Why we need to have sex

Flower flies mating (image courtesy of Peter Hogel, http://www.photoradar.com/photos/82678/peterhogel/insect-sex)

Without sex many organisms die out, but why? Sex is not the only form of reproduction, there is also asexual reproduction, which does not require a mate. Sex is a costly and complicated exercise for any organism, so it must have some evolutionary benefit over asexual reproduction that outweighs its costs.

The difference between these form of reproduction is that in sexual reproduction the genes are always mixed up. Whereas, in asexual reproduction genes are often not mixed up, or not to as great an extent. Having gene mixing introduces more changes that could potentially be advantageous to the species as its environment changes. This accelerates the rate at which the species can adapt to survive these environmental changes.

In an environment that changes rapidly, introducing more changes, and therefore allowing for faster adaptation is key to survival. Fast changing environments can be caused by bacteria that invade other species. Such bacteria can often change quickly, so their hosts must evolve equally as fast to keep up, in a sort of arms race. If either species could not modify rapidly then they would become extinct. This is why organisms that have to cope with parasites tend to reproduce sexually, such as humans, and most animals and plants.

This principle has recently been demonstrated in the lab using round worms genetically modified to produce either sexually or asexually. The worms are introduced into an environment with a bacteria that invades their digestive system and kills them. It was shown that the worms that reproduced asexually died out quickly. Whereas, those reproducing sexually could adapt, and the population survived alongside the bacteria, while both continued to evolved.

Why the fu.ss over South Sudan .ss domain?

Girl holds South Sudan flag (image courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/08/south-sudan-eight-facts)










According to the BBC experts say South Sudan is unlikely to get .ss. South Sudan wants .ss and it is the obvious choice being its initials, so why shouldn’t it get it?

There is opposition due to the initials SS being widely known as the name for a Nazi SS paramilitary organisation. One worry would be that .ss would attract neo-Nazi websites. But, I think not approving the .ss domain, due to its association with Nazi SS, is a poor reason. Firstly, this is simply a two character initialism, not even a pronounceable word. It can stand for many things in many fields. Although it is possible that two letters could be construed as offensive in certain situations, I don’t think a domain suffix should be one of them. Secondly, it would be unlikely .ss domains would be available to public registration for some time after South Sudan was granted them. And registration to non South Sudanese entities could be very restricted, especially initially. So the fear of neo-Nazi websites springing up is, I think, largely unfounded. The idea that the domain could become associated with such sites I find especially unlikely.

If .ss is approved, which I hope it is, then there could be some exciting possibilities for short domains, such as ki.ss, bli.ss, mi.ss, che.ss, dre.ss, bo.ss and of course ru.ss :)

Civil Liberties vs. a National Health Service

Burger Eating (Image by Chris Pirillo)

It can become difficult to protect civil liberties and a National Health Service (NHS) that provides a universal service, at the same time. NHSs with universal services can be very costly to run, and as with private health care certain risk factors can make cover more expensive, such as smoking, drug use, heavy drinking, etc. The problem with an NHS is, either the nation can pay more to cover increasing costs, or health risks can be minimised. Paying more could be seen as unfair for those without increased risks and could also be unpalatable in a poor economic environment. On the other hand, decreasing risk factors could improve the health of the nation and save the NHS money.

In order to decrease risk factors various methods can be introduced, such as education, incentives, taxes and bans. Education is often used in TV adverts alerting the public to the dangers of a particular activity, such as drug taking. On food labels negative red warnings are sometimes used on foods with high fat, salt or sugar content, whereas low fat, salt or sugar products carry a positive green label. Taxes can be imposed to reduce consumption of a product by making it prohibitively more expensive such as is often the case with alcohol or cigarettes. And sometimes products deemed to pose too high a risk to public health are banned entirely.

While is worth noting that there could also be many other reasons, apart from health, for taking these measures, some are primarily or solely linked to increasing health to save the NHS money. The personal use of some recreational drugs could primarily be a health matter. Additionally, there are also social and economic reasons why it’s in a nations interest to have a healthy population.

However, regardless of whether a universal NHS is a good or bad idea, or whether a nation’s interests should mean restricting civil liberties, a universal NHS itself can cause the erosion of civil liberties.

Is suffering a bad thing?

Not necessarily. While undoubtedly it is most commonly very negative, I think it is difficult to claim it is exclusively negative. Suffering is sometimes associated with positive outcomes. Do women not often suffer during child birth? Some animals starve to death to allow their offspring to feed on their tissue. And occasionally cutting off your own limb can aid your survival chances.

Reducing net suffering, or increasing net happiness or well-being are often used as the basis for deriving morals. I believe it is impossible to conclude that any of these things are inherently right or wrong, and should therefore not be used as the basis for making morals. Instead morals could be derived from our evolution, however I believe the whole concept of morals is in fact flawed.

Deducing Morals from Evolution

I believe morals can be better deduced from the basis of our evolution, rather than the unsatisfactory basis of considering that suffering is a bad thing. While at the same time, I believe the concept of morals to create black and white rights and wrongs is flawed.

Morals are a concept that only makes sense where there are perceived choices to be made or judgements to be taken. The known universe obeys laws of physics, therefore there are no judgements and no absolute morals in the universe. However, humans perceive moral judgements as part of our thought process.

Absolute morals

To try to create “absolute”  morals they need to be designed to be universal to all humans and applicable to everyone. Hence, they must be of benefit to the entire species, rather than any group or individual. The goal or purpose of our species can be derived from the consensus of the population. The current consensus on our purpose is for the continuation of our species. This consensus can be concluded by understanding why we are here. Therefore, morals can be deduced by considering what would benefit our species survival. If something is of benefit to our species survival it is morally good; if something is of negative consequence to our species survival then it is morally bad.

However, why should morals be designed to be universal to only humans and not other species or all species? There is no good answer to that, which is why absolute morals are impossible.

Will we feel less sexual lust due to contraception?

Safe sex (image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/97761563@N00)

Sexual lust is there because having sex creates offspring who inherit that sexual lust which will mean they have sex resulting in more offspring, thereby continuing the genes. Without it the human population would have died out.

Having sex doesn’t always lead to a baby, but having sex is virtually the only way to create a baby. Contraception means that having sex has become significantly less efficient at creating babies, however it is still required to make one. This is like a hawk catching prey, in that the hawk doesn’t always catch something, however it has to sometimes in order to eat and survive. If catching prey became increasing difficult the hawk population could fall and the species could become extinct. In the same way, if sex becomes increasingly unlikely to produce children the human population could fall. And this would in fact be the case in many countries where contraception is widely used if it were not for immigration and an increasing age of death.

But the fact that sex is still required to produce offspring means that sexual lust will continue even with contraception. And because more sex is required before offspring are produced sexual lust could increase. However, sex is time consuming and requires a lot of energy. Due to the efficiency advantage many animals only have sex when they know the female is fertile (there is also some evidence humans have more sex during the fertile period too) and some allow only the fittest male to fertilise all of the females in a group. If having unproductive sex proves to be a disadvantage, humans who only have productive sex will be favoured. In terms of using contraception this could mean we evolve to be “turned off” by contraception or find fertile women increasingly attractive compared to those using contraception.

Far into the future, if ever increasing numbers of children were being produced by artificial means without sex then over time sexual lust could completely disappear.

Why do people want to help complete strangers?

Why a lot of humans feel a philanthropic urge towards complete strangers is an interesting question because it isn’t initially obvious. Of course it is easy to see why being good to people close to you – both physically and genetically – is beneficial to you as an individual (and your genes), but why would being good to complete strangers, that you never meet or have dealings with, be beneficial to you?

Well the urge is clearly evolved. A lot of people often claim giving money to charity or helping people makes them feel good, without really knowing exactly why it does. An advantage that Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals was the fact that Homo sapiens began living in larger villages of up to about 150 people compared to Neanderthal groups of only about 10-15 people. In a larger village technology could spread quicker and more tasks could be assigned to more specialised people, therefore increasing efficiency.

In a larger group the members become genetically more distant from one another. So over time we have evolved to be good to ever more distant cousins because it still benefited us as individuals. Even living in large modern cities everyone is connected by the economy. However, recently in the modern world many people feel this urge, to be good to others, with strangers from villages on the other side of the planet.

As we have only had the ability to help such distant people recently, it could be that there is no benefit to us as individuals. If the net effect of helping such distant cousins was to our disadvantage, then we will evolve not to help them over time. However, helping even seemingly unconnected people probably does benefit us as individuals because we have a global economy and live in a “global village”.

Helping people depending on how much they can help us

Another aspect to consider is how much we help different people. Although many people claim they have a philanthropic urge towards complete strangers they would probably help their own children first before saving others. Which of course makes complete sense for aiding the propagation of their own genes. The same principle goes for how much we help anyone. Most people would help a sick man who lives near them  before one in another country. And often people favour local charities to global ones. People also help women and children more than men in certain situations – “woman and children first” – which has clear evolutionary advantages.

What is the Meaning of Life?

Life is to have the ability to have self sustaining biological systems through division or reproduction. On Earth life started from a single cell billions of years ago. The exact circumstances surrounding the formation of this cell are, as yet, unknown. Most probably they are due to entirely random happenings and natural occurrences. Life on Earth has been characterised by a constant struggle for survival. Anything that doesn’t work, and can’t survive, dies. On the other hand, successful organisms thrive and reproduce to continue the chain of life. Therefore, the meaning of life can be derived from the characteristics of life. Principally, the ability to continue the self sustaining biological system. In humans this means reproduction. Without reproduction we would quickly die out.

The ability to be able to continue human reproduction requires human survival. To increase the chance of survival, humans have to protect themselves against disease, disaster or destruction through scientific development, technology and global consensus on the purpose of life.

While the meaning of human life is to reproduce it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone must reproduce. After all, worker ants never reproduce in their lifetime but are vital to the survival of the colony. In the same way humans who don’t reproduce may contribute to society and benefit the survival of humankind as a whole. The meaning of life for non-reproducing individuals is ultimately still for human reproduction and survival. However, such individuals often find alternative beliefs or purposes to drive them.

Some humans may disagree with the meaning of life and have decided not to contribute to the survival of the species. If the individuals lead productive lives they may pay taxes or engage in consumerism thereby contributing to the society and aiding human survival whether they agree with it or not. Other individuals may engage in crime which can often also contribute to society through the economic benefits of crime. Large scale crimes against humanity are of course taken the most seriously because of the widespread consensus on continuing the human race.

Should there be Gender Equality?

I recently read this article on the BBC news site that suggested Sweden still had a long way to go in gender equality, which was partly because of unequal gender representation in workforces. The article implied that a country with gender equality would be a better place to be a woman.

The idea of gender equality being better for a woman stems from the fact that woman currently earn less than men on average and hold less high powered positions. However, gender equality means a lot more than equal pay or opportunities. It would mean roughly half of all workforces being female and half of the employees at every level of an organisation being female. This would require a large cultural change, but even then is it a principal worth striving for?

Women in all cultures have specific stereotypical roles because of their gender. Most prominently these roles revolve around having and raising children. After all, only women can give birth and breast feed. However, the differences are not just cultural. Through evolution, the anatomical differences have come hand-in-hand with many other physical and mental differences between the genders. Some are obvious, and other are very subtle, and not all are fully understood yet.  For example, men are larger and stronger. Women are more emotional and caring.

However, due to the diversity in a huge human population the differences in gender traits between any two individuals could be small or even overlap. For example, there are many women who are larger and stronger that many men, and many men who are more caring than many women. And this is this case with many physical and mental attributes. For this reason, in a fair society, there have to be equal opportunities between the genders. Equal opportunities allow women and men to fill roles that may have traditionally been gender specific due to stereotyping (of both what the job requires and of what the genders can offer).

However, true gender equality would fly in the face of scientific fact. For example, caring professions such as child-carers are dominated by women and physically demanding jobs like builders are dominated with men. There are good reasons for these differences based on the average differences in attributes between men and women. Any specific job would have a bias, one way or the other, due to the characteristics required for different jobs encompassing average gender differences. Although sometimes different genders can fulfil a slightly different role, on average, within the same job description, such as in the police. However, while it wouldn’t be reasonable to have a 50/50 gender divide in most workforces, there should certainly be equal opportunities. Any workforce entirely comprising a single gender is probably not doing a good job at promoting equal opportunities.

Gender equality is an impossibility due to the way we reproduce, which has impacted on our physical and mental traits. Striving for the principal of gender equality, however, may encourage organisations to take equal opportunities seriously. But, lets not delude ourselves (as seemed to be the case in the article), that this should be the actual goal.