Death & Sex: Forbidden Fruit

Categories: Sciencewriters
Posted on Monday, October 19th, 2009 at 9:14 am by dpacheco

A playful exploration of the story behind the evolution of our sexuality based on hard (ahem) science, Dorion Sagan‘s Sex (part of the one-two punch known as Death & Sex) brings the author’s trademark wit and inquisitiveness to the endlessly fascinating subject of human copulation. In other words: a scientific look at boning.

And it’s available now. Head over to our bookstore to check it out. Here’s a sample to whet your appetite.

The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.

When I was newly married, driving in Florida after a sparsely attended shotgun wedding (just the two of us and a justice of the peace), a preacher came on the radio. I listened because he was criticizing efforts to understand the evolution of sexuality while I was engaged, as a junior science writer, in writing a book on it (with, of all people, my mother, an evolutionary biologist). Scientists these days are taking it down to ridiculous levels, beyond the level of the flea, he said with scorn in his voice. By God, they were even trying to look to bacteria for answers! Listen, he continued. You don’t need to look at the birds and bees, let alone microorganisms, to understand sex. Everything you need to know about the subject is already there, written for you in black and white, in the Bible.

As a northerner in the Bible Belt I was perturbed. The Origins of Sex: Four Billion Years of Genetic Recombination had yet to come out. Highly technical, due to be published by Yale University Press, this book, just as the Christian broadcaster warned, took it down to the level of cells. Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old, to have such hubris?

Although I’d never read the Good Book cover-to-cover (I hear there are some bawdy parts), and had been brought up by scientists (astronomer father, chemist stepfather, and biologist mother), I could not help but feel accused by this stranger’s sermon. In Genesis, as I understood it, Adam is made by God in his image, Eve is taken from Adam’s rib, and they live happily ever after—at least until the Fall. As Jimmy Buffett sings (which you can also hear driving through Florida), some say a woman is to blame: The fall is Eve’s fault, as it is she who let the trickster snake whisper sweet somethings in her ear and yielded to the temptation to munch of the sumptuous fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil upon whose branches he hung. She took her fateful bite, and the rest is history.

Now, in English texts such as the King James translation of the Bible, the fruit she bit is an apple, but some say apricots, pomegranates, figs, or grapes were more likely the fruit of the one tree God prohibited the first couple from eating in Genesis 2:9. According to ethnobotanist R. Gordon Wasson, the “apple” may even have been a white-spotted red mushroom, Amanita muscaria, of the sort that the hookah-smoking snail sits upon in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Forming a symbiotic partnership with the roots of trees, this fungus is a kind of “fruit.” It also qualifies as a candidate for the first bite on the grounds of being psychoactive and poisonous, although for sheer salacious lubriciousness in cross section it’s hard to top the apple.

Who could blame Eve, surrounded by all those arrogant males, for taking a bite of the forbidden fruit? Even if the main thing learned from that luscious bit of nutriment was the revelation that they were naked. Nonetheless, for her contagious disobedience in partaking of such a licentious snack, God the Father doled out a suitably agricultural punishment: They were to toil with the soil, and grow their own, rather than continuing on as freeloaders in a paradise they didn’t appreciate, blithely violating divine edicts, like the prohibition against education.

According to the Bible, this was the female-precipitated ur-disaster for which we continue to pay. There was also said to be a Tree of Life in the Garden that conferred immortality, but God made sure that Adam and Eve, given their sinful natures, didn’t get a piece of that. Instead, they were expelled from the Garden, fell to Earth (or, more allegorically, into incarnation and time), and were subject henceforth to aging and death.

Well, maybe. There does seem to be a connection, and not just in the Bible, between sex and death. The tiny ameboid microbes that preceded all animals have chromosomes with DNA in the nuclei of their cells. Such cells, bigger than bacteria, don’t all mate, but some do. And when they do, parts of the cell of one, the oxygen-using mitochondria, must be “put to death” by the other. When an egg and sperm merge, like a young couple moving into a Manhattan apartment, they can’t take everything with them. Some stuff, such as his DNA-containing mitochondria, never make it into the fertilized cell. Of the trillions of cells of our bodies, only a few sperm and eggs survive into the next generation. In coming together in reproductive sex, the sex cells leave male and female bodies behind to grow a fresh being. It is the reproductive cycle, not the individual animal, that is selected for over evolutionary time. After the midair mating of a queen by a horny honeybee, the latter goes pop, audibly, as its penis breaks off inside her (blocking passage to other would-be suitors) while the rest of his body plunges to its death. It may seem tragic to have life cut short in such flagrant fashion. But then the honeybee exploding immediately prior to death is lucky relative to his fellows, who can number up to twenty-five thousand, all virgins whose efforts to compete for the queen’s sexual favors fail, their entire lives an exercise in frustration.

Evolution travels light. Sex and death do go together, although the colorful stories of Genesis, written more than two thousand years ago, favor the story of a talking serpent over the fact of serpentine DNA, whose structure was deduced only in March 1953. Scientific stories about sex are not necessarily as pretty as Scarlett Johansson, as romantic as a honeymoon on O’ahu, or as memorable as Adam’s de-ribbing. But exploring the evolutionary story of our sexual nature based on science will help us get to the bottom of this topic better than the radio sermonizer’s version of religion.

If we are to be punished for Eve’s congress with the twisting reptile of the Tree of Knowledge, we should at least relish each morsel of wisdom that her sinking her incisors into the ripened red ovary of the flowering Malus domestica—the fruit of the apple tree—has made possible for us.

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