We came crying hither

I have to wonder about myself nowadays. I used to be a typical, societally conditioned male who seldom shed tears; I kept my grief tightly wrapped, and only unexpected pain, or major anguish was able to wet the cloth. Nowadays, though, I find myself weeping at the strangest things -and not all of them sad. Compassion or forgiveness from strangers often makes me well up. The other day on the TV news, the sight of the head of state hugging a woman, who only moments before had been screaming invectives at him from a crowd was enough to have me sobbing. The trusting eyes of an injured dog is too much for me to watch; even the minor key of a Rachmaninoff prelude is often enough to make me wipe my cheeks.

Apart from being oversaturated with years, I’m not sure what has changed in my life; maybe I’m just top-heavy with the time, I have been allotted. And yet, I don’t mean to speak of tears as undesirable, or somehow a weakness. In fact, if anything, they make me feel more in touch with… well, with things out there -things outside my body. Things that were not obviously linked to me -until, that is, I realized they were. To paraphrase, the work of the 17th century poet, John Donne, ‘Nothing is an island entire of itself; everything is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… the death of anything diminishes me, because I am involved in the world.’

Anyway, it seems to me that’s how I feel, and it manifests itself in tears of recognition with some long-lost connection I’ve stumbled across; I am an old man finally digesting his years, cataloguing them and putting them in some semblance of order, finding meaning in the never-ending chaos of Life. So, yes, it is a sweet sorrow, but how, or why, the feeling is connected with tears has remained as much a mystery to me as the relief -or is it satisfaction- I experience from the episode.

I happened upon an essay the other day by Thomas Dixon director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University in London whose title seemed to promise some answers:  https://aeon.co/essays/read-it-and-weep-what-it-means-when-we-cry

He starts by suggesting that ‘Since ancient times, philosophers and scientists have tried to explain weeping as part of a shared human language of emotional expression. But, in fact, a tear on its own means nothing. As they well up in our eyes, or dribble down our cheeks, the meanings of those salty droplets can only be tentatively inferred by others, and then only when they know much more about the particular mental, social, and narrative contexts that gave rise to them.

‘We cry in sadness, grief and mourning, but also from joy and laughter. Some are moved to tears of pity by human suffering; others have wept the enraged tears of the oppressed. A tear-streaked cheek might be produced by nothing more than a yawn or a chopped onion.’ 

But, he soon gets waylaid by other, less noble ways of viewing them: ‘Theories of tears have always struggled to do justice to their threefold nature, as secretions, symptoms and signs. Are tears to be treated like urination, like a rash, or like a work of art? Does their interpretation require the expertise of the physiologist, the physician, or the metaphysician?… Those who object to public weeping often refer to it as a kind of ‘emotional incontinence’.’ I find it hard to view tears that way; I have to hope it’s more of a cultural thing -and yet it explains nothing to me.

Nor am I particularly enamoured with the mid 20th century psychoanalytical approach, attributing tears to either ‘repression [or] regression. The first implies that tears are a kind of overflow or discharge of previously repressed emotion, while the second presents the phenomenon of adult weeping as some sort of return to infantile, even prenatal, experiences and emotions.’ A bit too contrived, I think.

Darwin had a similar penchant for the laboured explanation of tears: ‘Tears, for Darwin, were never more than a side-effect of some other, useful behaviour. He started from the observation that the reflex secretion of tears was initially caused by ‘the irritation of any foreign body in the eye’. He then hypothesised that in cases of loud infant screaming, during which the eyes were closed tightly, that same reflex could be brought into action by pressure on the lachrymal glands. Over many generations, Darwin speculated, the association of tears with infant screams of pain and hunger gradually became extended to painful mental states of all kinds, so that tears could be produced even in the absence of irritating foreign bodies, or of screams.’ Uhmm…

Nobody seems to have come even close to a consensus, and as in previous considerations of the inscrutable, I am reminded again of St. Augustine’s likely apocryphal observation about Time: What then is Time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

And, despite the autumn of my long list of years, I’m not sure I know what to make of tears, either. I suppose I’m not even certain what questions need to be asked, but then again, maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Asking the wrong people.

I remember when my daughter was still very small, and largely innocent of the ways of her elders. One summer’s evening, while I was reading on the porch, I saw her sitting quietly on the grass behind the house, just staring at the trees that guard us from the traffic on the distant road. The wind was riffling roughly through the leaves, and a robin was complaining about another bird that had just flown onto a neighbouring tree. Catherine seemed to be listening intently, rocking her body this way and that, obviously enjoying the branches swaying in the wind as if they were conducting an orchestra.

She looked so at home out there, so totally enmeshed in the moment, it seemed removed from time; the yard was an enchanted faerie ring. I put my book aside, swept up in the awe of the scene and walked over to feel her magic.

At first, she didn’t hear me, but when she turned her head I saw her face was streaked with tears.

I put my arm around her and hugged her. “Cath,” I whispered, so as not to break the spell. “Are you all right, sweetie?” But her eyes were calm, and her expression was enraptured. Beatific, almost.

She looked at me for a moment before answering, and I could see a puzzled look slowly forming on her face -as if she could not quite understand the question. Then she smiled, as if she suddenly realized my confusion.

“I wasn’t crying, daddy,” she said, stroking my cheek with her little fingers. “I was just emptying my eyes…”

I should have known, I suppose…

Masters of their fates?

Sentience is the present participle of the Latin verb sentire –‘to feel’- but what is it? What does it imply? Consciousness? Thought? Or merely some form of awareness of the surroundings, however indistinct and vague? Is avoidance of a noxious stimulus enough to establish sentience, or does it have to involve an understanding that it is harmful?

How about pain itself, then? What kind of a nervous system can feel pain -not just avoid damage, you understand, but feel it? Because surely feeling pain assumes some sort of an I who perceives it as pain rather than simply moves away reflexively… Are we back to consciousness again?

I suppose it’s easy to posit sentience in something like a dog, or a wary squirrel in whose eyes one can easily see that there is something/someone behind them looking out at the world. It’s more difficult as you move down the phylogenetic chain (if one even can, or should, assign direction or rank to changing phyla): easier with, say, lizards or crocodiles; more difficult with flies and mosquitoes; and impossible -for me, at least- with, oh, tapeworms or amoebae and their ilk.

Yes, and then there are the plants which react to stimuli, often in a purposive fashion -what do we do with them? What constitutes a feeling of pain -especially since they do not have what most of us would consider a nervous system (although their root structures and associated symbiotic fungal networks might qualify). Do plants feel some sort of proto-pain -and if they do, so what? The buck, if I may be allowed to paraphrase the sign on the previous American president Harry Truman’s desk, has to stop somewhere

So where do we draw the line with sentience? Is it entirely subjective (ours, at any rate)? Should it be confined to those things we would not think of stepping on or swatting? Or is it enough to be alive to merit consideration -different from a rock, for example?

I don’t know why I worry about such things, but I obviously do -especially when I come across essays like the one in Aeon written by Brandon Keim. https://aeon.co/essays/do-cyborg-cockroaches-dream-of-electric-trash

It was entitled I, cockroach, and delved into whether insects felt pain, or were conscious. The question occurred to him after reading about Backyard Brains, ‘a Kickstarter-funded neuroscience education company.’ The company’s flagship product is apparently RoboRoach, a ‘bundle of Bluetooth signal-processing microelectronics that’s glued to the back of a living cockroach and wired into the stumps of its cut-off antennae. Cockroaches use their antennae to detect objects; they react to electrical pulses sent through these nerves as though they have bumped into something, allowing children to remote‑control them with smartphones.’

I have to admit that I am appalled at this -although I suppose I would think little of swatting a cockroach crawling across the kitchen floor. The difference, I suspect, is somewhat akin to what Keim discusses: using a living creature as a tool in what might be -for the cockroach, at any rate- similar to some higher being wiring us up for whatever questionable purpose to change and study our behaviour and -who knows?- maybe change our reality. It’s hard not to sound overly anthropomorphic in describing my feelings about this, but there you have it.

‘A note on the company’s website does reassure customers that, though it’s unknown if insects feel pain, anaesthesia is used during procedures on cockroaches, and also on earthworms and grasshoppers involved in other experiments.’ But as I’ve already mentioned, and as Keim discusses, ‘You can’t experience pain unless there’s a you — a sense of self, an interior dialogue beyond the interplay of stimulus and involuntary response, elevating mechanics to consciousness. [And] such sentience is quite unlikely in a bug, says Backyard Brains.’ Really?

Even the likes of Darwin wondered about cognitive states in ‘lower’ creatures. In his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881), he describes in great detail ‘how earthworms plug the entrance to their burrows with precisely chosen and arranged leaf fragments, and how instinct alone doesn’t plausibly explain that. ‘One alternative alone is left, namely, that worms, although standing low in the scale of organisation, possess some degree of intelligence.’

And no, as the more observant of my readers will no doubt have noted, worms are not cockroaches. Then how about honey bees as insect stand-ins for roaches? How about their waggle dances: ‘the complicated sequence of gestures by which honeybees convey the location and quality of food to hive-mates’? As Keim notes, ‘scientists have assembled a portrait of extraordinary cognitive richness, so rich that honeybees now serve as model organisms for understanding the neurobiology of basic cognition. Honeybees have a sense of time and of space; they have both short- and long-term memories. These memories combine sight and smell, and are available to bees independent of their immediate environments. In other words, they have internal representations of their worlds. They can learn to recognise patterns, and also concepts: above and below, same or different. They have simple emotions and beliefs, and apply those memories and concepts to their decisions. They likely recognise individuals.’

In fact, ‘Cognition is only one facet of mental activity, and not a stand-in for rich inner experience, but underlying honeybee cognition is [a] small but sophisticated brain, with structures that effectively perform similar functions as the mammalian cortex and thalamus — systems considered fundamental to human consciousness.’

I don’t want to take this too far. Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, in his 1974 essay What is it like to be a bat? argued that ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.” (A fascinating paper, by the way, and well worth the read). But, coming back to cockroaches, as Keim writes, ‘The nature of their consciousness is difficult to ascertain, but we can at least imagine that it feels like something to be a bee or a cockroach or a cricket. That something is intertwined with their life histories, modes of perception, and neurological organisation’ -however impoverished that something might seem in comparison to our own perceptions. Indeed, maybe it would be something like our state of awareness in doing ‘mindless’ tasks like walking down stairs, or picking up a cup of coffee -both purposive, and yet likely unremarked consciously…

There’s even some evidence that cockroaches have a richer social life than most of us might have imagined. According to ethologist Mathieu Lihoreau in his 2012 article for the journal Insectes Sociaux, ‘one can think of them as living in herds. Groups decide collectively on where to feed and shelter, and there’s evidence of sophisticated communication, via chemical signals rather than dances. When kept in isolation, individual roaches develop behavioural disorders; they possess rich spatial memories, which they use to navigate; and they might even recognise group members on an individual basis.’

Maybe the famous English biologist J.B.S. Haldane got it right when, in 1927, he wrote that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose’. Then again, I suspect we tend to view things as peculiar or even alien if we feel no connection to them -feel that, as humans, we are not really a part of their world. But remember the words of Gloucester as he stumbles around the moor after being blinded by Regan and Cornwall in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport‘.

Who’s world are we in, exactly…?

Cry Baby

Every once in a while on my journey through the years, I stumble over something that is so commonplace it is invisible -well, not invisible maybe, but at least so common we ask the wrong questions about it, if we ask at all. Crying, for example; why do we cry? Is it a way of diverting our own attention? A catharsis? Or, to be crass, a manipulative device? Whatever the reason, it’s sufficiently universal, that I would have thought we would have discovered whether or not it serves some physiological purpose by now.

Not that everything is attended by a purpose, of course, but we do feel better when we find one… Okay, I feel better when I think something is doing it to keep me healthy, or at least has an evolutionary explanation, however atavistic. So it was with great expectations that I jumped into an essay in the Conversation by  Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia). She, I hoped, was going to answer a question I never thought to ask before: why do we cry? https://theconversation.com/no-crying-doesnt-release-toxins-though-it-might-make-you-feel-better-if-thats-what-you-believe-106860

I mean what would prompt me to ask? I laugh, I cry -I seem to know why it happens, but do I? Or am I just extrapolating from the circumstances when it occurs -making the all too easy assumption that association is the same as cause? I entered the article with my hat in my hand and my breathing held in reverent abeyance as I might on entering a grand cathedral. Unfortunately, I heard no organ playing, and whatever echoes reverberated through the nave, were produced by disparate voices, not the stirring lower registers of majestic pipes.

For example, the rather banal observation that, ‘Studies show, on average, adult women  tend to cry two to three times in a given month, and men only once. Although research is limited, it suggests crying frequency is highly influenced by social and cultural factors, our beliefs about the value of crying and how it is evaluated.’ Followed by ‘This is particularly exaggerated in many Western countries, where women report crying more often than those from non-Western countries. And in non-Western countries the difference in crying frequency between men and women is smaller. In some instances, it’s non-existent.’ Imagine that.

Then, a hint of teleology: ‘Scientists have long speculated why we cry and what happens in our bodies when we’re doing it. Some have suggested crying may be expelling chemicals that are built up during feelings of distress, or that crying causes a  chemical change in the body that reduces stress or increases positive feelings.’ But again, a hush: ‘But we don’t actually know that much about crying and most of the studies out there are based on self-reporting.’

‘The most pervasive idea about crying is that we do it because it’s helpful in some way; perhaps it provides relief or catharsis. But the research on this is mixed, with crying sometimes showing an improvement in mood and sometimes a worsening… Despite the overwhelming perception crying is useful at a personal level, most research suggests crying is more of a social phenomenon. Crying is an extremely effective signal to others that something is wrong and that you may be in need of help and comfort.’ Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but it seemed to be getting into more of the meat of the process.

That is, until I read further: ‘But before you go crying in front of others for support, just remember other studies show doing so may actually lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.’ Okay, then, pick your study…

But in fairness, the article did get better -did attempt some evaluative science. ‘Crying seems, at best, to do not much at all, and, at worst, to increase our physiological arousal.’ For example, in the author’s lab, they ‘attempted to test whether crying reduces or interferes with the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and whether it may be able provide some other physical benefit, such as numbing, which could explain why we cry when we are in either emotional and physical pain. We found crying had no effect on stress levels and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behaviour to initiate the calming strategy.’

For the most part, though, it strikes me that the article merely ran through a checklist of unremarkable sociological parameters that left me no further ahead than I would have been had I confined myself to the confirmation biases on my Facebook. As an example, she says, ‘Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness.’ Uhmm… well, yes I suppose so, eh?

Now that Sharman has raised the subject, however, I would still be interested to know if other mammals -primates, say- do, or even can cry. In other words, is crying an evolutionarily derived mechanism to serve some purpose, or is it an exaptation of something else, now exclusive to homo? Sadly, I did not find out, despite my suddenly piqued interest.

Fortunately, there is Google, and after scouring -sort of- the entries on crying, I did find a naively non-academic one that seemed to cover most of the bases -a 2013 article by Amanda Smith in The Body Sphere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/bodysphere/features/4837824 It’s titled ‘Why are humans the only animals that cry?’ I’m not sure it even answers its own question, but at any rate, it did attempt some interesting explanations of why humans cry that I hadn’t heard before. It included this rather innocent and dewy-eyed one: ‘Darwin’s own theory of tears claimed that ‘in our evolutionary past, babies would close their eyes very tightly to protect their eyes when they were screaming for their mothers,’ says Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. ‘The closing of the eyes very tightly would squeeze the lachrymal glands and bring out the tears,’ he says. By a process of association thereafter, any kind of pain or suffering became connected with tears.’

I know, I know, it’s a sort of kludgey explanation, but in a touching way, it’s kind of uplifting, don’t you think? Soothing, almost…

Ur Wisdom

Wisdom, as my Grade 5 teacher Miss Pollock use to say, is knowledge plus experience, and the judgment to be able to blend them together successfully -not the most scholarly way of defining it, perhaps, but useful nonetheless. I always took her to mean the ability to pick and choose from what was available -the ability to combine unrelated items to create a cake, say. Create synergisms that before were only facts. Ingredients.

Call me a flower-child -or a withering bouquet if you prefer- but there is something about the Gaia Hypothesis that has a whiff of the profound. Or at the very least, a soupçon of wisdom. Of course Earth is an organism -inasmuch as Life, and its substrate Earth, are both synergists that interact to each other’s benefit. Not very Darwinian -no apparent competition between individuals for reproductive success- I admit, but nonetheless compelling. Why does everything have to have a purpose anyway? I can’t help but remember Allan Watts, the Buddhist-leaning philosopher so popular in the 1960ies, who once asked what the purpose of dancing was -surely it wasn’t to get from point A to point B in a room… The purpose of dancing, he said, was dancing -it needed nothing else, not even music, to continue. And its meaning was embedded in the activity itself.

But why am I going on about Gaia now? Well, as these things happen, I was scrolling through some essays on Aeon online, and came across a thoughtful article that brought back memories of a more youthful, hopeful me: https://aeon.co/essays/gaia-why-some-scientists-think-it-s-a-nonsensical-fantasy

James Lovelock, a chemist and later, the main proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis, caught the attention of NASA in the early 1960ies when it was trying to detect if there was life on Mars. ‘Lovelock approached the problem indirectly, arguing that there was no need to send rockets to the red planet… He argued that  simply looking at the atmospheric composition of a planet would enable us to know whether that planet was likely to support life… This led to his great insight. The Earth is not just teeming with life. The Earth, in some sense, is life. Earth is an organism!’

His good friend, the novelist William Golding (The Lord of the Flies), suggested that his hypothesis be called Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, and Lovelock went public with the idea in the early 1970ies, and eventually published his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. He also teamed up with the microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who was particularly interested in symbiosis and had published a major work on the topic in 1967.

Of course, Gaia attracted major criticism and often contempt. Richard Dawkins (of The Selfish Gene) ‘could not accept that things could happen for the good of the group simply because they were for the good of the group. Plants don’t produce carbon dioxide, he said, for the sake of the Earth. Either it was a byproduct of their functions, or it must be of immediate benefit to the plants themselves. Any other interpretation was contrary to a Darwinian view of life.’

Some of the criticism even targeted their qualifications. ‘Neither Lovelock nor Margulis were evolutionary biologists nor, for that matter, geologists, paleontologists or academics from other disciplines with an expertise in Earth’s history and overall functioning… For them, the chief feature of life was balance, stability, or what is known as ‘homeostasis’ — that is, the maintaining of balance through dynamic interacting processes. Earth is in homeostasis so it is living. On the other hand, for an evolutionary biologist such as Dawkins, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is all-important. Life is produced by natural selection, by the competition between individuals for reproductive success. Evolution has no goal or ‘telos’ of making Earth a better place for life. What is more, as far as Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists were concerned, Earth was not produced by natural selection, and hence it is not itself a living thing.’

Gaia was almost more Religion than Science -more hope than fact, perhaps. I was entranced by the idea when I first came across it shortly after the book was published. I had received my Fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology only a few years before, and I suppose that meant that many of my patients were younger, and more… open in those halcyon days -more enlightened, I suspect, than the several years in my training program had allowed me to be.

I still remember the day when an attractive young woman sat demurely in the corner of my waiting room. Short auburn hair and rather prominent horn-rimmed glasses, she was quietly reading a book she’d brought, thinking she’d have a long wait. None of these things would have attracted my attention had she not been wearing a fluorescent green tee shirt with a picture of an obviously pregnant female with flowers for hair. Not only that, but as I crossed the room to greet my patient, I saw that the pregnant bulge on the patient, as well as the flowered woman was actually a planet when she stood up.

I must have stared rather intently at the tee shirt, because the patient -Janna, I think it was- smiled and said “Gaia,” matter-of-factly -almost as if I were so old I needed an explanation. And yes, she was reading Lovelock’s book.

I have to confess that I’d never seen a tee shirt quite like hers, but I tried to pretend that things like that were all in a days’ work.

“I guess an obstetrician would know all about Gaia, eh?” she said with a mischievous little wink.

“The Mother Earth goddess, you mean?”

She was quite a short, slender young thing, and she nodded as she looked up at me with big brown eyes, no doubt magnified by her glasses. “More the symbiosis thing…”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I waited till we were both seated in my consultation room before I pursued the concept. “You mentioned symbiosis? “ I asked, wondering if she’d really  meant ‘symbolic’ -the Mother part, at any rate.

She nodded and sighed contentedly. “I’m 6 months pregnant,” she said and her big smile reappeared.

“Congratulations,” I responded with a smile of my own. “Very much in keeping with Lovelock,” I added, although I hadn’t read the book yet.

“More Margulis, don’t you think?” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh? Why’s that?” Although I knew Margulis was involved in the Gaia thing, I didn’t know much about her contribution.

“Symbiosis,” she answered, and then when I looked puzzled she added, “You know, organisms coming together for mutual benefit…?” At first, I don’t think I understood until she added “My boyfriend and I -we were both depressed…”

Then I blushed. Maybe that’s why I remember the episode after all these years.

So, the Gaia Hypothesis -is it scientifically valid: verifiable, refutable, quantifiable? Probably not, but maybe it’s a dream, a luscious metaphor, to get us through the ever darkening night of human meddling. We needed that in the 80ies… I think we still do.

The Feminist Egg

Once upon a time, I suppose that one of the characteristics of Age was its hubris. After a certain age, it was easy to dismiss most new things as mere variations on time-tested themes –additions, clever perhaps, intriguing even, but still accretions. Ecclesiastes lived in old minds: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. And yet nowadays, even the quickest peek over the shoulder calls that into question. Maybe it always did, but without the publicity it now entertains.

New things –truly new things- are often the hardest to accept, especially if they fly in the  face of cherished beliefs sufficiently entrenched as to be regarded as not merely true, but obviously true -common sense, in fact. It took generations to accept evolution –and now it seems only sensible that the random acquisition of those traits that help survival will be the ones selected for in the next generation. It was not an upwardly purposeful spiral that inevitably led to homo sapiens; evolution doesn’t change cows to humans –it just eventually creates cows better able to survive in whatever milieu they find themselves. And randomly –the unfit are still granted existence, but if they are not suited, they pass on little benefit to their progeny.

It’s true that animals –mammals, especially- do attempt to influence desirable traits in their offspring by choosing healthy partners exhibiting those characteristics. Hence various mating rituals and dominance contests amongst the males; hence elaborate male bird plumage, presumably a proxy, recognizable by a receptive female, as indicative of a primus inter pares. And yet it was probably regarded as curious in premodern societies that a female would be accorded any important choice, let alone that of selecting what she wanted in a partner. Although there has always been a cadre of women who have made their marks throughout recorded history, the examples are sadly limited –curtailed no doubt, because it was usually men writing about what they felt was important to document.

Fortunately, times are changing, as is the realization that each side of the gender divide is equipotent. Just how fluid the roles are is a constant source of wonder to me. Even in these days of Darwin, I am amazed at the still unsuspected porosity of the envelope. And while it no longer seems unusual or unlikely that an information-processing organism like, say, a bird might be able to select an appropriately endowed mate based on observable clues, it is still surprising –to me, at least- that selection duties might be conferred on a more microscopic scale: on an egg, for example.

I first encountered this idea in an article from Quanta Magazine: https://www.quantamagazine.org/choosy-eggs-may-pick-sperm-for-their-genes-defying-mendels-law-20171115/  I have to say it reminded me of Hamlet’s rejoinder to the sceptical Horatio on seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

The competition in sexual selection was thought to be pre-copulatory –‘After mating, the female had made her choice, and the only competition was among the sperm swimming to the egg. This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. “The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively ‘is transported’…along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined’ and invariably active,” she wrote.

‘Beginning in the 1970s, however, the science began to undermine that stereotype. William Eberhard, now a behavioural ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, documented all the ways that females can affect which males fertilize their eggs even after mating.’ For example, ‘Internal fertilizers have their own methods of what Eberhard dubbed “cryptic female choice.” Some female reproductive tracts are labyrinthine, complete with false starts and dead ends that can stymie all but the strongest sperm. Some females, including many species of reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians, that copulate with more than one male (which biologists estimate are a vast majority of species) can store sperm for months, even years, altering the storage environment to stack the odds to favor one male over another. Many female birds, including domestic chickens, can eject sperm after mating , which lets them bias fertilization in favor of the best male.’

The plot thickens. These strategies seem only to select whose sperm to allow access to the precious as-yet unfertilized eggs. But even sperm from the same individual can vary. So, are things just left to chance? Are we still talking Darwin here? And are the combination probabilities proposed by Mendel that depend on randomness still in the picture?

It would seem that the egg itself may have a say in which sperm it uses, and that unlike the voting system in many democracies, it may not be just the ‘first past the post’ -the marathon winner- who gets the prize.

The article presents several theories as to how the egg may be able to ‘choose’, but as yet there seems to be no clear indication as to whether it always happens, or whether it is just able to weed out some potentially damaging or clearly unsuitable ones by the signals they emit –or fail to emit… Sometimes, anyway. Mistakes clearly occur; abnormal genes do manage to slip through, leading to abnormal embryos –some of which are unable to develop enough to survive.

But that there may be yet another layer of protection built into the system –another unsuspected surveillance system- is what intrigues me. And that, once again, it seems to invest the power of a truly critical decision with the female is a cautionary tale for those who cling to the shredding coattails of androcentrism. It is simply another piece of evidence, if more were needed, that Life and all that it enables, is not a zero sum game. It is not a contest between genders, but a journey together. Still…

Let there be spaces in your togetherness.                                                                                      And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be
alone – even as the strings of a lute are alone though the quiver
with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows. –Kahlil Gibran –

I couldn’t resist.






Pleasing Her: sexual evolution?

I came across an interesting article in the magazine Science a while back. I am always intrigued when a paper tries to place an issue in its ontological context, although I have to confess that the title had something to do with catching my eye. It was a scientific theory from seemingly reputable sources about the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/new-theory-suggests-female-orgasms-are-evolutionary-leftover  The article to which it refers is more detailed and helpful, but somewhat difficult to read; to get a more comprehensive description of the process however, I will include it here for reference: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jez.b.22690/full

Orgasm is a topic that seldom surfaced through all the years of my gynaecologic practice; it was something that many women felt too embarrassed to mention –especially to a male doctor. It was also a subject that I felt ill-prepared to tackle –apart from standard psychological advice of dubious merit, the only benefit seemed to be that of a sympathetic, nonjudgmental hearing. Little was known about either the function or the physiology of orgasm, so advice about its production was more anecdotal than beneficial; it was therefore usually the purview of sexual dysfunction clinics rather than that of the general gynaecologist.

The only thing that seemed on a firm basis with regards to orgasm was that it was essential in males for sperm transfer. Clitoral stimulation is usually required for the production of female orgasm, and since the penis and clitoris share a homologous origin perhaps it was simply a fortuitous consequence of this –a secondary adaptation (exaptation) for the purposes of bonding, or the like.

But to place female orgasm on a more secure footing, the authors have looked at reproduction in other animals. ‘The essential condition for the success of internal fertilization is the timely maturation and release of the oocytes from the ovary into the female reproductive tract, that is, ovulation, for the egg to be accessible to sperm. These events need to be coordinated with the availability of males and favourable environmental conditions for raising the young.’ And for such, there are roughly three factors that might influence induction of ovulation in mammals: environmental –cues that suggest it would be a favourable time for successful rearing of offspring such as weather, food sources, etc.; copulation induction –only produce valuable eggs when they’re needed –i.e. when a mate is available; and spontaneous ovulation –no matter the availability of mate or suitable environment. Humans, it would seem, utilize the latter option –spontaneous ovulation.

In copulation-induced ovulation, a surge of two hormones in the female are required –prolactin, and to a lesser extent oxytocin. Interestingly, these are also produced during human female orgasm, although with spontaneous ovulation in humans, they are not specifically required. As the authors suggest: ‘The orgasm in women does not obviously contribute to the reproductive success, and surprisingly unreliably accompanies heterosexual intercourse. Two types of explanations have been proposed: one insisting on extant adaptive roles in reproduction, another explaining female orgasm as a byproduct of selection on male orgasm, which is crucial for sperm transfer.’ In other words, ‘Human female orgasm is associated with an endocrine surge similar to the copulatory surges in species with induced ovulation. We suggest that the homolog of human orgasm is the reflex that, ancestrally, induced ovulation. This reflex became superfluous with the evolution of spontaneous ovulation, potentially freeing female orgasm for other roles.’

There is another aspect of the study that fascinated me –something that had not registered despite my years as a gynaecologist: ‘With the evolution of spontaneous ovulation, clitoral stimulation lost its role in ensuring fertilization simultaneously with the removal of clitoris from the copulatory canal, likely causing a variable association between copulation and orgasms for the female.’

Think about it. Why would the homologue of something important for ovulation in some species, and so important for orgasm in ours have moved away from the action? The clitoris is now located quite a distance from the vagina and is only inadvertently stimulated with human heterosexual intercourse. I think the Science article expressed it well: ‘Humans and other primates don’t need intercourse to trigger ovulation—they evolved to a point where it happens on its own—but the hormonal changes accompanying intercourse persist and fuel the orgasms that make sex more enjoyable, the biologists hypothesize. And because those hormonal surges no longer confer a biological advantage, orgasms during intercourse may be lost in some women. This explanation “takes away a lot of stigma” of underwhelming sexual relations, says one of the authors, Mihaela Pavlićev, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio.’

And also: ‘Pavlićev and Wagner’s theory helps explain why female orgasms during intercourse are relatively rare. “It is new to use [this] innovative, Darwinian approach to understand one of the mysteries of human sexuality—why the male orgasm is warranted, easy-to-reach, and strictly related to reproduction and the female counterpart [is] absolutely not,” says Emmanuele Jannini, an endocrinologist at University of Rome Tor Vergata. The nonnecessity of orgasms for reproduction may also explain why women’s reproductive tracts vary a lot more than men’s—there are fewer constraints, he adds.’

I have to admit that this was all terra incognita to me. And a clarification and reassurance for those few women who confided concerns about their difficulties or even inability to achieve orgasm with heterosexual intercourse seemed impossible if it was supposed to be part of the process. Surely they weren’t all psychologically liable… So-called foreplay was clearly important –if only to stimulate both the clitoris as well as interest in the procedure- but was there something wrong with them if he couldn’t be persuaded?

Satisfactory sexual experience is clearly important and helps to provide the glue that bonds a relationship. But does the changed anatomy tell us anything? Might we be permitted a secular Darwinian postulate that pleasure may, after all, be divorced from the procreative imperative? A sort of anatomical excuse? Much can be done to wrap this in a more attractive package -the counselling of both partners as well as suggestions on technique- but at least from an evolutionary perspective that seeks to propagate our species, we’re doing just fine. Maybe too fine, in fact…