Saturday, November 12, 2005

Anatomy of the Female Orgasm

Scientists recently proclaimed to discover the gene for the female orgasm. Ah, a perfect example of Darwinism. Thus the eminent battle of nature vs. nurture, and the many faces of sociobiology and culture.

To Darwinians all sexual behaviour ultimately serves a procreational end, reminding me of Victorians with their utilitarian view of sex. Whereas, in contrast to Victorians, the Hindu perspective is very different, exemplified in the Kama Sutra, which includes even homoerotic couplings. Is sexual behaviour that appears to be gratuitous problematic, as the Darwinians suggest?

The function of the male orgasm may be obvious; it is part of the ejaculation process, and ejaculation is an integral part of reproduction. But the female orgasm is not required to reproduce. So why do they exist? What is their evolutionary function? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

There are many diverse hypotheses proposed, from both the androcentric and gynocentric view. Desmond Morris' 'bonding' hypothesis, John Alcock's 'the good father' hypothesis, Sarah Hardy's 'paternity' hypothesis, etc. In common, they are all adaptationist explanations.

Perhaps the adaptionists, Darwinians and mostly Western biologists (even some psychologists) are also victims of "life by design", another element in the ancient Great Chain of Being. Harking back to basic evolutionary evidence and depicted in a famous plate by Haeckel (1870) that appears more recently in Ernst Mayer's book What Evolution Is, let's consider that the female orgasm has no adaptation, it has no designed function, it just 'is.' Fortuitously, I might add.

In this instance, I agree with Kinsey, the famous celebrator of human sexual behaviour, who came to that same conclusion: the female orgasm, for all of its significance, does not reflect design.

Here's one reason why:
Consider first the homogeneity of anatomical features between the early embryonic stages of most vertebrates and invertebrates: fish, salamanders, turtles, pig, cow, rabbit, and human. At the very earliest stage, we all look alike. Through recapitulation, ancestral anatomical structures follow development throughout growth of one embryo and the same structures disappear throughout development of another embryo.

Many adult organisms have structures that are fully functional or not functional at all. The appendix in humans is one example, and I suspect this is the path of the tonsils. Consider also the eyes in many cave or dark-habitat-dwelling animals. These remaining anatomical structures are vestigial, remnants of structures fully functional in their ancestors but now reduced due to changed utilization in their habitational niche. Just as embryonic similarities, recapitualation, and vestigial structures raise questions for the creationists, so do they challenge certain aspects of Darwinian biological determinism.

Keep in mind that until some moment within a few weeks after DNA from both the egg and the sperm merge, the default 'sex' (and gender) of the developing embryo is female. For a length of time in our development from the merging of the two packets of DNA, we are sexless, or as we now define it: female. Then a molecular switch happens, through the wonders of RNA activation and silencing, whereby a gene on a Y chromosome activates a cascade of sex determination.

During the development of the now sex-determined embryo, certain RNAs are silenced, others are activated influencing the development of anatomical structures. One such well-known and coveted structure is the penis. That structure still remains in the female: the male penis and the female clitoris are homologous. The latter has the same circulation and neural circuits as the penis, unless there is some alteration in development or maturity. So we can expect the clitoris to respond to stimulation in the same manner as the penis, and it does. Some women are even known to ejaculate fluid during a powerful orgasm.

Similarly, males (human and all primates) have nipples because females require them. Considering the homology of male and female nipples, males will have nipples unless an overwhelming functional fitness consequence culls that particular structure from the male phenotype. Additionally, in the same manner of the penis and clitoris, male nipples can be stimulated and sensational for men, just as they are for women. In fact, if their mammary glands developed in the right hormonal environment, they too could have potential to produce and secrete milk.

Here is where the modern evolutionists, such as SJ Gould and Elisabeth Lloyd, argued against Dawinism adaptionists: the capacity for orgasms in females is a byproduct of selection for ejaculation in males.

So women possess a 'freebie'. Really, no teleological explanation exists for female orgasms; they are an evolutionary byproduct. Instead of asking the conventional "Why-biology?", we ask the "How-biology?" question. And, of course, given our deep ingrained philosophy of design and determinism, the Western Great Chain of Being dogma, there is much resistance to the 'how-biology'; explanation. But if you dig further and think outside your Western box, you will find other 'accidental side effects' of selective forces.

"Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy."
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

So, don't ask 'why' or even 'how', just enjoy the female orgasm. It just 'is'.

Now, considering what I have proposed here, think about the context of "The Gene(s) for the Female Orgasm". Think about 'brain', psychology, culture, and gender expectations.

I propose that required reading in senior year of high school should be the Kama Sutra. I wonder how it would influence divorce statistics, the sale of Viagra, and the women's lament of 'orgasmlessness.'

1 comment:

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