the day I met evolution

Someone asked me recently how I got the point of view I have about sex. I think she asked because she had quite a social constructivist point of view and wanted to know how, basically, any reasonably intelligent human being could view sex otherwise. So I told her.

I always liked biology. In high school, I had the best biology teacher on the face of the earth. And I always liked evolution. And then I REALLY liked evolution in the mid-90s, which is when I read Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams’ best book. That book is the reason I studied cognitive psychology; indeed THIS is why I studied cognitive psychology:

The world of smells is now virtually closed to modern man. Not that we haven’t got a sense of smell – we sniff our food or wine, we occasionally smell a flower, and can usually tell if there’s a gas leak, but generally it’s all a bit of a blur, and often an irrelevant or bothersome blur at that. When we read that Napoleon wrote to Josephine on one occasion, `Don’t wash – I’m coming home,’ we are simply bemused and almost think of it as deviant behaviour. We are so used to thinking of sight, closely followed by hearing, as the chief of the senses that we find it hard to visualise (the word itself is a giveaway) a world which declares itself primarily to the sense of smells. It’s not a world our mental processors can resolve – or, at least, they are no longer practised in resolving it. For a great many animals, however, smell is the chief of the senses. It tells them what is good to eat and what is not (we go by what the packet tells us and the sell-by date). It guides them towards food that isn’t within line of sight (we already know where the shops are). It works at night (we turn on the light). It tells them of the presence and state of mind of other animals (we use language). It also tells them what other animals have been in the vicinity and doing what in the last day or two (we simply don’t know, unless they’ve left a note). Rhinoceroses declare their movements and their territory to other animals by stamping in their faeces, and then leaving smell traces of themselves wherever they walk, which is the sort of note we would not appreciate being left.

But while I was studying cognitive psychology, I was also working as a peer health educator and sexual assault crisis responder, doing all this work with sexual health, learning a shit-ton about human sexuality, and generally gearing up to become what I am now. Yet somehow – even with that reference to Napoleon – I didn’t make the link between evolution and sex.

But then. Then.

(This is the point in the telling when I got embarassing and weepy.)

I was in my second year of my Masters degree, in a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health Clinic (an experience for which I was underprepared and am now breathtakingly grateful) and the brilliant, gentle, kind, amazing human being who is John Bancroft (*sigh*) was talking about the Dual Control Model, the new theoretical model of sexual response that he and Erick Janssen were developing. They had just published about it for the first time that year.

He said something like, “… many motivational systems are structured this way in the nervous system, with separation inhibition and activation systems. It makes evolutionary sense to balance activation response with inhibition response.”

And a light went on.

I sat there silently and it felt like… like the whole inside of my brain was a game of Jewel Quest: one thing shifted, and the consequence was a cascade of changes that went on and on; my entire understanding of sexuality, everything I’d learned in 5 years of education suddenly became new again, more meaningful, more powerful, more real.

I thought, “So SEX is actually an integral part of an organismic body, a biological function that we share with lots and lots and lots of other species, and what goes on in our bodies is not just about the movement of water and electricity and meat, but about how those movements have supported survival for millenia.”

And I thought, “And from that beginning you might be able to trace causal lines to everything true about human sexuality. Certainly you can understand the fundamentals of human sexual response.”

And I thought, “Why did no one ever explain it to me this way before?”

Since then I’ve learned a BUNCH more about it. I know that HUMAN sexuality in particular is vastly social, which is adaptive (or, at minimum, exaptive) because of the duration and intensity of infant dependence. Our reproductive functions are by no means limited to actual reproduction but expand to a breathtaking array of parenting behaviors, necessary to keep themselves and their offspring alive for the decade and a half, until the offspring reach their reproductive years.

So I started with a less biological, more constructivist point of view. And I landed where I am because of the MASSIVE explanatory power of evolution. It was like I had been admiring and studying a lovely tree, and then someone showed me THE FOREST, in all its complexity and awe-inspiring glory.