Propagation, fission, mitosis – since the dawn of time, things have been reproducing in one way or another. It’s what makes the world go round. Keeps DNA moving from one generation to the next. Keeping the cycle of life alive and well.
Then we look at sex as we know it. Incredibly fun and pleasurable, billions of dollars worth of industries built around it, one of the biggest components in many of our relationships. How did we get from a cell dividing into two to this?
While reproduction may be the driving force behind many of our sexual needs, sex has evolved way past that. Many people don’t even want to reproduce or don’t have sex with partners they can biologically reproduce with. So how did we get here? How was sex as we know it invented?
So, who were the first creatures to get down and dirty? The answer lies under the sea. But first a quick biology lesson.
We’ve got two main types of reproduction – sexual, and asexual. And the former doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. Simply put, sexual reproduction creates a unique offspring from the genetic material of two parents, while in asexual reproduction an organism creates a genetically identical offspring by copying itself.
Back in the day (and we mean way back), all organisms were capable of asexual reproduction. Somewhere down the line cells evolved and came up with gametes, or haploid cells which carry only half the genetic material needed to reproduce versus all of it.
This means instead of self-multiplying, organisms needed to pair with other organisms to make a complete set of chromosomes. Aka, sexual reproduction.
The Land Before Time
Sexual reproduction can be as simple as pollen moving around and sprouting baby plants left and right. But when did *actual sex* start?
We’re gonna hop in the way back machine to a Scottish Lake 385 million years ago where the fossilized remains of a fish named Microbrachius dicki have left the oldest evidence of penetrative sex on planet Earth. Before you blame scientists for their immaturity in naming said fossils, we’d like to point out that it was named after the Scottish man, Robert Dick, who dug up little dicki’s remains.
Scientific studies done on the fossils showed a “bony L-shaped genital limb” used to transfer sperm from males to females, named the clasper. They also found “small paired bones” meant to hold the male organs during – shall we call it sex? This groundbreaking study found the earliest known example of copulation and internal fertilization.
Unlike the many sexual positions we have available to us as humans these days, these fish most likely copulated by swimming side by side with their interlocked – sort of like square dancing.
A Path to Pleasure
This freaky fish brought a new type of sexual reproduction to the scene – internal fertilization. But that doesn’t mean they enjoyed it. Most likely it was more of a business transaction. A primal pact to keep their species going for the sake of biology. That is still true for many species that use internal fertilization today.
So, when did sex become pleasurable?
Scientists theorize that while pleasure and consent probably looked a whole lot different than they do now, there was probably always some element of reward in copulation – for at least one of the parties involved. Otherwise, why would they risk life and limb to engage in such precarious activities?
If you’ve ever engaged in heterosexual activities, you’ve probably noticed that it can be a lot more difficult for cis women or people with vaginas to have orgasms than it is for men. While female orgasms aren’t necessary for reproduction, that may be the reason they developed evolutionarily speaking.
One scientific theory for the female orgasm is that our ancestors way back when may have had ovulation that was triggered by orgasm. They deduced this by realizing that the hormonal surge during female orgasm is similar to the surge in species with induced ovulation. As ovulation started to happen on its own, orgasm then took on a secondary role, one which we are hopefully all familiar with.
It’s Not Just About Reproduction
While it makes sense to look at the history of sex from a reproductive perspective, there’s much more to it than that. Sex is a social tool. Used to connect, for conflict resolution, and sometimes for transactional purposes. Not to mention, for most people these days, sex is not about making babies – no matter what your sexuality is.
Humans are not the only species that reproduce through copulation, but we seem to be one of the few that enjoy it. We also have arguably the most intricate, well-defined, and complex social structures on the planet.
Our relationship with sex and our relationship with each other go hand in hand. One of the few examples we have in nature is the bonobo chimpanzees. Similarly to humans, bonobos use sex, often casual sex, for social bonding, and to mediate conflicts. They also practice kissing and oral sex, and experience orgasms. Bonobos also engage in queer relationships much like dolphins, orangutans, sheep, fruit bats, beetles, and of course – humans.
Sex and Society
While this doesn’t explain why sex became pleasurable, it does show how it has evolved beyond just a tool for reproduction. Beyond the physiological pleasure, we feel during sex, we experience pleasure and all sorts of other emotions thanks to the role it plays in our relationships and society as a whole.
For something that seems so simple, sex is incredibly complex. We’ve come a long way from prehistoric fish mating on the floor of a Scottish lake, and we’ll probably continue to evolve. Sex is one of the greatest tools we have for understanding each other on a deeper level, deepening our romantic relationships, and making the most of being in these bodies.