Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sex: Why Does It Have To Be So Complicated?



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?

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 by the near impossibility of two people getting exactly what they want and need.

Any potentially sexual interaction involves the collision of several sets of interests, beginning with the two (or more) parties most intimately involved, but extending through their families and social networks. Astronomers are better at predicting what will happen when galaxies, each comprising hundreds of millions of stars, collide some millions of years into the future, than most people are at telling what will happen when two people gravitate toward one another in a dimly lit room.

This special issue of Australasian Science concerns the science of sex. But more than that, each of the authors has explored an area in which sex grows more complicated than we ever thought possible. A lot of popular discussion of the area is grounded in the outdated and false dichotomy that pits nature against nurture. The authors all transcend this unhelpful divide.

Dr Michael Kasumovic, for example, considers the social, nutritional and other environmental factors that alter evolved mating preferences (p.18). It turns out that humans and other animals are acutely sensitive to their own likely value on the mating market and can alter development to give themselves the best possible chance.

Some of the most fascinating evolutionary research over the past decade or so concerns sexual conflict. By explicitly considering that sex doesn’t happen for “the good of the species” but for the selfish benefit of the individuals concerned, and that the interests of one mate can be at considerable odds to those of the other, evolutionary biologists have opened perhaps the deepest well of sexual complexity that exists. Which is why I’m delighted that Devi Stuart-Fox (p.21) explores the conflicting interests of males and females, turning her attention to the rather practical issue of how individuals avoid having the kinds of sex they don’t need or want to have.

Barnaby Dixson (p.24) extends the discussion of sexual conflict by considering the double-edged sword of masculinity. From a woman’s point of view, a masculine man can be a wonderful mate or a tragic liability. No man can be perfect, and the trade-off involved in choosing a man who strikes the right balance exemplifies the main theme of many a bittersweet rom-com.

Darwinian sexual selection constitutes one of evolution’s most potent forces. The lengths that people will go to in order to attract a mate shapes more than our bodies and behaviours – it also gives shape to art, music and literature. And, it is rapidly becoming clear that it shapes our economy too. Jason Collins (p.27) considers how the never-ending spiral of competition for wealth, status and the attention of desirable mates has shaped historic and modern economies alike.

From the recent hype about oxytocin you might think we had stumbled upon an elixir brewed by J.K. Rowling’s Half-Blood Prince. A concoction of the best aspects of amortentia love potion, and the truth-telling veritaserum. Signe Cane (p.30) scratches at this simplistic hype, revealing more dimensions to oxytocin that only add to the fascination of this molecule.

Bob Wong (p.33) completes this special edition with a discussion – in equal parts hilarious and disturbing – of the ways in which anthropogenic environmental change is changing animal mating behaviour. His subtle touch suggests a disturbing question: if we’ve changed our world so thoroughly that male beetles find beer bottles more attractive than females, then how are the changes we’ve wrought on our own social world impacting mating behaviour in our own species? Curious as I am, I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Actually, I lie. I always want to know the answer. Even if it’s complex.

*A number I made up by thinking about it a lot. Not a formal empirical estimate.

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.