Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan, co-authors of Death & Sex, tackle the big questions, the small questions, and the weird questions in this interview with Wild River Review. They describe the role of evolution in death and in sex and tell us what we can learn from ancient Greek philosophers and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
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.