Sex is a thing which is so very ubiquitous and yet dealt with in a manner so very secretive that it can qualify as the queerest thing about human beings. Rather than passing a value judgment either ways, this essay aims at exploring the evolution of this interesting trait and the accessory institutions around it.
There are three main topics covered in here. One is the gradual evolution of sex over development of human civilization. Second is the complex array of supplementary things which evolved with mankind’s ideas and handling of sex. Third is some speculation as to where it could go.
Procreation is the most obvious characteristic of any living being. That is the mechanism by which the organism actually manages to perpetrate its legacy beyond its death. For multi-cellular organism, procreation by just division of cell was less of a choice. However, how exactly these organisms went from single organism procreation to two organism procreation is also an interesting study. Assume they did by good evolutionary forces or by some happy (!) accident. Plants and animals alike now have two sexes and unite genes from two parents to start the life building process. Sex is the mechanism amongst animals to unite the reproductive cells.
What is amusing is the diversion it has taken from this role in human society. Sex today is far more than just a way to ensure continuity of human race. In fact, a very close analogy is the way options and futures developed in history of financial institutions. To start with, they were hedging instruments to be used by people and corporations engaged in some positions/transactions in the underlying assets. However, eventually the speculators took over and the trade in derivative contracts exploded. I do not know exact ratio of speculators to hedgers but I am sure it is very high. Likewise, the ratio of times people engaged in sexual activity exclusively for pleasure to that of times people engage in it deliberately for procreation is likely to be extremely high. Not that this is anything wrong. It is fine. I would have regretted if it was otherwise. What I am discussing here is simply the evolution from only for procreation end to mostly for please end of human sexual activity. Even more interesting is the intertwining of other human tendencies with it which complicated matters no end. Let us explore that bit further.
A possible explanation I have for this is the good old evolutionary forces of survival of fittest. The effect of these forces cannot be more direct anywhere other than sex drive. Very simply, let us assume the starting population had a decently well distributed sex drive amongst it members. What I mean by well distributed is being in line with say the distribution of intelligence, good congenital health, good features etc in the population. While good health and intelligence may over a longer time interval matter for survival, the sex drive had a direct impact on whose genes dominated the next generation. Those with greater sex drive and average and above average score in other endowments eventually end up begetting more children than say the most intelligent and the healthiest etc. We can even speculate that this could have been more pronounced for men than for women. However, that is not the main idea here. The next generation will have somewhat more skewed distribution of sex drive than that of say intelligence and looks.
Over a lot of generations where in each generation the ones with more sex drive take a larger share of the next generation, what one can expect is a human population with a significantly skewed sex drive distribution. The effect of this trend would have reduced with the advent of monogamy and increase in life expectancy followed by fewer children per woman. However, the effects of thousands of generation will hardly be removed in last hundred or so generations. Even today, some aberrations will be borne with much less sex drive than average. However, the distribution now has a far higher average than it did in past.
To the more interesting aspect of accessories now. Consider marriage. I am no sociologist to have studied the exact path the emergence of this institution took. However, some general conclusions can be drawn. First is obviously that marriage is to institutionalize monogamy. Why people would insist on it is due to another accessory of sex which we will come to soon. That has to do with elements of possession and ownership and eventually self esteem. Another big reason for marriage is allocating children to appropriate father. In a small clan, it might have been easier to have all women being protected by all men in a mechanistic manner. But from what I recall of the course of sociology I took in my graduation, organic solidarity emerging in late tribal societies may have forced them to find better solutions to the problem of lack of a smaller unit than clan. For families to emerge the society needs to recognize formally the bond of a man and a woman. However, the interesting question that remains is why marriage and monogamy became so sacred and why did people willingly put restriction on their sexual choices. I venture two guesses – owning the responsibility of children and jealousy. The first would have come from the collective conscious or say the wise men with experience. I can almost picture them pondering over the trade off of lack of sexual freedom and keeping the males responsible for the children they beget.
The second reason is more from within individuals. With emergence of consciousness, human beings also developed far keener sense of ownership and belonging. If the man is “married” to me, he will not copulate any other woman. Since animals don’t have marriages, they can take far liberal view of such things. In pre-marriage society, we can speculate that there would jealousy and fights over a man/woman and attempts at restricting the sexual freedom of a partner. However, the possibility of a socially recognized institution of marriage would offer a chance to settle such disputes. The solution was drastic no doubt. In hindsight, it might have slowed the process of biological evolution. However, it might have also helped societies maintain a good structure of families.
How did marriage affect sex? It tried to “discipline” the sexual activity. However, it is obvious that some human beings with above average sex drive will try and find ways to have sexual freedom. Thus would be born pre-marital and extra-marital sex. The society as a whole was constantly pitted against the refusal of individuals to fall in line. So the natural response would have been to make it taboo to do these things – to brainwash its members right since childhood that one is not “allowed” by the society to engage in sex till the society itself recognizes your right to do so. Even after that, it is to be looked down upon if you were to have sex with someone other than your marital partner. I have no judgment to pass on this. It might have been another example of the individual freedom being exchanged for a collective peace or simply a case of hypocrisy. That again is not the theme of this essay.
Another accessory of sex is its interference in ideas of self esteem, faith and goodness. I find it most amusing when I see a strong interlinkage of these for no obvious reason. If one is not good at a certain sport or say has poor vocabulary, it does not affect the person concerned beyond a certain extent in most cases. On the other hand, if one is not the necessarily preferred partner by the opposite sex, it seems to matter much more than one would expect on account of its weightage in general scheme of things. If a man turns a woman down, that would haunt her for much longer than if he defeated her in a sport she is supposed to be better than him. A man will be hurt beyond hope if a woman tells him after an act of sex that he ranks the worst in all her sexual encounters. This damage would be by far more than what it would be say if she tells him that he is dumbest human being she has seen on the face of the planet.
This might have come about on account of the two things – a very strong sex drive across the population and a certain primitive selection mechanism playing its role. The former is obvious. By the latter I mean maybe the sexually more appealing have something desirable in terms of procreating a child with. The healthier man, a woman with well endowed features etc all might have pointed to a greater chance of the survival of the child in pre-historic era. Physical health alone mattered in the good old days on account of which the evolution of preference for physically well endowed partner strengthened over time. In today’s world however, this natural preference is somewhat archaic.
The reasons for that are straightforward. Physical strength though a good bonus, has long ceased to be an element of power. Intelligence in broader sense has replaced it more or less completely. However, the sexual preferences have not changed in line with this. The forces of evolution by natural selection are too slow for this shift of seat of power. Secondly, the process of survival of the fittest has been negated to a large extent in recent years owing to advances in medicine.
The sum total of all this is that today, we are people with strong sex drive, little need to have it for procreation (because the infant mortality is low and population high), with sexual preferences out of date with our social evolution and a confused linkage of sex with our ideas of self esteem. Yet again, I am refraining from passing a judgment on this although I must say I have one. I would suggest the readers use the essay as a raw material to inform their judgment. What I have to say on this further is simply a speculation on how it would evolve over time from now on.
Without getting into much of justifications and rationalizations, I would straight get into few quick fanciful speculations I have on this topic. For one, I see marriage being restricted to a much smaller section of human population. Fewer and fewer people would want to have children (trends apparent in developed world already), fewer and fewer people would be willing to submit their sexual freedom to institution of marriage. Single mothers would eventually become the norm on account of significant reduction in crime against single women, better social systems to assist the single mothers looking after the child among others. The role of father will be played by the current partner if any of the single mother. Family will be simply a place one started out with till about first 20 years of one’s life. Generally, women would restrict number of children to zero or one. The population will come down but hardly anybody would complain. The pre-marriage sexual freedom will be back. With that, the strong taboos on pre-marital and extra-marital sex will become irrelevant. Eventually the high status of sex in private life will decline and sex will become another pleasant activity. This will be followed by the weakening of the linkage between sex and self esteem. Essentially, it is like becoming up to date with the ground realities of the interrelation of social and biological paths of evolution followed by human beings.