I don’t have a good reason for going off on this tangent, but then, tangents never seem to provide me reasons for existing. It really started to gel as I watched a pair of eagle parents work to raise their chicks. Hours of sitting on the eggs in any weather, and then more hours of hunting and feeding two ravenous little babies. Four weeks since hatching and the parents are looking exhausted. It’s one heck of an instinct that drives these two to work against their own best interests to keep these eaglets fed. It’s kinda nuts.
It’s a part of “Nature” that makes no sense except as an abstract.
Every creature is equipped with drives for survival: the procurement of nutrition and hydration, adequate rest, a fight-or-flight response system. Without these, the organism is subject to impaired function or death. An animal that encounters a situation that puts any of these at risk will take action at once to remedy the situation. Absolute biologic practicality. Concrete as it gets.
It’s essential to the perpetuation of a species that each generation produce the next. That’s an abstract, the ideology that for some reason, the planet has some sort of need for more of what you are. This abstract applies to every living thing on the planet, and countless organisms put themselves through horrible trials to satisfy that abstract. Overall, I’m pretty sure that humans are really the only species who appreciate this imperative to procreation as an intellectual concept as well as some sort of neuro-hormonal drive. Admittedly, I come to that conclusion mostly because I have no ability to discuss the presence of abstract thinking with the other organisms nearby. My dogs, my cat, the fish in the backyard pond, the cherry tree above it and the spring peepers in the tree are not entering into that conversation with me.
I simply marvel that the process isn’t easier.
Outside of the abstract concept that the Species Must Go On, procreation provides little to no actual benefit to an organism. As a matter of fact, it’s highly detrimental to a lot of individuals. Plants grow, bud, flower, and produce seeds, and some die immediately after. Some insects also die as soon as they lay eggs, leaving their defenseless young to form, hatch and grow up on their own with no assistance from their forebears. Same with creatures like salmon, that struggle through epic journeys to return from the ocean to the streams they hatched in, there to spawn and then stage massive societal death. How dramatic and counterintuitive is that?
Mammals don’t do a whole lot better. Pregnancy is a hazardous pursuit across species, even for humans. In civilized societies, childbed mortality has dropped dramatically, but it doesn’t take a much smaller degree of societal development for pregnancy to become a risky business indeed. An expectant mother can miscarry and bleed dangerously. (Believe me, when they tell you that a miscarriage causes bleeding, it’s not an understatement. I never had a miscarriage that didn’t make me nastily hypovolemic and sick.) Delivery has a panorama of risks starting with placenta previa, and then eclampsia and moving through breech births, uterine exhaustion, tears, infection and lots of other fun things. Even without the mortality, pregnancy taxes a body in ways that are simply irrational, whether it’s the leeching of calcium from Mom’s bones to build the baby’s (old wive’s tale: a woman loses a tooth per baby, not a myth), or morning sickness, stretch marks, gastric reflux, sciatica, or whatever else. Inspection of anyone’s family tree back as little as 100 years ago shows marriages producing multiple stillbirths, lost pregnancies and so forth, and men collecting wives as their women die in the pursuit of procreation.
Any animal presented with any of these risks from any other cause would indulge in a fight-or-flight response.
Humans should know to do the same. I mean, really, what rational woman would volunteer for such a mission? “Here, sign up to ruin your body and put yourself at risk from all sorts of temporary or permanent damage – including death – from a parasite that will take over your body for the better part of a year, only to further tax your abilities for years after, causing loss of sleep, tons of work, endless worry, and costing you thousands of dollars you may never actually have. Depending on the society you live in, you will have no choice of profession other than this, and if there is a profession you can participate in, there will be several years in there during which you will have to perform an outrageous juggling act that won’t be likely to provide you much professional advancement.” Um, no. And yet, for some reason, we are hardwired to be more than motivated to do this. We yearn for children. We go on and on about how wonderful parenthood is, when rational analysis of the practice shows very little benefit, physical or otherwise, outside of this social and emotional abstract. Women hang their self-esteem on their ability to produce the next generation, and infertile women are labeled less-than-women by themselves and society at large. It makes no sense on a practical basis. And why, oh why, has no one evolved an easier/safer process?
Males aren’t immune to the risks of procreation, either. Male salmon die along with the females. Countless species have their males putting themselves in danger from each other simply for the right to mate with the females, who may or may not accept the victors of those conflicts. Theoretically, the mating-rights battles aren’t supposed to be battles to the death, but still, combatants can be mortally wounded.
Some males will exhaust themselves seriously during mating season. My Beloved grew up on a sheep ranch. He describes putting the rams in with batches of ewes and watching them drive themselves to mate with any female who stood still long enough. They didn’t stop to eat, drink or rest, but kept at it till they were staggering with fatigue, glassy-eyed and panting, barely able to stand, let alone mount the next ewe, but not stopping until they couldn’t smell ewes nearby. One assumes that this practice conferred some pleasure on the rams – it’s hard to imagine a hormonal drive strong enough to push a creature to continue through agony. But even so, it makes no sense. Exactly what is the benefit to the male organism that does all this? None that isn’t abstract.
We watch human males go through all sorts of gyrations to attract sexual partners for no truly beneficial reason. Besides 10 seconds (I’m being generous, I know) of glory, what does he get out of sex? Bragging rights? Abstract. An heir to the throne? Definitely a societal abstract. For a man who is truly able to appreciate an abstract, the deepening of a love bond with a chosen life partner? None, I mean NONE of this is practical. And yet, manhood is measured by the presence, size and proficiency of a body part that has absolutely no practical use to its owner except as a waste conduit. It doesn’t provide nutrition or anything else except 5 seconds (being more realistic) of a nice feeling. And the abstract benefit of offspring, small organisms that are dependent for years, taking the fruits of the adults’ labors for no other reason than to benefit The Future. It’s a weird form of societal slavery in which a combination of future generations and some sort of anonymous imperative steals your time and labor without recompense except with an abstract.
And as a ram will kill himself to get as much sex as possible, human males will go to ridiculous lengths for the same. They will pit themselves against each other, put themselves in physical danger. They will spend untold amounts of money. They will risk their livelihoods (and that of the offspring they have) in order to pursue sex in pastures set as out-of-bounds to them by (abstract) mores of their society, or to pursue sex under circumstances that would not/could not produce the progeny the whole ridiculous system was set up for. I mean, geez, how many millions of dollars did Bill O’Reilly just throw away simply to be able to sexually assault a bunch of women who weren’t his wife? Would he blow as much past and future money to get food? (Money – another abstract.) Men will commit all sorts of crimes, from rape to murder, just to ejaculate. And exactly what is the practical benefit for them? There isn’t one.
I don’t really want to explore the detriment of sexually transmitted diseases.
Even the satisfaction of other basic needs can wind up being distorted by the pursuit of sex. Shelter isn’t just a house, it’s the fanciest house obtainable to impress potential sexual partners, quite often without the intended production of another generation. Transportation (not a biological imperative, but a practical one anyway) isn’t just a vehicle, it’s as impressive a vehicle as obtainable that serves not only as a chick magnet but to put off possible competition. Women aren’t any different, really. For example, clothing is obviously far more than a protection against the elements, and in this first-world society, the target isn’t only a future spouse. Women have their own fondness for 10 seconds of glory, even (especially) without the end result of progeny. I’m still not sure that this is all simply because it feels good.
This drive that informs all adult behavior even into parts of adult life that have little or nothing to do with Future Generations keeps going no matter what the circumstances, even when progeny are not the goal or even a possibility. It’s like the broom in the Sorceror’s Apprentice. It has no “off” switch. The other primal drives have endpoints. A resting body wakens. An eating organism stops when satiated. This primal drive? Endless. It all seems hugely out of proportion to the needs of The Future. How is it that one organ system, a system that really contributes nothing to the established well-being of the body in general, hijacks so much of the organism’s function? Especially for humans, with our prolonged lifespans that extend past the years for producing and raising the next generation, years that would be just as well filled by pursuing other abstracts that would satisfy our vaunted big brains. Brains be damned, we hit 90 and all we want to do is, er, procreate. Just ask my Dad.
It makes no sense.