Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rust-Proof Corsets & Sperm Wars

Several years ago in Northern California I had the good fortune to see salmon running at Lagunitas Creek. It was the clearest example I had ever witnessed of natural selection in action. Those salmon with just the right combination of guile, luck and stamina making it up river to spawn. This struggle to make it up to the spawning grounds was both painful and exhilarating to watch. Fish with their tail fins almost entirely scratched off, beating up the rocky shallows to return to where they were born. Fitness as an absolute marker for survival.

I remember thinking at the time how the selection pressure on man has been greatly relaxed due to several mitigating factors: absence of predators, advances in technology and medicine allowing most newborns to survive into adulthood, as well as an industrial-agro subsidized food industry and socio-capilitalist distribution system supplying us with relatively cheap calories. These advances have in turn freed us from farming/hunting labor for creative endeavors. And more time to be choosy about mates. 

About a year ago I found a beautiful embossed copy of Charles Darwin's Descent of Man. In the section "Man—Law of Battle," quoting the eighteenth century explorer Samuel Hearne, an early observer of the North American Indians, he has this to say about competition for mates: "It has ever been the custom among these people for the men to wrestle for any woman to whom they are attached; and, of corse, the strongest party always carries off the prize. A weak man, unless he be a good hunter, and well-beloved, is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a stronger man thinks worth his notice." 

I happened upon the passage for the simple reason that there was an old clipping from the Missoula Daily Sentinel, dated June 12, 1925, stuck in that page as bookmark. What caught my eye, however, wasn't so much the article, an op/ed in defense of the theory of evolution, praising Darwin's son, Major Leonard Darwin, for defending the theory "against the attacks in this country that are being led by Colonel Bryan and other Fundamentalists," but rather the advertisements for Corset and Hosiery on the reverse side. For 89 cents you could get "Spuntex, Kayser, or Philadelphia Maid" silk hose, while $1.89 would buy you a Rust-Proof Corset.

Aside from what these two snippets say about Missoula — progressive in its thinking even then, backward in fashion (corsets had gone out of style earlier in the decade) —they did get me thinking about dating, and human sexual behavior in general. For what is the purpose of those items but to boost the desirability of one sex toward the other — to attract several potential mates from which to choose?

But do men expect that our sperm will have to compete with other sperm to fertilize the chooser's egg? According to Robin Baker in Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex the answer is a resounding "yes." And if your idea of sperm conforms to a simple gestalt of miniature salmon wiggling up the shallows to find an egg to fertilize, you're in for a nice surprise. Baker estimates that less than 1 percent of the sperm in human ejaculate are "elite, fertile 'egg-getters.' The remainder, once thought to be simply defective egg-getters, we now know to be infertile by design, 'kamikaze' sperm whose function has nothing to do with fertilization as such but everything to do with preventing sperm from another man from fertilizing the egg."

How does Baker know? Aside from beakers full of sperm he has collected and analyzed, he also has evidence of sperm behavior on film, captured by "attaching a tiny fiber-optic endoscope to the underside of a man's penis before intercourse."

I won't give away any more of Baker's findings, but it is heartening and instructive to find out just what's been happening all around me in the coming together and breaking up of couples — from a biological perspective. That masturbation, orgasm, and infidelity all have functional explanations seems to me hopeful — hopeful that we can continue sawing away at our essentially superstitious religious beliefs of sexuality.

But still, to get to the moment of procreation one still needs to find a mate. Whereas formerly we had wrestling matches and corsets, we now have latent semantic indexing, a data-mining technique used in profiling would-be suitors on internet dating sites such as The January/February edition of MIT's Technology Review lays out the most likely underpinnings of the predictive technology. As the writer of the piece, Emily Gould, says "it's creepy, the idea that a computer can suss out what it is (someone) really wants." Certainly a far cry from wrestling and corsets. And I'm not sure it's helping with fitness for our species, but I guess whatever works.

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