “herding” females in heat, what we would call sexual assault if we saw it among humans. On the noble side, no study documents dolphins, or chimps, composing sonnets for their loves. It’s not that chimps, in their courtship, compose fewer love poems, or even poems of lesser artistry. They don’t compose any at all.
“Fun” is the wrong word, since the enjoyment of intimacy goes far beyond that. But I will use “fun” as a stand-in for the full range of sensations that we find compellingly attractive. Is this kind of fun a consequence of lucky accidents in our evolution or is it a result of intelligent design? How exactly did this come about?
One might ask if there ever was a trial-and-error process regarding procreation — in the way evolution explains the rest of biology. It’s hard to fathom how that would look. Each step up would have needed new information. Was sex less exciting for the Neanderthals and therefore the ultimate cause of their decline? That’s anyone’s guess. Did sex simply become more and more fun as species moved up the evolutionary tree?
I can’t know this for certain, but I suspect one-celled organisms don’t have much fun reproducing. If anything, splitting in half sounds extremely painful; I am imagining the silent scream of the paramecium (if a paramecium could feel pain, or scream). Squirting one’s eggs into the sea and hoping for the right passing sperm might be exciting for starfish, but that won’t work very well for us. Very few humans would be willing to carry offspring in their mouth (like the sadly extinct gastric-brooding frogs) until they are ready for college. We’re all too busy to sit on eggs like birds. Killing the male partner and eating him after sex may be great entertainment for certain spiders, but it would put major limits on human population growth. It would also be a downer.
Reproduction, the Human Way
Having sex definitely needs to be fun if the human race is to endure in a recognizably human way. Reproduction cannot be a societal expectation or a government requirement such as: “You have not produced any children this year. We expect you to have sex every night and twice on Sunday. If not, there might be a fine or even be jail time.” There are no punch cards to hand out. Yet.
Religious texts expect it. Genesis tells us to “Be fruitful and multiply” and Jewish tradition recognizes a mitzvah (a commandment) for married couples to have sex on Friday nights. But is that enough? No, it must be fun. Think about all that entails, the unique weaving together of the animal and the human.
At First Sight
Where even to begin? Often at first sight, visual cues attract each of us to another, especially when we’re young adults. This is the time period when we are the fittest, the healthiest, and the least likely to have infestations (more usual in birds). Most of us are the handsomest or the prettiest we’ll be between the teen years and the forties or so, not yet distorted by the aging process. For some, music, fragrances, gifts, flowers, wild get-ups, poetry, and expensive jewelry are part of courtship. There can be a very significant investment of resources: Reproduction has to be one of our main purposes in life, and window of time does not remain open indefinitely. Ovaries increase their activity at puberty and essentially shut down by fifty in most women. Elderly men have sperm, but looking closely under the microscope, one can see that they use canes to get about. (Not really.)
Complex pheromones, so-called sex hormones, help draw attention and excite us, often wafting from pubic and axillary hairs (wicks). Our nose can detect these not-so subtle messages, yet they are unsmellable (not a real word) by us in any conscious way. Oddly, some of us think that we’re more attractive after we’ve shaved these wicks and showered. Science seems to say for best results, don’t primp: do not shave and do not bathe. But I’m not recommending that. The animal way seems much more straightforward, but not as fun.
As with animals, participants must be anatomically compatible. That’s a minimal requirement. There’s lubrication and mutual aids for moving sperm. Certain anatomical locations are much more sensitive than others and add to the foreplay important for loving relationships and a desire to repeat. Blink and you might miss dolphins having sex. Only mammals have a clitoris, yet the benefit is not readily apparent in all animals.
Unlike many species, humans can enjoy sex at times other than ovulation. Also, we have an exciting way to top off the event, called a climax. Some mammals show facial expressions and body movements that suggest they experience climax, too. What that actually means to them is difficult to say without asking.
Note that we do have sex much more than most animals. One-and-done won’t cut it for us. Sperm must be delivered in a manner to reach the mature ovum. This, again, we share with other creatures. The target cannot be beyond reach, it must be timely, and fertilization must occur efficiently. Sperm groups need select sperm to pave the way and fighting sperm to handle any strangers. Sperm donors must want to deliver their packages again, and, again, and again to improve chances of fertilization.
Oddly, animals can tell when a potential partner is in heat whereas humans can’t. The best that a man can do nowadays is get a text message from his partner.
All by Accident?
If the sexual act evolved through species, one might ask how males and females changed simultaneously in such drastic yet compatible ways. Google insect penis and see how far evolution has come/changed. All by accident?
When we fall in love, we’re happier because love is a wonderful thing and being in love feels good because dopamine is released. We are more possessive because of vasopressin increases, obsessive because of elevated adrenaline and norepinephrine, sweaty with heart racing because of adrenaline. Typically, when we’re aroused, there’s a glow in our face from the autonomic system. Pupils dilate. We are more tolerant of pain because we are distracted. Yet love is more than all that. You could ask a poet to elaborate.
Take away any part of this and sex would not be the experience we know. Might we be programmed to get excited, in that human way, about opportunities to reproduce? To me, this all smacks of very complex design that only an intelligent designer could and would design.
Image: Romeo and Juliet, by Ford Maddox Brown (1870), via Wikimedia Commons.