The Importance of Sex in Education29 November, 2008
Sometimes I think that I have way too many conversations with theists. Actually, I think I just have way too many contacts with theists. Unfortunately, I live in the United States of America, so theists of the fundogelical bent are all too common. Fortunately, I live in the United States where, by law (if not by actual practice) I have equal rights despite my non-belief.
One of the biggest problems in America is poor education (and it is also one of the reasons that fundamentalist, dominionist, evangelical Christianity is so prevalent here). Our science curricula is, if taught well, mediocre. If taught by the Book, it is execrable. A conversation with a friend of mine, a born-again Christian, reinforced this a few days ago.
We were discussing our respective ancestries (I am a mutt: English, German, Polish, French Huguenot, Scots Irish, a smidge of Italian and maybe some Abnaki Indian). He said, “Well, I thought your ancestor was a fish who decided to sprout legs and crawl up out of the ocean.”
I did a great imitation of a fish out of water for a moment and then said, “That is breathtakingly stupid.”
“Why? I thought you believed in evolution.”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution. Evolution is a theory which explains both the modern world and the fossils. Belief would mean that I thought something true with no evidence. Or ignoring contrary evidence.”
“Then how would a fish become a lizard?”
I launched lecture mode (my kids will testify that I really do this (frequently)). I explained (as best I could) the idea of random mutations making it more likely that an animal survives. Slightly better colouration. Longer fins. Shorter fins. Over millions of years, blah, blah, blah.
His eyes glazed over. I lost him (this time (and for this conversation)).
Driving home this evening, something struck me. Sex. It’s all about sex. Well, a superior survival adaptation will help an individual survive, but unless the survivor can attract a mate, the trait will not be passed on to the next generation. Unless the mutant breeds, the species cannot benefit.
In the 1970s, I remember reading about the outlandish headgear of the hadrosaurs and ceratopsians. In these older books (most likely from the 1950s), this was presented as an example of the decay of the dinosaurs — they had reached a point in which progress stopped, and ornamentation was emblematic of this senescence. The old age of the dinosaurs.
Now, thanks to Bakker and others, I view the ornamentation through the lens of sex. Evolution is not the survival of the fittest, it is survival of the sexiest. Who gets to breed? The males who can impress the females: the strongest elk with the biggest rack, the Parasauralophus with the biggest sounding tube, the grizzly with the biggest hump, the bird with the biggest bower, the giraffe with the longest neck, the Cardinal with the reddest plumage, the human male with the most resources.
What changes faster — the basic structure (skeletal, muscular, cognitive, respiratory) or the sexual dimorphic characteristics (plumage colour, antlers, sounding apparatus, horns)? Evolution works both fast and slow. The evolution of fin to leg took millions and millions of years. But among the early lungfishes, I would expect that secondary sex characteristics changed within a few thousand years. Minor changes, to be sure. Minor changes based upon diet would also, of course, be a part of this, but could beak size and shape among the Galapagos finches be reinforced by sexual selection on the part of the females?
As a child, I always felt that something was missing from the lesson plans. Science, history and literature all seemed incomplete. Sex was missing. Biology without sex makes no sense — it is just mechanical processes. History without the peccadilloes of royalty — the pressures brought to bear by mistresses and/or prospective mates — lacks a key ingredient. Literature cleansed of sex is incomplete if not downright boring.
Our attempts to protect our children, sheltering their minds from the reality of sex, has stunted our intellectual growth. By denying even the existence of the sexual drive among adults, by denying the decisions made which are based upon sex, by denying the evolutionary shaping of sex, the American education system creates adults with a stunted sense of history, literature and science. Because sex is (except for ‘sex-ed’ classes) hidden and denied, the average American student is denied the tools to understand the mechanisms which make evolution work.
My friend does not understand the theory of evolution. And I suspect that the reason he does not understand is lack of sex in his education. The education I received through some very good public schools taught about sex only in one very, very isolated class. It was denied in all other appropriate situations. Without an understanding of sex, evolution becomes disconnected facts.
Modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, following in the mental footsteps of the great misogynist Augustine, continues to deny our sexual history and sexual reality. The conservative Christian influence within public schools denies biology and human nature. By forcing their narrow world-view upon the rest of us, they handicap America. But they also insure future church members who, of course, provide the donations.