Sunday, July 09, 2006

So What Compels A Fish To Not Have Sex?

The other day I was watching this documentary on deep-sea life and learned the following fact about fish: if they made porn it would be nothing but money shots. Turns out fish don’t have body-contact sex, the way humans do when we’re lucky. Instead, a bunch of fish just sort of congregate in this relatively small part of the ocean, and release their various eggs and sperms into the water, and some of them come together and thus begins the Miracle of Fish Life.

And that’s it. The clam plate orgy’s over until next mating season.

I don’t want to think too much about the sexual habits of fish because that’s probably not healthy, but I can’t help wonder: why do they even bother? We have sex (which sometimes leads to babies) because it feels good. Do fish get any similar good feelings out of being within a few yards of each other?

This all somewhat ties in with an interesting article, by an evolutionary biologist named David Barash, called “Sex is Essential, Kids Aren’t.” It starts by mentioning that in Germany, 30 percent of all women were childless—and by choice.

Demographers are intrigued. German nationalists, aghast. Religious fundamentalists, distressed at the indication that large numbers of women are using birth control. And evolutionary biologists (including me) are asked, "How can this be?" If reproduction is perhaps the fundamental imperative of natural selection, of our genetic heritage, isn't it curious — indeed, counterintuitive — that people choose, and in such large numbers, to refrain from participating in life's most pressing event?

I’m one of those people. Kids are cute but I don’t want any. I understand that somebody needs to keep the human race going, but it’s not going to be me. So is this a problem?

intentional childlessness is indeed curious — but in no way surprising. It is also illuminating, because it sheds light on what is perhaps the most notable hallmark of the human species: the ability to say no — not just to a bad idea, an illegal order or a wayward pet but to our own genes. . . . People are inclined to eat when hungry, sleep when tired and have sex when aroused. But in most cases, we remain capable of declining, endowed as we are with that old bugaboo, free will. Moreover, when people indulge their biologically based inclinations, nearly always it is to satisfy an immediate itch, whose existence is itself an evolved strategy leading to some naturally selected payoff. A person doesn't typically eat, for example, with the goal of meeting her metabolic needs but to satisfy her hunger, which is a benevolent evolutionary trick that induces the food-deprived to help out their metabolism.

At this point the article talks about how sex and birth used to be pretty much connected until the invention of contraception. Then it goes on:

Behavioral ecologists distinguish between what are known as "r" and "K" strategies among living things. Thus, "r" strategists — such as mice and rabbits — breed early and often, producing large numbers of offspring that suffer high mortality. "K" types — such as elephants and whales — breed later and relatively rarely, producing fewer offspring (with lower mortality) and investing more in each. Neither elephants nor whales send their children to college, although they indulge in the animal equivalent.

Pretechnological human beings are comparatively "r" in their reproductive style. But with improved socioeconomic conditions — especially, better educational and vocational opportunities for women — comes the demographic transition, whereby "r" gives way to "K," and infant mortality plummets along with birthrate. There also arises a tendency to take especially good care of the fewer children one produces, as well as a greater inclination to look out for No. 1, sometimes — horror of horrors! — by producing no children at all.

I don’t have kids. Nor am I going to. I know some people are offended by the idea of a willingly childless woman, but y’all should be happy instead. After all, with my kid out of the picture, yours has a better chance of getting into college.


Blogger Robert said...

A couple of observations:

(a) How do you know that the simple act of releasing sperm and eggs isn't pleasurable to a fish? Bodily contact and humpty-bumpty friction may be what makes it fun for humans, but perhaps such is not necessary for our piscine cousins.

(b) Sex in several species - notably among our primate relatives, the bonobos (as I am reminded again in an article in the latest Scientific American) - serves not only reproductive purposes, but also has social and cultural functions. Some male chimps simulate sex with other males to display their dominance: "See, I can screw you if I wanted to, and there's nothing you can do about it." Female bonobos rub their sexual organs against each other as a way of demonstrating kinship. Lucky for us, human sexuality seems to be along the same lines. As has been pointed out by many a prochoice thinker, sex in human beings is not SOLELY for procreation.

Of course, if you choose not to pass on your genetic code, in evolutionary terms, you are one of life's big losers (as my former bio professor used to say).

4:56 AM  
Anonymous Jeff P. said...

There is one species of male fish that throws off pursuers by ejaculating sperm into the water. The sperm has a chemical catalyst that, when exposed to saltwater for a few seconds, lights up like a flare, thus blinding the predator momentarily.
Thankfully, humans do not have this. Guys would brag about how bright their jizz was. "She could barely see when I was finished!"

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a curiosity to me that you seem so, well, bristled up I guess, about not wanting children. If you don't want them, fine, I happen to have three, and enjoy being a father, and I like to think I'm doing pretty well at it. However, I don't see any particular requirement that one have children. I guess I don't understand why it's such a big issue to you that you have to react with such a high degree of defensiveness, can you comment as to why there seems to be 'attitude' in the proclaimation?

Yes, sex is not necessarily about procreation, but the root issues of what it is about tend to stem from procreation. Dominance is about being able to pass on your genes, closeness/intimacy is about safety, which ties to those genes, now being passed on, surviving. Not that it has to be, but don't discount the fact that we are all animals at the core.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

"Not that it has to be, but don't discount the fact that we are all animals at the core."

Discount it? Goodness gracious, speaking for myself, I happily acknowledge it - and point it out every single chance I get!

I can't speak for Jennifer, but there is often an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) expectation of women that they drop progeny.* I can see where a young female may become a bit "defensive" over the idea that she cannot be a real woman unless she experiences the joys (snort, cough) of pregnancy and childbirth. Men simply don't face the same attitudes.

* I can't claim credit for this phrase. Thanos the Titan used this during the Infinity Wars. : )

9:35 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

What Robert said. If a man doesn't want kids that's considered okay, but if a woman doesn't want any, well, that must be proof that I'm missing something, emotionally speaking.

I am tired of hearing "oh, but you'd be such a good mother." Yes, I probably would. I like kids and they generally like me. I'm good at washing dishes too, but I don't want to do that with my life.

Other tooth-grinding things I've heard: "Oh, you'll change your mind once you hold your first baby in your arms.(!)"

"You'll change your mind once the right man comes along."

"You're only saying that because you don't really know what you want."

And, my personal favorite at the moment: "If you weren't so grossed out by motherhood you'd enjoy sex a lot more."

10:02 AM  
Anonymous pigwiggle said...


I understand the mildly pissed attitude. I have yet to have kids; honestly I’m a bit confused about how to decide if I should. But anyway, as a parent you may have noticed that a great deal of public institutions are biased in your favor. To start, I make less than my colleagues with children thanks to my employer’s health package. I pay more in taxes and but get less benefit. And it seems to me the general attitude of parents is that they deserve these additional benefits; somehow I should be grateful they are going through the trouble. I’ve been told that remaining childless is selfish, and I believe this is a prevailing attitude. Look, I’m not grateful you had kids. I find children particularly annoying and I wish more folks would handle their kids in public as the nuisance they are and not some grand gift to society.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

"And, my personal favorite at the moment: "If you weren't so grossed out by motherhood you'd enjoy sex a lot more."


I hope that quote isn't from your S/O.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...


No, no, no. Definitely not. hat was from a conversation I had way-back-when, long before I'd even met my SO. I'd said something like "sex would be a lot more fun if you didn't have to take so many precautions."

In all seriousness: in the 1950s there was this book called "Modern Woman: The Lost Sex" which seriously argued that it is impossible for a woman to achieve sexual enjoyment unless she has a deep desire to be a mother.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Kitty said...

I read "The Lost Sex," and blame it for me delaying childbearing by at least three more years than I probably would have otherwise.

Seriously, why the general public finds women's reproduction so endlessly fascinating still mystifies me. Before kids, I used to tell people who asked "So, when . . .?" that I was going to wait until I could order precisely what I wanted from the Nieman Marcus Christmas catalog. Since my husband and I were married eleven years before Andy was born, you can imagine I got lots of practice answering that question.

I also point out that Steve, who is an amazingly involved father, especially considering his family of origin, is considered a huge hero for taking the boys to the pediatrician's office occasionally, and for, oh, knowing the names of their teachers. Somehow I'm never given the standing ovations for knowing exactly the same thing. Just goes to show you that society still needs to work on women's equality.

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tedicus types;

Being "childfree" in the U.S.A.
puts you in a rare minority that
is analogous to the nonsupernaturalists. This is a
very pronatalist society. It
would appear that many never even
consider that replicating is a
choice. It's just a given that
you're going to have kids, after
all that's the point of life
ain't it? The patronising attitude
of many of these people can be
seen as a visceral response to the
implied rejection of their lifestyle; just as a true believer
is offended by the sceptic.
In daring to be different you
invite ridicule. Sometimes that's
the cost of being true to yourself.
I had my vasectomy over ten years
ago. Sure my wife gets lonely,
but that's hardly a selfless
reason to bring a child into this
Great Blog.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation. Hopefully you will find less of a need to feel defensive.

Don't have children if you view them as particularly annoying. That attitude will be transferred to the children, as they're very keen on the parent's feelings regardless of how well hidden they believe. Therefore, you'd be breeding instability at best.

1:08 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Speaking as a man who doesn't intend to have children, I've found that people tend to respond to that with incredulity and condescension. Especially after I got married (to a wonderful woman who also doesn't want children).

Just trying finding a doc to do a vasectomy before you're 30, if you don't have kids.

I have no doubt that women have it worse, though. My wife can certainly attest to that.

All that is to say...I get the defensiveness. People get very presumptuous about these things. Even (perhaps especially) those that don't know you well enough at all to comment on such things.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Leonard said...

Regarding your original question: sex gives us pleasure because of the potential consequences. And as Robert said, it may well give fish pleasure too. I don't know. But just remember that the pleasure is anterior to the reproduction; it is quite possible for species to reproduce without any pleasure at all (consider plants). We are the lumbering robots created by our genes. If it turns out that programming us with a sex drive and pleasure in it works, as far as inducing us to create babies - that's how we'll be. If it turns out this is not sufficient, then we'll evolve.

In the case of fish, just programming them to meet up, then automatically release gametes would work fine. So I see no need for pleasure to mediate the action. With us, we have to be choosier, but not too choosy. Thus the pleasure.

One point little noted in this whole "don't want to have kids" thing, is that in our modern conditions we are badly programmed robots from our genes' POV. Thus we are now under tremendous evolutionary pressure; in the future we can expect to have less free will about kids, assuming that we have not engineered away our child-bearing choices.

Social (memeplex) engineering is one way that this may happen. That is, perhaps we'll evolve a society in which modernity does not lead to crashing birthrates.

The social pressure folks have commented on here is another form of this. Certainly not that effective, but in the long run I'd expect it to persist because those that can resist it don't have kids to pass on the resistant minds/memes to.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Gene Callahan said...

"A person doesn't typically eat, for example, with the goal of meeting her metabolic needs but to satisfy her hunger, which is a benevolent evolutionary trick that induces the food-deprived to help out their metabolism."

It is utter rubbish for evolutionary biologists to continually declare that we're being "tricked" by evolution to do things. as if we aren't really hungry when we think we are, or as though we don't really enjoy sex. Just because evolution may have selected for something doesn't make the evolutionary aspect of the item its essence or somehow reduce other aspects of it to mere phantoms. (Leonard's post above is chock full of this sort of unthinking evolutionary reductionism -- we'll have "less free will"!)

12:12 PM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

[Of course, if you choose not to pass on your genetic code, in evolutionary terms, you are one of life's big losers (as my former bio professor used to say).]

I rather think that it's the rest of the world that's the big loser, if I don't pass my code on. :-)

[Guys would brag about how bright their jizz was. "She could barely see when I was finished!"]

They can't see anyway after I've screwed their eyeballs out. :-)

2:57 AM  

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