BOOKS - INTERVIEW - Dorion Sagan and Tyler Volk - Death and Sex:
Dorion Sagan and Tyler Volk Get Intimate about Their New Book
Photo by Christine Matthäi
Okay, I have to admit it. When I heard science writer and evolutionary theorist Dorion Sagan read the opening from Sex, his contribution to a double header co-written with biologist Tyler Volk, titled Death and Sex (2009, Chelsea Green Publishing), I was convinced that Sagan received the easier assignment.
The prolific Sagan, who has written and co-authored more than twenty books translated into eleven languages including Notes from the Holocene: A Brief History of the Future, read a witty introduction in which he appears in the midst of a group of teenagers gawking at a condom wrapper. Fun and games, I thought, until I dug in and received a thorough and fascinating lesson on why sex exists at all. Turns out that the cosmos is ruthless in its pursuit of reproduction, just ask a hyena.
“When (the Marquis de) Sade claims there is no absolute morality, he is voicing an uncomfortable truth recognizable to scientists and religionists alike. Discussing the God-given rights of man and how they differ in number and content from nation to nation, comedian George Carlin has wondered whether we are supposed to assume that God, of all entities, is bad at math…” Dorion Sagan from Sex
Hmm, I thought, it might be easier, after all, to read about death. And, while it seems a rather fruitless task to contemplate death when we’ve all got a lot of living to do, Volk, Science Director for Environmental Studies and Professor of Biology at New York University, has some very affirming things to say.
“But students of the real Epicureanism know this philosophical school as one that has for good reason been likened to Buddhism, which had itself been born just a few centuries earlier. Both traditions emphasize a simple happiness based on the control of our desires…the anxiety inherent in constantly grasping to obtain and maintain that way of life creates a state of misery. Instead, happiness can best be reached by setting our sights just on the things that are really and truly needed which are few enough that they are not difficult to achieve…” Tyler Volk from Death
To say that sex feeds death and death feeds sex is to enter into a world of biology, chemistry, evolutionary science, philosophy, literature and poetry. What could be so bad about that?
And so I sat down with Sagan and Volk to find out about two taboo subjects. As their book’s official title – Death and Sex – suggests, I first spoke with Volk about death and why it might not be so bad, after all, before moving on to teenagers, hyenas, randy bacteria, and condom wrappers.
Photo by Amelia Amon
WRR: Tyler Volk, your half of Death and Sex addresses what by far is a more difficult subject for the average person to contemplate. You frame your discussion about the cessation of life with a portrait of Epicurus and his philosophy. Who was Epicurus and what can a Greek philosopher who lived in the 3rd century BCE teach us about death?
Volk: Epicurus was among the most inﬂuential of ancient Greek philosophers. He articulated a practical philosophy that emphasized finding happiness via reining in desire and cultivating friendship. He is also famous for saying, bluntly, “death is nothing to us.” We won’t exist after death, so why worry about it? There is more, but the important point is that people thousands of years ago were confronting many of the same ultimate questions that we each individually face today.
WRR: How does death factor into evolution?
Volk: There is no evolution without death. The various means by which death comes about serve as selective forces that generate, over time, new living forms. This doesn’t mean that death exists to serve evolution, because in many cases death is only a byproduct from lack of nutrients or from predation. But death can also be a selected pattern with a function, just like wings or eyes are selected patterns with functions.
Microbiologists know of cases of programmed cell deaths in types of bacteria that have cell differentiation, in which some cells die to physically lift up other cells that will produce spores scattered by winds. And we as big multicellular bodies live only because of rampant deaths of cells within. In fact, when cellular death programs go wary cancers can emerge.
WRR: Why do humans have a longer lifespan than most animals? What contributes to lifespan and could we extend ours far beyond the maximum allotted four score and ten?
Volk: Lifespan is intimately linked to lifestyle. Creatures whose lifestyles offer relatively protected niches often have evolved internal metabolic repair mechanisms that produce long lives. Examples include birds, which tend to have much longer lives than mammals of the same weights, because birds are free from many dangers on the ground. Humans have intrinsic life spans about twice as long as our nearest primate relatives: chimps and gorillas. This is probably due to our smarts that decreased the amount of danger experienced—we are talking over millions of years here—and promoted the evolution of inherently longer lives before natural senescence sets in.
Extending our lives comes about by reducing diseases, of course. But the next step, the holy grail of life extension, will be to find out the secrets of cellular repair mechanisms that control our natural life spans and manipulate those in some way. Nutrition will only go so far because of the inherent lifespan that has been tuned within us by evolution.
WRR: At the beginning of Death you describe the death of a colleague who was only 50, how his beloved dulcimer was part of his funeral gathering. Later, you describe what cultural anthropologist Barbara King calls death rituals. Why are they important?
Volk: It has been said that the function of funerals is to get both the dead and also the living to where they need to be. To go back into deep time again—which is where the mind must go to root out some of these issues—once humans became sedentary something had to be done with corpses. They were dangerous to leave in camp. The first funerals might have been processions to move the bodies well away from the living. The death of another creates sadness, mourning, and the sense of loss. It is also a reminder of one’s own mortality, therefore a time and opportunity for awakening. The living thus get somewhere in the funerals as well.
WRR: Frankly, at middle age, I am deeply enamored of life and not particularly interested in senescence and death anytime soon; and by that I mean I would love to live another 100 years. The opportunity to find the fountain of youth is everywhere from packets of vitamins, miraculous goji berries, organic food, and elliptical machines at gyms to yoga. Why won’t these work?
Volk: The human body has a natural lifespan. Sure, it varies a lot from person to person, and there are even genetic diseases that speed up senescence. And yet we usually can immediately recognize the difference between someone who is 60 years old and someone who is 80. There is a rough clock to the progression of senescence. Clearly nutrition can hurt or help the pace of this clock. But real breakthroughs are just starting in the science of aging.
Perhaps we in middle age will be helped some by these breakthroughs. But it is likely that only those just being born now will truly reap the benefits. To significantly enhance lifespan will require a level of understanding of the biocomplexity of our body that hasn’t yet been reached.
WRR: You end your half of Death and Sex with a short poem by the Zen poet, Basho. What can he tell us about confronting our own deaths?
Volk: Ah, Basho. He was Zen without being officially Zen. He saw that enlightenment happens in the moment, as portrayed in the metaphoric language of his great haikus. Near the end of his life, as “autumn” deepened, he inquired about his neighbor.
I feel he had reached reconciliation with death and life similar to that achieved by Epicurus. At some point, we must gratefully say goodbye and cheer on those who, from the vantage of our diminishing days, we know will carry on as conscious beings when we are blank nothings. But we lived! And that is a treat we didn’t even have to ask for!
WRR: Dorion Sagan, I have to admit that I was much more eager to read about sex than death, yet you begin your discussion about something a bit less sexy than human seduction and coitus, bacterial sex. What is bacterial sex and why should we care about it?
Sagan: I wanted to begin at the beginning. Like I say in the book, bacteria started the party. In fact, sex—if we define it with biologists as genetic recombination—may have preceded life as cells. This is because nucleotides may have been around getting spliced and diced on the early Earth by ultraviolet solar radiation before RNA and DNA became organized in the minimal living unit, the cell.
The natural history of archaea and bacteria is so strange that, had they been discovered on Mars, say, rather than Earth, they would have been considered alien life forms. These organisms are extremely “promiscuous,” as my biologist mother likes to say, and may trade from a few to virtually all their genes. But they don’t have to to reproduce. To this day sex is not required for reproduction in the majority of organisms, who are microbes. But in our lineage—before there were any animals or plants, in ameba-like organisms, perhaps two billion years ago—these two processes became linked. Sex became required for reproduction. This changed everything.
We humans are focused on our own kind, and our own choices of partners and sex acts, because without such focus in the past, our species would not have continued. But we are only one of an estimated thirty million species, and most life forms reproduce without the requirement to mix genes. Human sex arose from nonhuman sex, which is part of the backstory and bigger picture. Tyler and I compared notes in the beginning and agreed we wanted to describe sex and death in their cosmic context. It can be freeing to look at the big picture as it shows we are specks in space and ticks in time, and that we are part of far bigger processes that can ultimately give our life meaning.
WRR: You tell the story of Adam and Eve, and the “fall” from paradise to illustrate the connection between sex and death. Why is this story important in the understanding of sex and ultimately death?
Sagan: Ah, the forbidden fruit: the story remains extremely resonant—and I couldn’t resist attaching my rickety prose wheelbarrow to a speeding bullet train of world fiction! Mythologically, the garden imbroglio connects temptation with mortal consequences. As my sixth grade teacher Mr. Quinn put it in sex education, between hits of Mylanta he kept for ulcers in his desk drawer, be careful you don’t trade a few seconds of pleasure for a lifetime of responsibility. In the case of Eve, taking the talking snake’s advice to eat the “apple” demonstrates what can happen when one deviates from the true course of rectitude.
Interestingly, it may not have been an apple. R. Gordon Wasson, a banker largely responsible with his wife (due to an article in Life magazine) for introducing psilocybin mushrooms into the US from Mexico in the 1960s, claimed the “fruit” translated as apple in the Bible was really Amanita muscaria, the white-spotted red mushroom of the sort that the hookah-smoking snail sits upon in Alice in Wonderland. This makes the story a little less comicky, bédesque as they say in French, because Amanita can kill you as well as cause you to see visions (and, I presume, hallucinate talking snakes), feel like you’re going to die or, alternatively, experience eternity.
Curiously—considering Genesis’s account of the link between forbidden substances and divine knowledge—a report in the The Daily Mail that came out ten days after he died at 88 reported that Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who deduced the double helix structure of DNA, was under the influence of low, psychotherapeutically prescribed, then-legal doses of LSD when he discovered the biochemical “secret of life” in March, 1953.
Sex and death do go together, although the colorful stories of Genesis, written over 2000 years ago, do not convey the science of the connection. In real life the powerful fable is mirrored by evolutionary history: Real animal genesis was dependent upon fertilization by merging of sex cells from parents whose own bodies then became largely evolutionarily redundant. The irony is that while the multicell form is in principle immortal, the brain, giving the feeling of “I” inside the individual, is lost each generation. Thus we fear death even though the form continues.
WRR: Can you explain meiosis and its relation to the second law of thermodynamics? How this relates to sex and, of course, death.
Sagan: The second law says that entropy increases or, more simply, that energy spreads. It turns out that natural complex systems—from hurricanes to long-lived chemical reactions to life itself––enhance this spreading, this entropy increase, mostly by putting heat into the environment. Although organisms are organized, they are open systems, growing and laying energy sources to waste.
Far from there being a contradiction between complexity and the second law, complex systems are not only consistent with the second law, but actively enhance its activity. So life, in a cosmic context, although unusual, looks completely natural as an energy system. By maintaining and growing, by reproducing and evolving, life does the work of the second law, increasing entropy into the area around it. Meiosis refers to the series of cell divisions that take a body cell, with two sets of chromosomes, and turn it into a sex cell, a sperm or egg (or spore in some plants) with one set of chromosomes.
Fertilizing sex brings the meiotically reduced cells back together, doubling the chromosome numbers. It completes the animal life cycle. Such cycling marks the lives of all animals and plants, as well as ancestral and other microbes. But the cycling of complex material forms that maintain their identity as they turn over their components in regions of energy flow is a natural process that extends beyond life.
Our form integrates meiotic sex but we are only one of many natural complex systems that maintain themselves and grow in areas of energy flow, more actively accomplishing the energy-spreading, entropy-increasing function implicit in the second law. Meiosis is part of a cycle hundreds of millions of years old that has become necessary for the transgenerational continuance of us, or one could say our specific energy-dispersing form.
WRR: You paint a very interesting and sympathetic portrait of the Marquis de Sade. How can he educate us about sex and the spreading of genes?
Sagan: I wouldn’t say that I paint a personally sympathetic portrait of the Marquis, although that may seem so in relative terms. Philosophically he allows me to make the point that nature is an amoral gene-spreading machine. The genes can be understood as the instructions to operate the energy-dissipation machinery implicit in the second law.
The perversions committed and imagined by Sade’s characters represent only a drop in the ocean of what’s already out there in nature. Sade realized nature would have the last laugh, enclosing him in the ground and erasing his memory from the minds of humanity.
Also, he had an interesting relationship with his mother-in-law, who genetically stood to benefit from his womanizing insofar as his capacity for sexual conquest could be passed to her grandsons, but whose excesses put her daughters in danger. He wasn’t all bad; he was horrified by the excesses of the Terror that began just after the onset of the French Revolution, he rightly considered capital punishment to be hypocritical in the hands of state who killed its own in war; and when Mme. de Montreuil, his mother-in-law and her husband, came before him after the Revolution, he let them go despite being temporarily in a position of political power where he could exact revenge for the jail time he served as the result of Mme. de Montreuil's lobbying efforts. You can interpret Sade as trying to beat nature at her own game and failing. In the end amoral nature makes even the “evil Marquis” look like a wimp.
WRR: Could you talk about the development of sex organs and what they signal in males and females/primates and non.
Sagan: Sex organs evolved. The earliest lineages of sexual reproducers didn’t grow bodies, they were just two cells that came together, probably because they were starving and ingested another body without digesting it and then, without immune systems, survived as doubled beings with twice the chromosomes. When these double organisms grew in their doubled state, bodies with diploid cells—cells with two sets of chromosomes—began to appear.
There was a need to return to the single-cell state, as there still is a need today—we see it in ejaculation of the male sperm cells and ovulation—to restart the body-growing process. It helped for one sex, who became known as female, to keep its cells stationary; they’re easier to find that way. In general, egg cells got bigger and fewer while sperm cells became faster and more numerous swimmers. Fertilization at first took place outside the body, as it still does in amphibians and fish. Once animals moved to land fertilization tended to be less sloppy, more targeted. Males that could fertilize a female’s eggs first had a selective advantage. The origin of the penis can be understood as driven by the advantages of preempting other males by delivering sperm closer to the target. This wing of that part of evolutionary theory called sexual selection by Darwin is now named sperm competition theory. Sperm competition concerns competition at the level of sex cells and organs, not so much among competitors at the level of the body, such as rutting deer or silverback gorillas with harems of females intimidating adolescent males.
It turns out there is a correlation between genital endowments and promiscuity in primates. Gorilla males have erections that are surprisingly small, only about an inch, and their testes produce less sperm. Chimpanzees, by contrast, who tend to be extremely promiscuous—a female in heat typically mates with every male in sight—produce far more sperm.
Human males are in between with larger penises than gorillas but producing less sperm per ejaculation than the average chimp male. The thinking is that greater sperm production, possession of larger penises, ability to mate more often and other characteristics are all selected for if females mate with more than a single male during their phase of fertility.
They are physical characteristics that increase the chance of impregnation when there is competition. Some rodents make sticky sperm plugs that prevent subsequent suitors. Some frogs lie on top of their mates for months after copulation, making it difficult for future suitors, no matter how charming. Female orgasms produce intrauterine suction that probably increases the likelihood of pregnancy if a woman climaxes. There are many features and behaviors, both physical and psychological, in the animal world that can be partly understood on the basis of sperm competition or—in cases of intimidation, sexual possessiveness, and fighting—sperm competition avoidance. Sexual evolution is written on bodies as well as in minds.
WRR: When you say “evolution itself is not random, but is naturally oriented to the depletion of energy reserves, the greatest of which is the sun” what do you mean?
Sagan: Many people—and this is one of the aces in the sleeve of religionists who question the dominant evolutionary paradigm—sense that evolution is not random. This is indeed the case, far more than most evolutionists are willing to admit. (The kneejerk unwillingness to admit evolution’s nonrandomness is partly groupthink, but it is also the understandable result of scientists reacting against creationist pseudoscience.)
Nonetheless, evolution is not random in certain broad but important respects: The number of species and other taxa, the areal extent inhabited by life, the aggregate energy tapped and deployed by life, the number of chemical elements in the periodic table involved in biological circulation at Earth’s surface—all these have increased over geological time. (Of course there have been setbacks during mass extinction events.)
Unfortunately for the creationists, however, these facts don’t suggest a humanoid God making white male (fill in the group to which you belong here!) as His goal! Rather, they reflect the directionality of all natural energy-using complex systems, which is to use up energy, making cycling systems and growing until the available energy is depleted. Not just life but whirlpools in your bathtub and cyclical chemical reactions do this. So do superorganisms like beehives and ecosystems moving through succession.
Evolution on Earth follows the trajectory of these simpler thermodynamic systems: tapping into energy, increasing the size and cycling of the complex system, and spreading entropy to the surrounding environment as energy is depleted. The directional movement increases until it doesn’t—until available energy and the means to exploit it are depleted.
Life’s great trick has been to continue itself as a gradient-reducing system by reproduction. Intelligent life in space can also be expected to be a naturally growing, materially cycling energy user. Part of our great dilemma as humans is that our technology has given us fantastic access to energy, which we spread and deplete as we grow—but the stability of this process is in doubt. Obviously, to survive in the long run, civilizations have to avoid destroying themselves and depleting the energy sources that sustain them as natural complex systems.
WRR: Testosterone, which men want lots of and many women don’t know they have, is a driving force in “our urge to merge.” Where would we be with out it?
Sagan: Testosterone is a dangerous drug linked with aggressiveness and masculine traits. It might be outlawed if it weren’t supplied to us intravenously by nature. The fetus gets a dose if it’s going to be male, and then again at puberty. Recently scientists found that the ratio of the length of the third (ring) finger to the first finger correlates with how much testosterone you were exposed to in the womb. If your ring finger is longer, as is the case for most guys, you were exposed to relatively more testosterone in utero. Girls and women tend to have a higher ratio of forefinger to ringfinger length, reflecting less intrauterine exposure.
Animal studies have shown that in some species the winner of a male-male fight experiences an increase in testosterone, probably correlating with feelings of cockiness and hierarchical power. Testosterone and similar sex steroids are used in bodybuilding and sports to enhance performance. And studies show that expertise in athletics, stock trading, and other endeavors correlates to the ring finger ratio for intrauterine exposure to testosterone to a surprising degree.
But it’s not all good. We’ve also all heard the stories of guys on steroids going on ridiculous rampages over minor matters—a good fictional example is Mickey Rourke’s character behind the deli counter in the recent film The Wrestler—because they were so fried on testosterone or a related sex hormone. Whole species have been affected by testosterone-enhanced behaviors—and they’re not always guys.
In the hyena species, Crocuta crocuta, the females are flooded in utero with testosterone and the steroid androstenedione, secreted by the ovaries, is converted by the placenta into testosterone. The drug shows up in the female bodies and behavior. The clitorises of the female hyena in this species are longer than the male’s penises. The males are loners but the females, who are bigger and dominant, hunt in packs. Their droppings are white from the bones they chew and they often leave their twins (they usually have pairs of offspring) together in aardvark burrows where one of the young terrorizes the other to such an extent that it never comes out, dying in the dark in the African desert. The tougher offspring come out to continue the life of the testosteronized lineage. Sade called his mother-in-law “The Hyena.” Without internal doses of this dangerous drug we’d be nicer but bigger wusses.
WRR: And finally, all this sex. What’s love got to do with it?
For many species, it’s not clear that love has anything to do with sex, or the reproduction-abetted energy dispersal function that is its cosmic backdrop. African bedbugs, for example, penetrate the carapaces of both females and males. As the sperm remains viable in the circulatory system, even a sexually stabbed male, when he mates a female, may fertilize her with his own assailant’s sperm. Love seems to be more a mammalian and bird thing.
Snakes ain’t too loving, probably because there is no extended care of the young. The close connection of parent and child paves the way. Lovers call each other nicknames and baby names, repeating at a different turn of the spiral the dependency and intimacy of our earliest years. The emotional bond between lovers creates conditions of stability for optimal development of offspring. The hormone oxytocin—another of Nature’s, the Pusher’s, powerful arsenal of drugs—is also involved. It increases trust and decreases fear. In related species of voles, monogamous prairie and non-monogamous montane voles, the monogamous voles have many more receptors for oxytocin, sometimes known as the “cuddle drug.”
In humans, oxytocin increases after orgasm in males, and to a much greater extent after orgasm during lovemaking in females. It also mediates lactation after parturition. Of course, cuddling isn’t sex, but it’s a move in the right direction.