Robin Baker, Ph.D., Sperm Wars: the Science of Sex. Basic Books (HarperCollins). 319 pages
review by Otto Steinmayer
Sex is the best subject. Sperm Wars is the best book on the best subject. I say without hesitation that out of all the books I have read during the past ten years, of whatever type, novel, tract or poem, Sperm Wars has impressed me as the most enlightening, the wisest, and the most useful to me personally. No matter how much you may have thought about sex, or have read about sex, you will find astonishing surprises here, and whatever your sexual experience, you will find much here to explain what you do.
Most of us would rate sex as the chief of life’s pleasures, and for most people this appetite, at some period in their lives, becomes so strong as to eclipse everything else. Yet our sexuality is a puzzle to us—urgent, necessary, but seemingly irrational. If we are seeking pleasure, why do we so often get into trouble? why do we often find pain? We feel a mystery to ourselves.
Robin Baker is biologist at the University of Manchester. He and his colleague Mark Bellis had the wit to ask not only the common questions, but went further: what purpose does this variety of sexual behaviour serve? The result was, after eight years of research, their magnificent Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation , and Infidelity. Then, to make the conclusions accessible to non-specialists, Baker wrote Sperm Wars.
We human beings are products of evolution. People talk about evolution as if it was something that happened a million years ago, but it goes on just as vigorously today. The way Darwin’s insight is usually quoted—“survival of the fitttest”—conceals the truth of it. It’s not survival that is important, it is reproduction. If a creature can survive up to the point of successful procreation, then it can go die. The genes have been passed on. Think of the salmon, who go up the rivers of their birth to spawn and die. Chickens, whom you can still find in their original wild state in Malaysian belukar, settle for living among human beings, who eat them, but who assure their reproduction under biologically enviable conditions.
By a very simple logic, every single one of us is
the offspring of
ancestors who survived to reproduce. Nothing succeeds like success, and
the programme that made our ancestors win the prize of reproduction has
come down to make us, too, avid to prevail.
As in business, where entrepreneurs get together, some fail, some succeed, and the successful compete among themselves even harder. Since we are all the latest in a long line of successful forebears, you can imagine that the competition where we each try to hand down our own genes is pretty fierce. Baker’s thesis is exactly this: our sexual biology, which includes behaviour, has been shaped by millions of years of intense competition.
Consider first body-form. Human males will be proud to learn that not only relatively, but absolutely, the human penis is the biggest of all primate penises. But the magnitude did not evolve for their private symbolic satisfaction. Other evolutionary forces brought it about that human beings have big brains; big brains mean big heads. When a baby is born, the mother’s vagina must be wide enough to let its head out. So, big vagina, big penis to fit.
There’s more to it. The human penis, with its
good fit and large glans,
makes an excellent piston for sucking matter out of the vagina, not
only to clean out old secretions and keep it fresh, but to pull out other
males’ sperm which may actually, or potentially have been deposited
there. (You may see, incidentally, that men owe their habit of
thrusting during copulation to the same reason.)
The popular “lottery theory”, where one sperm out
of 200 million gets
the egg, is a small part of the story. Only 1% or so of sperm in a
man’s ejaculate are intended for the job of fertilizing the egg. The
greatest part of a man’s sperm are killers, sperm that are programmed
to search out and destroy other men’s sperm cells. The remainder, old
and what used to be called “misshapen” sperm, function as blockers,
gumming up channels where rival sperm might want to enter.
Just as men compete for sexual favours, their sperm itself competes for the chance to fertilize the egg. This is sperm warfare. It operates in birds and mammals, and in our species, too.
Do not believe this supports the patriarchal view that it is the males only who compete, warring with sperm in a passive vessel. Women’s bodies have considerable control over the outcome of sperm wars, and the logic for this is a simple business logic.
Sperm is plentiful and cheap. One man, in the course of a few weeks, creates enough of it to fertilize (in theory) half the women on the planet. Eggs are rare and expensive, and a woman’s role in reproduction is enormously more onerous than the man’s. As Baker says “what is best for one partner is very often not best for the other.” It makes sense, then, that women, like investors, consider carefully what genetic material is going to give them the best return. Evolution has given the woman the means as well as the necessity to be choosy. Through her orgasm, a woman has considerable say in who fertilizes her. A woman’s body may change its mind even when an egg has been fertilized; it may simply fail to implant.
Women also have the advantage in that it is impossible for a man to tell when a woman is ready to ovulate. Women themselves can’t tell. There are no signs; even sexual appetite—and mood changes—are randomly distributed through the menstrual cycle. The strategy of a woman’s body is to deceive and confuse. This allows her her choice, and keeps a mate faithful, because he cannot know the moment critical for insemination. Routine sex is for a man a strategy to keep his sperm in her against any eventuality of sperm warfare.
While everybody knows that men are meant
to be unfaithful, what
Baker describes as the central fact of sexual choice will surely enrage
many people: infidelity is an integral part of both male and female
sexual nature. This conclusion is repugnant to coventional morality,
but we may see there’s even an ecological reason for that repugnance
The option of infidelity is one we have inherited from evolution. Again, to view reproduction as if it were business, sperm is cheap, and when a man spreads it far and wide he may potentially get a good reproductive return on his spending. Women face more difficult choices. Some men make good providers and helpers; but these may not be the men with the best genes. Hence the classic strategy: get a good husband, and then cheat on him.
Recent studies show that between 4 to 10% of children born to married couples were fathered by a man other than the one the mother was married to. They are products of sperm warfare.
Other results of Baker’s research are similarly
some—disturbing. Masturbation, as recently as when I was a boy, was
considered to be a perversion, harmless, but “unnatural.” In fact
masturbation performs highly important functions for both men and
women. When men masturbate, they shed older sperm and move fresh and
vigorous sperm to a position of readiness. In women, masturbation helps
maintain the health of the womb, always under threat from predatory
bacteria, by regulating the state of the cervical mucus, the barrier
Oral sex (so underappreciated in Singapore) we have always thought of as merely recreational. Yet the tasting and smelling of genitals allows a man and a woman to judge of each other first if they are healthy, and second, whether one or the other has been unfaithful.
Again, as in business, when everybody is competing to do the same thing, get an edge by doing something a little different. There are many strategies for reproductive success. Bisexual men and women have such an edge. A bisexual man is often sexually wiser earlier than his straight counterpart, a bisexual woman has even better control over her ability to select by orgasm. If (and Baker has me convinced) bisexuality is an adaptation coded in our genes, then exclusive homosexuality, a behaviour that brings reproductive failure, can be explained as the genetic overabundance of bisexual adaptive instructions.
Thus even homosexuality is perfectly in the order of nature. So, too, is homophobia. The principal of that is “eliminate the competition.” The same operates in sexual hypocrisy of all kinds. For example, good masturbators are dangerous rivals. If you’re not optimally adapted for sperm warfare, make masturbation shameful, drive it underground, and you even up the chances.
To finish the business metaphor, reproduction is
as much about risk as
about success. Our bodies calculate the harms and benefits of each
possibility. If you’ve got a quality product, you stick with it. If
you’re unsure of your line, diversify; but if you joint-venture with
the wrong partner, you may (literally, in this time of AIDS) be wiped
Sperm Wars is spectacularly rich in insights, of which the above are only a few. Baker structures his book around a series of dramatic scenes, each illustrating a facet of sexual behaviour, followed by a commentary. In some of these scenes Baker writes with such understanding of how men and women get along, or don’t, that I was moved to tears by the pathos. Every novelist could learn from Sperm Wars.
Lest you think that Baker gives most of his approval to “alternative” reproductive strategies, check out the scene “Total Success” that closes the book.
To many readers, most if not all of Baker’s
theory may seem
reductionist, another story of how a cynical nature manipulates us to
get what it wants, the continuance of life without caring whether that
life is good or bad. I take the opposite view. First of all, what would
life be without biological imperatives? What would we do?
Without sexuality, human life would be remarkably dull. There would be
none of what we call the finer things of life, all affection and all
delight whatsoever, whether sensual, moral or intellectual being
connected with eros.
Without sex, I doubt there would be complex life like ours at all. No creature is immortal. To carry on life and know the good things, we must accept the conditions of nature, which are struggle and pain. Nobody said it isn’t hard—but isn’t being dead much easier than living?
We are not, I believe, the dupes of nature,
hapless vessels of “selfish
genes.” This became clear to me when after reading Baker I considered
my own sexual life, and I understood how my conscious mind cooperated
astonishingly well with my body to devise and successfully carry out,
even in tiny details, a strategy to court a mate and beget a child.
If energy is any sign of good genes, my kid, who is nuclear-powered, must have gotten the cream of what my and his mother’s lineage had to offer.
Body, biological urges, instincts, genes—I see no
conflict of interests
between my genes and me, that conscious and temporary creature. My
genes want to perpetuate themselves; but the truth is that if I don’t
make it, they don’t make it.
Furthermore I, as a human individual, care not only about passing on my genes, I have an inheritance to leave. This is my history, knowledge, wisdom, whatever I have gotten through experience I do not want to be lost. It is transmissable only through teaching and learning, and that can happen to its fullest only in the sphere of the family, that is bonded by genetics, a more than an accidental relationship. This may be what we call “love.”
It took my breath away to understand the sound
sense of a drive and
urge I had cursed as blind and painful. I am grateful to my biology for
helping me succeed in this. Together we pulled through. And I am very
grateful indeed to Robin Baker for having shown me just how well I did.
Read him and you, whether woman or man, may feel the same.
Note: Sperm Wars may not yet be available in Malaysian bookshops. A paper edition is due out in November. If anyone wishes to order the hardbound edition through their bookseller, the ISBN (standard book number) is 0-465-08179-7.