This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Sex and Chance: Strange Bedfellows?

E.J. Madsen

History was sex, French was sex, art was sex, the Bible... everything was sex except biology which was obviously sex but not really sex, not the one that was secret and ecstatic and wicked and a sacrament and all the things it was supposed to be but couldn't be at one and the same time-- I got that in the boiler room and it turned out to be biology after all. (Stoppard, 218)

I'll admit it. I'm fascinated by sex. After all, it is the reason that we are all here, isn't it? And not just thanks to our parents: for years and years and years, sex has been the motor driving the evolutionary process. I don't think people give sex enough credit for its role in the evolutionary process. Call evolution "survival of the fittest", call it random chance, call it whatever you want-- in the end, whoever's left alive is just searching for another body in which to find comfort.
I have not always been fascinated by sex. An infamous family story records my disgust when I first learned about "the birds and the bees". Apparently, I turned around in the car seat to look at my baby brother: "You mean you did it twice??" Part of my growing fascination has been a result of the evolving story I have been told/am telling myself about sex. In class, Professor Grobstein taught us about "lateral transfer", and Elizabeth dubbed sex "the transfer of genetic material". I don't like to think about sex in purely clinical terms, however. It's not just my status as a "hopeless romantic", it's also my belief that sex is bigger than the box of words it is often put into. Sex is a growing, changing thing that is going through its own evolution. Not that the process itself has changed much; it's human interpretation and response to sex that continues to evolve. Also , if sex is allowed leeway to expand beyond the clinical level, it gains greater implications (not that birth isn't a great implication by any means). As Stoppard puts it: "Einstein- relativity and sex. Chippendale- sex and furniture. Galileo- 'Did the earth move?'" (Stoppard, 90).
In this sense, everything we do is linked inextricably to sex. (Upon writing this previous sentence, I realized that I have picked a topic which is quite beyond the scope of this paper, and would require many many years of research. However, I hope to make a few concise points before the implications of this opening hit and I have to scramble around to tie things up.)
Take for example birth control. Birth control can be considered an isolating mechanism because "copulation [is] attempted but no transfer of sperm takes place." (Mayr, 171). Mayr says, "The isolating mechanisms of species are devices to protect the integrity of well-balanced , harmonious genotypes." (Mayr, 170). How does birth control protect the "integrity" of the human genotype? I would argue that since birth control has become a self-imposed isolating mechanism, it actually does little towards protecting against anything besides unwanted pregnancies. Every instant of conception remains equally fraught with that wonderful element of "chance" which Mayr explains to us. If there are fewer chances for conception, that does not mean that there will be any less "chance" involved in any individual exchange.
However, human response to birth control remains mixed at best. I know a family with several children who have remarked, "We'll have as many as god gives us." Birth control is less acceptable to those who view sex as solely a means for reproduction. Birth control interferes with the natural course of events: they might call it god, but Mayr would just as easily name it chance. These people have their story about birth control. However, I also know a number of women who are quite pleased with their daily pills. Their story is different: taking chance out of sex allows them to enjoy sex as another avenue for human contact, minus the more sobering repercussions.
It is not just birth control that we use to write sex into a box. Other factors, including sexuality and gender roles, play major roles in defining sex. I would like to propose that the repression of female sexuality could also be considered a self-imposed isolating mechanism. What I'd ultimately like to know is if these isolating mechanisms were self-imposed for conscious or subconscious reasons. Dennett remarks that once a population has reproduced to the extent where there are not enough resources to support it, the population will decline as those who are unable to feed themselves die off. Could birth control and other methods of defining and limiting sex be the human-invented way to prevent such an occurrence?
There are a few dangers I discovered in considering this final question. The first is that the idea of population control furthers the viewpoint that humans are here to stay. In becoming self-regulating, it is easy to assume that we will have a greater longevity as a race. However, this does not allow for the ever-present element of chance in our lives. At any point, a catastrophe could happen, and we'd all be dust like the dinosaurs. Chance is an important idea that should remain central to our lives. Chance keeps us humble, if that seems possible.
So this brings us back to chance after all. Chance and sex, sex and chance. If sex is the motor driving evolution, then chance is the oil without which this motor could not run.

Sources Used:

Mayr, Ernst. "What Evolution Is." Basic Books, New York, NY, U. S. A. 2001.

Stoppard, Tom. "Tom Stoppard: Plays 5". Faber and Faber Limited, London. 1999.

| Course Home Page | Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:51 CDT