Birth, Death, Sex, Awe, and Mars - Blog#18 - 7 June 2019
Birth, and conception itself are miraculous, even if you don’t believe in miracles. Awesome on three counts: that males and females exist in the first place, are sexually attracted so irresistibly, and can produce new life. And when that new life is ready, the very process of birth is wondrous in itself. With less impactful events, we can get so used to the world around us, so desensitized, that we lose appreciation for the commonplace facets of our existence, the dandelions in the lawn. We need to step back, and ask: “What if X, Y, or Z never was, but suddenly became, manifesting itself in reality for the first time?” We thereby access awe and wonder, and a connection with the beauty of nature, even for the mundane. Awe comes easier with the biggies like birth, gazing into the depths of the Grand Canyon, or the cascading plunge of Niagara Falls just downstream from my childhood home. When we contemplate the intricacies of nature while examining the underside of a leaf or the uniqueness of snowflakes or fingerprints, we connect to the “All.” Existence itself, and the wonders of life, consciousness, and love, and the fact that they even exist in the first place, leaves us awestruck, and on the doorstep of gratitude. When the newborn is your grandson, and he sports all ten toes, you cry buckets of gratitude. Genetic and biologic roulette have smiled upon you, and the frightening hammer has not descended. You feel all the more connected to your daughter and her mate, thankful to be included in this awesome unfolding. And then you hold that tiny, fragile human being, and witness your daughter nursing him contentedly, and experience the connectedness we call love, and the full meaning of the big picture. And there they are, in one experience, three of the most basic spiritual emotions: awe, gratitude, and love.
Whether you are religious or not, awe is spiritual fuel. Spirituality is about connectedness, and consciousness, particularly the emotions we experience as we contemplate our awareness of the universe and our connectedness with it. We can deliberately access these emotions, or virtues (they can be viewed through either lens) typically associated with spirituality. We can begin with awe, gratitude, humility, and love. These are virtues because they are aspirational, i.e., something we value, but they are emotions as well, and spiritual, because they connect us to our surroundings. Experiencing awe allows us to rise above the boredom associated with our gradual desensitization to our surroundings. Gratitude allows us to move beyond negativity, entitlement, and greed. Humility moves us beyond the narcissistic confines of pride. And love conquers alienation and anger.
Awe is perhaps the most basic spiritual emotion. It moves us beyond egotism, beyond the narrow confines of the self, as we experience the vastness and complexity of the universe. It invites humility, as we acknowledge our small place amidst the vastness of the “All.” And we experience wonder, over the complicated mechanics of the universe. As we age, and circle the drain of death, we see ourselves recreated in our offspring, and in their offspring, and marvel at the cycle of life. Unless we manufacture fantasies of immortality (with a side dish of bliss), we are limited to mortality with a consolation prize: genetic quasi-immortality via the generations that follow us. Life goes on, without and beyond us, but we have a role in fathering and furthering life.
Reproduction maintains life. Animals and plants are markedly different from inorganic matter: Life involves growth, change, and functional activities. And unlike the average rock, living things reproduce. Reproduction is the start of life, the regeneration of life, without which, species, and life itself, would cease. We can also stand in awe before the myriad variations of reproduction. I don’t know about you, but as a teenager, I never got a “Birds and Bees” talk, and as an oldest child, I had to figure it out on my own, with a censored library, no internet, and the limited help of my fellow uninformed friends. Girls changed, hormones got louder, new rules emerged, and the world turned upside down for a few years. Eventually it made sense, and I adapted. Becoming a professional psychologist, and an amateur philosopher, helped me put it in perspective, but that was much later. Early on, we studied reproduction in school, but it was a task, an academic chore, without the awe it holds when I revisit it now. But perhaps it’s worth a second peek, especially after the appearance of Teddy, Luke, and Marsden (you can call him Mars) in my life.
The sheer variation in reproductive strategies amongst plants and animals is astounding, even before we add the question of how these life-renewal techniques arose in the first place. To begin with, we have sexual versus asexual reproduction. The sexual version combines genetic material from two parents, whereas in asexual reproduction, a single organism produces a nearly exact copy of itself, without any genetic input/fertilization from another. Asexual reproduction has some clear advantages: it can be accomplished without a partner, and can be quite rapid, allowing a species to multiply quickly in a given environment. But sexual reproduction has an evolutionary advantage. It blends genetic material from two parents, producing unique individuals, and a genetically diversified species. This diversity provides more strategies for a species to adapt to a challenging environment, more possibilities for natural selection.
Sexual reproduction can involve either internal or external fertilization. Internal fertilization, usually via some type of sexual intercourse, results in a zygote being formed inside the female, where it is carried until a live birth in mammals, though birds and some lizards lay the fertilized egg and incubate it until it hatches. External fertilization is typical in species that live in the water, and amongst many plants. The female lays the eggs in the water, which keeps them from drying out, and the male sprays sperm over the eggs, though the resulting zygotes must fend for themselves without parental protection.
Many groups of animals, primarily invertebrates, do not have separate sexes, but nonetheless engage in sexual reproduction, in which either partner can act as a male or as a female. A hermaphrodite has both male and female sexual organs, and can thereby produce either male or female gametes to unite with complementary gametes to form a zygote. Many earthworms, slugs and snails, and most plants are hermaphroditic. Take a moment, and imagine how this would alter the human social scene! Simultaneous hermaphrodites have fully functional male as well as female genitalia, while sequential hermaphrodites are born as one sex, but can change into the opposite sex, without enrolling at a transsexual clinic. Clownfish, those colorful white-banded orange fish of cartoon fame, live in symbiosis with sea anemones. Typically, a given anemone contains a “harem” involving a large female, as well as smaller reproducing and non-reproducing males. If the female dies or departs the harem, one of the largest males will move up the hierarchy and become a female, and another male will fertilize her. Simultaneous hermaphrodites, such as banana slugs, can hook up, fertilize each other, and each lay fertilized eggs, but in the absence of a partner, they can resort to asexual reproduction, and self-fertilize. What a trump card if you are painfully shy, or find relationships unsafe!
In plants, sexual and asexual reproduction can occur, and hermaphrodism is common. The reproductive organs can be present on separate male and female plants (dioecious plants such as the kiwi or holly), or a single plant can have both male and female parts (monoecious). In the latter, the male and female structures can be located on separate flowers (e.g., pumpkins), or each individual flower can be hermaphroditic (e.g., tomatoes and hibiscus). Hermaphroditic plants bloom flowers containing both male, pollen-producing structures (stamens and anthers) and female parts (the pistil, with its stigma, style, and ovary). These plants can self-pollinate (though this reduces genetic diversity), or cross-pollinate, in each case producing a seed that recreates life. But cross-pollination requires a vector, such as the wind, or a pollinator. To increase genetic diversity, plants have evolved impressive sexual strategies to attract pollinators to spread pollen between species members, including variations in flower shape, color, and fragrance. In a win-win relationship, pollinators such as bees obtain nutritious nectar and pollen in the bargain. As a young teenager, who knew that sex and reproduction could be so varied and complicated? But then again, bees and colorful flowers create an apt analogy for teenage dating.
But the best is often saved for last. My favorite reproduction story, and the one that captivates most children, is the butterfly and caterpillar cycle. Butterflies display “metamorphosis,” a massive transformation of self, involving distinct, separate stages. In the first stage, butterflies lay fertilized eggs, usually on the leaves of plants. When the tiny caterpillar hatches from the egg, it is a voracious eater, gobbling up the leaves. Its exoskeleton (skin) cannot stretch, so the caterpillar must molt, developing new skin several times as it grows. At full size, the caterpillar creates a pupa, or chrysalis around itself. Its body undergoes remarkable changes, a metamorphosis into a butterfly. It eventually emerges from the chrysalis, with wet, soft, folded wings, exhausted, but after a few hours of rest, it learns to fly. It then learns to find food (feeding on and pollinating flowers along the way) and a mate (for sexual intercourse), and lays its fertilized eggs, completing the life cycle that fascinates us all.
So there it is, the 8th grade essay I should have been assigned. Hopefully there aren’t too many biology or botany majors in the crowd to rip up the details. But regardless, the issue is family connectedness, and the spiritual awe, gratitude, and love we experience when we add a new family member and grow the future. Welcome to Mars.
Marsden Patrick - May 15, 2019
“One Hour” - 2019
For more thoughts on spirituality, psychology, anthropocentrism, and even photography go to Amazon.com to obtain the print or e-Book version of Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices. Chapter Highlights of the book are found on the Beyond Atheism page of this website
Coming for Summer Solstice - June 21, 2019
Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotions
Edward Chandler, Ph.D.
A freestanding self-help book.
My readers can obtain a free e-copy of
Psychomechanics – Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotions
during the first three days of its appearance on Amazon. A print version of Psychomechanics also will be sold on Amazon for $12.95.