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Sex Before History: Humans in the Mist

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The writer Karen Blixen, also known as Isak Dinesen (1885-1962),
once posed the following question: "What is man, when you come to
think upon him, but a minutely set ingenious machine for turning,
with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?"

Humans can be described in a thousand murky ways, but one thing
is clear: We have an insistent curiosity about sex.

Put two copulating humans in a room with a pet dog or cat, and
the odds are the pet dog or cat will yawn with boredom, lie down,
close its eyes, and have a snooze.

Reverse the scenario, put two copulating dogs or cats in a room,
and any human present will stare with rapt fascination at the
proceeding from beginning to end.

Do they do it the same way we do it? What are they really
thinking about when they do it? What about the birds and the
bees? What about those two house flies having a go on your porch?
Do female spiders really eat the males afterwards?

The animal world provides us with a huge zoo of fabulous natural
experiments in sexuality. Consider the slipper-snail, Crepidula
fornicata
. It lives in a shell about two inches in diameter, and
it's a protandrous hermaphrodite, which means males can change
into females. At mating time, a large female climbs onto an empty
shell, and soon a male climbs on top of her and copulates with
her. Before long another male climbs on top of the first male,
the first male changes into a female, and the second male
copulates with her. A third male then climbs onto the second
male, and now the second male changes into a female -- and so on,
until a chain of maybe a dozen slipper-snails is formed, usually
from larger to smaller at the end of the chain, where the final
slipper-snail remains a male, copulating with the female below
him. What else is this but group sex ordained by Darwinian
evolution?

Or have a look at the marine worm Bonellia, blue-green in color
and about six inches in length. They were discovered in the Bay
of Naples in Italy in 1821, and for a long time the only form
known was the female, a lively animal living at depths as much as
350 feet. Where were the males? After much searching, zoologists
thought maybe there were no males at all. Then finally the males
were discovered -- living in the oviducts of the females, six or
seven dozen tiny males living inside each female. The human
equivalent would be a wife with a harem of little husbands
carried in her Fallopian tubes. We call it polyandry, but
Darwinian evolution invented it a long time ago.

Consider any sort of sexuality you can imagine, and it's probable
Darwinian evolution has already made it a reality.

The question is what has it made for us?

In the 1950s, the British novelist William Golding published two
novels based on some ideas about human evolution. The first, The Lord of the Flies, brought him immediate success. It's the story
of a group of school boys on a deserted island, and Golding's
theme is that with the trappings and constraints of civilization
removed, young humans will revert to the savage ways of their
prehistoric ancestors. The second novel, The Inheritors, appeared
a year later, and this story involved the clash of two
prehistoric peoples, the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons, the
former a human species that first evolved hundreds of thousands
of years ago, and the latter the forerunners of the present
species, which probably first appeared about forty thousand years
ago. These two human species apparently overlapped for a time,
and Golding's story is about a meeting of the two groups. Golding
received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

The Inheritors is a fascinating story, but of course it's all
speculation, since we have no idea how the Neanderthals saw
themselves or how they saw the Cro-Magnons, and we have little
knowledge about how the Cro-Magnons may have seen themselves and
their world and the Neanderthals. Prehistory is just that,
prehistory, and the story of Early Man, when we try to tell it,
is a story in a mist of doubt and speculation. The fundamental
problem is that we know very little about our ancestors. What we
do know, however, and this is a firm understanding in modern
science, is that Early Man evolved from a line that diverged from
the Great Apes, and that the sexual behavior of Early Man, sexual
behavior let's say 100,000 years ago, had to have been quite
different from our own sexual behavior.

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