Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 2012 - Volume 15 Number 4
Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex
John A. Long
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Let’s talk about sex.

Not, love, to be sure. Love has already been neatly handled by the great American poet and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg [Isidore Hochberg] (1896-1981), who wrote such classics as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for Judy Garland’s “Dorothy” in The Wizard of Oz and “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime” for Dorothy’s less fortunate compatriots.

Here’s what he said about love:

Love is a series of darlings and dearies
Of honeys and sweeties and sugared entreaties
Of moonings and spoonings and cooings and billings
All tempered, of course, by occasional killings.

Sex is different. Sex is about producing and reproducing biological life, whereas love is a cultural adaptation which exists in our species mainly to delay our extinction by: (a) having enough sex to produce a new generation; and (b) ensuring that both parents stick around long enough to guarantee that most children survive at least until they become self-sustainable. In the past, most youngsters could be trusted to take care of themselves by the age of roughly twelve or thirteen, whereas we tend to push adolescence into what used to be known as middle-age. The story of love, marriage and so on is complicated. There are many different versions. You can catch one of them in Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (2004); you can discover others in a number of Doris Day/Rock Hudson films. As I said, it’s complicated.

Sex, is also an “adaptation,” of course, but it evolved to promote species survival as a more purely biological or, rather, a physiological matter. Sex, much more than love, is captured by “evolutionary developmental biology” (“evo-devo” to its friends). We, of course, are generally familiar with the structure and use of our own reproductive apparatus. What may seem strange, however, is that most creatures get along quite nicely without anything resembling our genital equipment. In fact, the penis and vagina are rather recent anatomical innovations in the history of terrestrial life forms and, what’s more, some animals that developed them seem later to have abandoned them as a bad idea.

Of course, by most scientific lights, there is no “overall scheme of things” and animals do not “abandon” physiological traits as “bad ideas” or, indeed, as ideas at all. Unfortunately, I am just as guilty as anyone of allowing such language to infiltrate my writing. In fact, following the lead of most good scientists, I subscribe to no belief which claims that the universe or any part of it has a “purpose” or that “ideas” count for much in the evolutionary process.

That aside, according to Long, the first hint of our particular plumbing is credited to the placoderms, one of the first jawed fish which thrived roughly 400 million years ago. It seems a long way from then until now— about four-fifths of the time since the arrival of Pikaia, the first known chordate and the little critter to which we can tentatively attribute our spines and the existence of vertebrates as a group (Gould (1989). Considering the age of the Earth (about 4.5 billion years), however, this is but a blink of a geological eye. There is more to come.

Long’s story begins with a remarkable discovery. His special field of interest is Devonian fishes. He found a spectacular number of their fascinating fossilized remains in Western Australia. Among other prizes in the diverse cache were fish with embryos inside them, complete with a mineralized umbilical cord—the earliest evidence of internal fertilization. Here was the oldest example of “vivipary” (embryonic development inside the mother’s body and a precondition for live birth). When Long and his colleagues (2008, May) published their results in Nature, his name won a place in evolutionary theory alongside the name given to the fish, Materpiscis.

A good portion of Dawn of the Deed will be engaging for scientists and non-scientists alike because of its discussion of John A. Long’s individual quest. He speaks personally and eloquently about the detailed work in the field and in the laboratory as he and his team sorted out exactly what they had found. Though Long lacks an immediate competitor for honours and the resulting dramatic tension that came, for example, between the principals in the scientific controversy regarding the origins and evolution of our particular species, there is no absence of exhilaration as Long and his associates fill in a remarkable gap in evolutionary history. I am thinking of the of the entertaining dust-up between the great rivals of the human evolutionary bush, Richard Leakey (1977; 1992) and Don Johanson (Edey & Johanson, 1989) or the splendid account of discoveries, interpretations and revisions of perhaps the most important of all primal digs near the town of Field, British Columbia as related by Stephen Jay Gould (1989). Such wonders have excited wide audiences including many of whose knowledge and experience in paleontology is sparse, slim or absent. The pure joy of discovery and the elation of the discoverers, however, are quite enough to engage even the casually attentive reader here.

Although images and imaginings of sun-burned scientists in shorts scrabbling around old rocks have a certain romantic attraction, the more important element in discovery today has switched from the outback to the inside—inside the laboratory and inside our own genes. As Long explains, “we can go into the field and find fossils that reveal new data showing how the primitive pattern of bones may have transitioned from one form to another.” Materpiscis is already a classic example. Following up on such tangible evidence, however, is the effort “to examine the distant history that is entrapped in our own genes within our own chromosomes.” Our genes, it turns out, are not just organic “blueprints” that determine some of our visible characteristics, but they also hold within them “a treasure trove of past history about evolutionary development.”

Long takes us patiently through the scientific research and expounds upon the profound implications of “the really big breakthrough of modern-day evolutionary biology … the discovery of Homeobox genes (often shortened to Hox), which determine the sequence or organization of how body parts are built.” He explains how, working with different methods and with different materials, we are now learning more about morphogenesis and its basis in molecular mechanisms that are now coming to light. There is some hard science here and complex technical issues arise, but Long provides the necessities for a suitable understanding by non-scientists who remain attracted to the subject.

Of more importance to “generalists,” are the wonderful life lessons that we are taught as a curative for increasingly exasperating myths and metaphysics that remain conventional wisdom in our advanced technological but oddly unscientific corporate culture. As the late Walter Goldschmidt (1913-2010) so nicely put it in the preface to his summative book, The Bridge to Humanity (2006, p. viii):

I have never comprehended the difficulty people have understanding the theory of evolution. I find its story a far more compelling cosmology than any I have read in the vast mythic literature on the subject, and it is to me even more beautiful and soul-satisfying. Just the thought that we are at one with all other beings now living in the world or having ever lived over the billions of years since life emerged on the planet and that we share DNA and the whole machinery of inheritance with the mushroom and the butterfly, the elephant and the amoeba is to be a grand realization.

Writing about Long in Inside Higher Education, Scott McLemee (2012) appears taken aback by the doors to sexuality that Long and others have thrown open. Long provides examples such as Chinese fruit bats performing fellatio “as part of the stimulation leading to mating, more or less as foreplay.” He also refers to necrophilia among snakes and tortoises. And, who can forget the various female insects which cannibalize their partners immediately after or even during copulation?

Says McLemee:

Well, all sorts of bizarre stuff is bound to emerge in the course of 1.7 billion years. Every kink its own genome. But the really strange thought is that most of this behavior must have proven its worth in the struggle to survive. Not the necrophilia, let’s hope. But who knows? After reading The Dawn of the Deed, it’s hard to think of anything as an unnatural act.

While contemplating what we choose to call “bizarre,” we can maintain our bearings if we take seriously the simple dictum (which I place at the top of my syllabus in Cultural Anthropology). It comes from Publius Terentius Afer (ca. 190-159 BC): "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto." ("I am a man, I consider nothing that is human aliento me.”) An McLemee is right: after examining nature closely enough, there no much left to call an “unnatural act.” It is also enlightening to reflect on the origins of our own bodies and behaviours. The first thing to keep in mind is that, despite what I hope is only a careless comment by John Long, namely that modern anatomy was “predestined” by our more “primitive” forebears, one of the most acute realizations we can make is that our bodies and those of our cousins, neighbours and our more distant relatives—bonobos, gazelles, crows, sharks, spiders, moths, anemones, worms, fir trees, tomatoes, orchids, lichen, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and Uncle Fred are the consequences of a blending of accidents and contingencies filtered through the process of natural selection.

We are as we are, but we could have been otherwise and we need not have existed at all. Experiencing that existential insight does wonders to reduce our hubris and adds amazingly to our capacity for both modesty and piety—qualities that seem rather desperately lacking as we accept the “challenges” of the twenty-first century.1

Not long ago, we were sensible enough to keep objective science and subjective reflection in a tight embrace: we called it “natural philosophy.” John A. Long reminds us of the value of recombinant wisdom today. He does us a service by letting us know that we are the embodiment of random genetic mutations that have stood the test of more time than most of us can comfortably imagine. If, in the process, we learn that our mating organs have occasionally come and gone, and that penis loss has been, according to John Long, “no big deal for some lineages of vertebrates,” we may feel a direct connection to other animal transformations. We might recall that horses have only one visible toe, that (most) chickens lack lips, and that some of our fellow-vertebrates including snakes and caecilians have lost whole limbs. If we do, we may begin to think of biodiversity in an even grander sense. And, the more adventuresome among us might be moved to ask about the smaller story of sex: “What’s next?”

References:

Edey, M. A., & Johanson, D. (1989). Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution. New York: Penguin.

Engels, F. (2004, originally published in 1884). The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State Available on line at http://readingfromtheleft.com/PDF/EngelsOrigin.pdf.

Goldschmidt, W. (2005). The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W. W. Norton.

Long, J. A., Trinajstic, K., Young, G. C. & Senden, T. 2008. "Live birth in the Devonian period", Nature 453 (7195): 650–652.

Leakey, R. E. (1977). Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal About the Emergence of Our Species and Its Possible Future. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Leakey, R. E. (1992). Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human. New York: Doubleday.

McLemee, S. (2012, September 12). “Wild Kingdom.” Inside Higher Education. Available on line at http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/09/12/review-john-l-long-dawn-deed-prehistoric-origins-sex.

Endnote:

1. Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) has provided the definition of piety that best suits my purposes here. Piety is “a sense of what properly goes with what. It is a system-builder, a desire to round things out, to fit experiences together into a unified whole.” See Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 [1935], p. 74. It is also implicit in a favourite phrase of my old mentor Gregory Bateson (1904-1980): “the pattern which connects.” See: Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton, 1979, p. 8.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

Contents