Monday, December 26, 2005

Are men necessary?

My wife is reading Maureen Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary?, a Christmas gift from one of our two daughters. I am confident all three women would answer Dowd's title question in the affirmative. At least, I hope so.

For me, Dowd's title evokes a book published a generation ago by the humorists James Thurber and E. B. White, called Is Sex Necessary? That title question, too, was not entirely frivolous, and any biologist can tell you the answer: No.

Sex is a terribly inefficient way to go about the business of reproduction, fraught with dangers, blind alleys, and wasted resources. Humans are so preoccupied with sex that we tend to overlook the fact that life would be much simpler without it.

I'm not talking about abstinence, but about asexual methods of reproduction -- cloning, or sending out shoots, or parthenogenesis (reproduction by means of unfertilized eggs, seeds, or spores). Even certain vertebrates get along with only one gender.

What a lot of energy we waste, as a species, thinking about sex, talking about it, and doing it. And apparently it's not much different with the birds and the bees. Given all the fuss and bother, biologists wonder why sex evolved at all, and what sort of evolutionary pressures maintain it.

Perhaps Thurber and White got it right. According to those tongue-in-cheek philosophers, males and females have always sought, by one means or another, to be together rather than apart. At first they were together by the simple expedient of being unicellular. Later, in the course of evolution, the cell separated, "for reasons which are not clear even today, although there is considerable talk." The two halves of the original cell have been searching for an appropriate other-half ever since.