Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sex: Why Does It Have To Be So Complicated?

ltsimage/iStockphoto

ltsimage/iStockphoto

By Rob Brooks, Guest Editor

Sex. Three simple letters and a world of complication. How can something so simple, so natural and so very important be so bewilderingly complicated?

Professor Rob Brooks is Director of the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and the author of Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' Roll: How Evolution Has Shaped the Modern World (NewSouth). He is Guest Editor of this edition of Australasian Science.

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Scientists writing for or preparing to speak to the popular media are drilled on the importance of simplicity. “If you can’t explain it simply,” Albert Einstein is believed to have said, “you don’t understand it well enough”. Einstein’s own personal correspondence reveals such simplistic one-sidedness that I’m inclined to believe he didn’t understand it at all.

But modern writers tackling the science of sex seem to have taken Einstein’s aphorism awfully seriously. The modern science of sex seems to me to be splashing about in a sea of gratuitously over-simplified New York Times bestsellers, TED talks and 100-word churnalism. I certainly concur that an idea must be made as simple and digestible as necessary for the audience to understand it, but no more so. Because sometimes the complexities and nuances themselves are the story.

Great artists, writers and songwriters know this. Which is why 90%* of the world’s great literature, music, poetry and art concerns – directly or tangentially – affairs of the heart and of the groin. There is more truth about human nature in a few lines from Jane Austen or Michael Stipe than the entire collected works of Mariah Carey and Frank Sinatra. Torch songs and jaunty ballads about love, marriage, horses and carriages constitute a kind of anaesthetised self-deception. As if by denying their complexity we might be less daunted...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.