Book Plug: “Time, Sex and Power”

March 31, 2011

A few years ago, on a whim, I picked up a copy of Sex, Time and Power at the used bookstore (I think mainly because it had a naked lady on the cover, which of course is perfect ;)).

I took it home, shelved it, and never touched it again.  Last weekend, though, I moved to my awesome new apartment (well, as awesome as it can be when full of cardboard boxes), and while unpacking I of course had to pick it up again and remember that I had it.

This time I opened it up.  It’s rocking my world.  I won’t finish unpacking for a while.

Imagine hybridizing Wild at Heart with Double Your Dating and then running it through the scientific analytical wringer.  It’s written by an MD who’s also an (avid amateur) anthropologist.  He’s the same fellow as who wrote The Goddess Versus the Alphabet, which explores the phenomenon of ancient cultures tending to have stopped worshiping goddesses around the same time when they discovered writing.

It all started when he was in medical school and essentially asked:

“What the heck is up with this monthly menstrual bleeding business?

Not one other species does it, so why would homo sapiens [or “gyna sapiens”] evolve to start doing it?  Blood is “expensive” because it requires animal iron to replace, as our guts are nearly unable to get iron from plants.  That and predators can smell blood from a mile away.

So how exactly is this advantageous?”

It snowballs from there.  The book is two inches thick, and I’m only a quarter-inch into it, so I can only review its “build-up”, not its conclusions.

One of its angles is to contemplate the fact that human females are the first in natural history to understand that sex leads to pregnancy, which also just so happens to be far more dangerous and deadly for them than for any other species.  It has to do with the fact that human babies, evolutionarily speaking, “want” the biggest brains and heads that they can possibly get, which unfortunately also causes them to more severely wound their mothers during delivery, sometimes fatally.

Big-headed babies, even those that occasionally killed their mothers, were still an evolutionarily-advantageous “good deal” for the species in the aggregate.  Things got way more complicated, though, when women’s brains were also big enough to consciously connect the dots: sex -> pregnancy -> possible injury or death.

Even salamanders understand that death bad, so what’s a species to do when each of its females has a damned good reason to avoid reproducing?

Some clues:

To start, human females also happen to have the strongest ability to willfully say “no” to sex, even when fertile.  They also have more-than-typical interest in sex when they’re not fertile.  And finally, they’re the first to not even know when they’re fertile in the first place.

Etc, etc.  The rabbit hole just keeps on going.

The Grand Unifying Theory that explains it all comes later, or at least I sure hope it does.  For now, all I have is this excellent meta-argument that an extremely important (perhaps the defining) evolutionary crisis for our species was endured and solved solely on the female side of the family.  Us menfolk have been reacting to it even since.

4 Responses to “Book Plug: “Time, Sex and Power””

  1. Steuard Says:

    Hold on, hold on. Human females are the first animals to have interest in sex when not fertile? Really? To take one example, I thought that bonobos of both genders have lots of sex as a social activity. I how many other exceptions there are (if any), but missing this one makes me a bit dubious about the author’s knowledge base.

    • craigrmeyer Says:

      That was me going too far. The author knows better.

      As I remember more critically, outside The Bonobo Exception, your typical female primate (in particular those closest to people) isn’t particularly interested in sex when she’s not ovulating. On the other hand, when she is ovulating, she crazy-gotta-have-it. Human females are quite different.

    • craigrmeyer Says:

      You know what, this is really interesting Steuard. I think we’re stumbling in the direction of a great point here.

      Bonobo’s do have sex a lot. The females say yes or no to it in order to control males. ALSO, it’s obvious when the females are fertile, so they know when they’re f#$%ing for fun and profit, and when they’re f#$%ing for keeps/offspring.

      So the alpha males and females know when various females can be on the own time, and when they need to be taken out of general circulation.

      Now. I’ve already overstepped my bounds in terms of claiming to have knowledge about bonobo’s, but there’s something going on here…

      • Steuard Says:

        Yeah, it makes me wonder just how different human society would be if women always knew exactly when they were fertile. And, hmm, within the past 50 years or so, we’ve actually *reached* that point to a substantial degree. I’m surprisingly intrigued.

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