Sex, Psyche and Evolution

By   Tam Hunt, J.D.

Most people now realize that sexual attraction is in the mind, even though we often forget this insight in practice. The growth of phone sex and online sex is testament to the ability of imagination to titillate as much or more than actual human contact. And the presence of pornography in all cultures throughout history is an ongoing reminder that people can be turned on by the strangest things and certainly don’t need a live human being for this purpose.

Why is sex so central to our lives? The facile answer is that it’s because we need sex to reproduce. But this is only partly true. Many species reproduce without sex, including some complex vertebrates like lizards and fish. So why do we have sex? No one really knows the answer to this question, but there are many theories. I won’t delve much into why our species reproduces sexually; rather, I’m going to delve into what sex is, as a general principle, and the role of sex in evolution. I’ll also suggest that thinking deeply about sex leads to perhaps a more general theory of evolution than natural selection.

Natural selection is the key agent in Darwinian evolution. Natural selection is the label we give to the idea that traits that confer some reproductive advantage will, by definition, spread. But Darwin didn’t stop there. His second book focused almost entirely on sexual selection, another agent of evolution. “Sexual selection” is the bridge between Darwin and Lamarck and sexual selection is Lamarckian through and through. This is not generally acknowledged by today’s biologists and it may in fact be a novel interpretation. (Darwin was a Lamarckian in many ways, but this is not commonly known).

Natural selection is supposed to be a general theory of evolution. To be a general theory of evolution, however, it seems that a theory must possess at least the following features: 1) applicable in all times and places (at least until we are forced to conclude otherwise); 2) testable; 3) falsifiable.

Sexual selection, however, is arguably a more general theory than natural selection. Historically, these two selective forces have been presented as parallel forces, but with natural selection as by far the more important force. In recent years, sexual selection has been re-framed as a subset of natural selection. In reality, of course, there is no “force” behind natural selection. It’s just physics and chemistry in action, as the sum total of environmental forces on each organism and population, so when we talk about natural selection as a force or an agent, it’s reification of a sort at work. Rather than being an actual force, natural selection is just a label we use for the collective phenomena of differential reproduction given different traits in different environments.

Sexual selection is different, however, because there really is supposed to be a selective agent at work, which may not be explained wholly through the currently conceived physical and chemical forces because the conventional view of these forces ignores, for the most part, the role of mind in nature. Contemplating evolution requires that we consider whether mind (and thus choices made by minds) can in fact be explained through current physical and chemical theories, and the degree to which mind plays a role in evolution.

Current physical theories cannot plausibly explain mind because the constituents of matter are defined by modern physics as wholly mindless. (See Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos, or Christof Koch’s 2012 book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, for extended arguments on these issues). We are thus left with a system of modern physics that seems to exclude that which is most real to each of us: ourselves, our own minds. Even though some interpretations of quantum theory appeal to the role of an “observer” in collapsing the wave function, the observer doesn’t actually have to be a conscious observer. Moreover, there is no explanation of how mind emerges or otherwise is derived from matter in quantum theory or any other branch of today’s physics.

Our own subjective awareness, our minds, surely should be included in an adequate theory of physics and the role of mind in the universe. I have, over the course of two decades in thinking about these issues, come to the view that this impasse requires the inclusion of mind, in a highly rudimentary form, in all forms of matter. This view is known generally as panpsychism.

Under this view, as matter complexifies, the tiny bit of mind in each little piece of matter complexifies and eventually reaches our highly complex type of mind due to the highly complex matter that comprises our brains and bodies. There is nothing necessarily mystical about panpsychism. Rather than positing the emergence of mind at some seemingly arbitrary level of complexity, as the conventional view suggests (whether that level of complexity at which mind emerges is cats, bats, rats, bacteria or what have you), panpsychism suggests instead that there are at least some rudimentary mind qualities present in even the simplest forms of matter. As matter complexifies, so mind complexifies. Rather than posit an arbitrary moment of emergence, ontogenetically and phylogenetically, as is the case in the conventional notion of mind in relation to matter, panpsychism simply re-defines matter to include some rudimentary subjectivity, all the way down.

This raises the question: how did we, and life forms like us, reach such a high level of complexity? How did we evolve? This is where evolutionary biology and the philosophy of mind intersect.

If we acknowledge that all matter has some degree of mind, no matter how small, we realize that choice must be inherent in all matter. This is the case because mind without some kind of choice seems to be contradictory: the essence of mind is the selection (choice) between alternative courses of action made available through perception of the universe around us. Mind without choice would be simply a passive observer and have no causal role. If we accept that mind has a causal role, as it certainly seems to based on the abundant evidence from our own lives, we can reasonably infer that some rudimentary choice-making ability plus some rudimentary perceptive ability are key features of even rudimentary consciousness.

One of today’s preeminent physicists, Freeman Dyson (Professor Emeritus at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the same institution where Einstein resided for a number of years before his death in 1955) makes this point explicit: “[T]he processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.”[i]

What Dyson is saying is that what physicists normally interpret in electron behavior, an extremely rudimentary type of matter, as pure chance is better interpreted as choice. Choice, not chance. Choices can be fickle, so what seems to be random is in fact a result of unpredictable choices by these tiny entities. Thus, even electrons make choices, but these are very simple choices compared to the infinity of choices possible to our advanced human consciousness. Choice at the level of the electron is apparently limited to how the electron will manifest and move in the next moment. Particles such as electrons are not static, timeless entities. Thinking of the fundamental constituents of reality as unchanging particles is the fallacy of substantialism that the panpsychist approach attempts to correct.

If choice is inherent at the level of electrons, a universal principle of evolution is made apparent. I call this universal principle “generalized agentic selection,” or “generalized sexual selection.” The essence of sexual selection is choice–female choice (generally, but not always), to be more specific, as Darwin described in The Descent of Man. Darwin recognized that many traits, such as the peacock’s tail, could not be explained strictly through natural selection. Rather, female choice led to pronounced features in males who competed for females’ attention, so Darwin argued.

To be entirely clear, the peacock’s tail is not considered adaptive because its weight and size make it harder for male peacocks to escape predators and to forage for food. But if the tail’s disadvantages are outweighed by increased mating opportunities for the male who carries the showy burden, it will continue as a trait in male peacocks.

Darwin’s division of natural selection and sexual selection into two distinct agents of evolution, which continues to this day, is not, however, warranted when we think through what’s really going on. There are some major problems with natural selection as a theory of evolution. Generalized agentic selection (GAS) may solve these problems in an elegant way. Here’s why.

The simple structure of natural selection theory has just two parts: 1) random variation of traits (based on random mutation of genes); 2) “selection” of those traits through increased offspring of the parents bearing traits that confer a survival or reproductive advantage. (Again, there is not really any “selection” going on, but the end result is “as if” there was some selection process).

The problems with this two-part structure can be summarized quickly: 1) truly random variation is highly unlikely to lead to the adaptive traits we see in nature, even over the course of billions of years because beneficial mutations are so rare; 2) “natural selection” as a theory is unhelpful because it is either tautological or it is highly provisional in nature and needs way more data to support it before it can be considered a general theory of evolution.

GAS can help this situation, in the following re-framing: 1) variation in traits comes about through male competition for mating opportunities and striving of males, more generally, to improve themselves, which can sometimes be incorporated into the germ line of the male[ii]; 2) female choice is the selective agent that leads to greater reproduction of those males with the most desirable traits to the females who choose them, incorporating their germ line into their own. In other words, variation is not random, it is directed, with increasing mating opportunities as a significant motivation, and an innate desire for survival and other desires surely at work also in this complex process. Perhaps more importantly, selection is not blind, it is conscious at every level of nature through the conscious choices made generally by females in terms of mate selection.

I call this generalized agentic selection because it applies to situations that don’t involve sex in the traditional sense. Most species on our planet don’t reproduce sexually. Bacteria, for example, often reproduce asexually, as do protists. And even many vertebrates reproduce asexually, such as certain species of lizards and fish. However, bacteria are constantly exchanging genetic information, which is a rudimentary kind of sex, which I define at this level as the mixing of genetic information from at least two entities. This type of sex is known as “horizontal gene transfer” because it occurs without simultaneous reproduction.

Bacteria seem to transfer genes spontaneously, giving rise to many problems in defining species of bacteria. If individuals and populations are constantly exchanging genes directly, how can we define each species as a semi-stable collection of genotypes and consequent phenotypes (the most sensible definition of “species”)? The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this essay, but it presents an interesting current question in biology.

But here’s why GAS applies beyond traditional sexual reproduction. The terms “male” and “female” are not as clearcut as we generally assume. And in GAS, “male” refers to any genetic donor and “female” to any genetic recipient, as Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan describe in their 1986 book, The Origins of Sex. Thus, a bacterium that gives some genetic material to another is a male and the recipient is a female. These roles can and do change on a regular basis, thus the “gender” of each bacterium changes regularly. What is important, then, is not gender, per se, but actions.

The principle extends even deeper, however, when we consider further the panpsychist notion of matter. If all matter has some degree of mind or subjectivity, as it must if we are to avoid the “and a miracle occurs” crude materialist explanation of consciousness that is currently popular, then GAS applies to literally all matter, not just biological life forms. This is the case because the most sophisticated panpsychist thinking, that of Alfred North Whitehead (Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, Adventures of Ideas) and his intellectual descendants, recognizes each of the ultimate constituents of matter–what Whitehead calls “actual entities”–as oscillating between a subjective aspect and an objective aspect in each moment. Thus, physical and mental aspects of each unit of reality oscillate with each step forward in time. This oscillation is extremely rapid.

This moment-to-moment-to-moment process of perpetual creation is Whitehead’s “creative advance.” The mental aspect of each actual entity is informed by the immediately prior physical aspects of all other actual entities available to it. Each actual entity, in its mental aspect, chooses what information to accept and rejects everything else. Thus, the mental aspect of each actual entity can be considered to be “female” insofar as it chooses what information from the universe around it to include in its objective manifestation–like the female bower bird accepting the attention of a hard-working showy male. By “objective,” I mean the entity is now available as a datum for other actual entities in their mental, subjective, aspects. When the actual entity becomes objective, it becomes “male” insofar as its manifestation now constitutes information for the next round of actual entities to consider in their mental/female aspect.

Wipe your brow as I wrap up this essay. GAS is a potentially powerful re-framing of evolution in a way that recognizes the unbroken continuum of the complexity of matter, which is inherently experiential/subjective all the way up and down. I won’t delve into further details about the testability and falsifiability of GAS here, but it is my view that GAS presents a more adequate theory of evolution than the prevailing adaptationist view of natural selection–which generally denies the role of mind and choice in evolution beyond a supplementary role in shaping certain sexual traits a la traditional sexual selection theory.

Sexual selection theory was for the first hundred years after Darwin first proposed his theory in 1872 largely ignored. In the last 20 or so years, however, it has experienced a resurgence of interest and scholarship. Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock and Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind are excellent reviews of current thinking in this area. So sexual selection theory is making something of a comeback. However, because it is generally grouped as a type of natural selection, most biologists have not considered the implications of sexual selection and the role of mind in nature to the degree that is warranted.

Mind/choice/subjectivity is the missing ingredient in the secret sauce of evolutionary theory. GAS is an attempt to provide that missing ingredient.

See my 2012 paper, “The Middle Way of Evolution” for some more detail on GAS and my 2014 paper, “Reconsidering the Logical Structure of the Theory of Natural Selection” for more on the problems with natural selection theory. Last, see my 2014 collection of essays, Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays in Philosophy, Spirituality and Science for more on panpsychism and its implications for philosophy, biology and physics.

Tam Hunt is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist. He lives in Santa Barbara and is a

[i]   Dyson, 1979, Disturbing the Universe. A similar point is made by Bohm and Hiley (1993, pp. 384-387).

[ii] There is, contrary to the popular view, abundant evidence that somatic changes acquired during an organism’s lifetime can sometimes be incorporated into the germ cells. See Lamarck’s Signature, by Robert Steele, et al., for a good introduction, as well as Jablonka and Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions. The most recent work in this area seems to be from Laura Landweber’s lab at Princeton University:

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