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07 January, 2011

On Making Love

I've been thinking about sex, and beauty, and the sublime. I've been thinking also about evolution, and how Earth's conscious life might have taken any number of other forms, in which case we could have unrecognizable conceptions of "beauty". For a conservative example, say that the most nutritious food in our environment of adaptedness had been nuts or fruit with unusually thick, hard peels; we might have heavier jaws, such that our skulls would be built differently, with sagittal crests along our scalps to anchor our larger jaw muscles, and perhaps the robust skeletal features that go with them, such as pronounced eye ridges, in which case those rough features would seem beautiful. Neanderthals might have interbred with us more frequently, merging the species, or we might have evolved from some other lineage of creatures entirely -- some unusually clever, warm-blooded descendants of Troodons, say. Our concept of beauty would be entirely different.

Being aware that our concept of beauty is evolved leads to an odd realization: that beauty literally is within the beholder, and that there is no such thing as a beautiful thing-in-itself, as beauty is comprised of the experience of beauty, an internal experience. Had we evolved differently but on Earth, we would probably still find symmetry beautiful, as most of Earth's species are symmetrical and phenotypic symmetry reliably correlates with possessing multiple copies of genes for the symmetrical features. But details of human anatomy, like, say, color vision, are important to our experiences of beauty, as when I look at the rich green of redwoods' needles or the green-gold of new growth. The contrast between the sandy lightness of Big Basin's southwestern slopes and the dark, verdant richness of its northeastern slopes heightens their beauty. I imagine that differences among individual humans' perception equipment lead us to experience beauty in different ways. What would I find beautiful if I were a reptile; what am I missing now, and what would I be missing then? Humans' experience of beauty is meaningfully derived from our evolutionary history, but that history, ultimately, is arbitrary, making the category of "the beautiful" ultimately arbitrary.

I was slightly saddened by that thought, until I spent a moment's thought on another trick of evolution: the neurochemistry of sex. The chemistry behind love is intricate and complex species-wide, and among individuals, there are differences both subtle and drastic. The potential complexity of the differences in the experience of what we sum up as "love" in any two people, given how many features there are to vary, is almost unimaginably large. Among the central features, though, is that sex is a key moment for mate bonding, if the lovers are open to it (and sometimes even when they don't mean to be). That phrasing sounds a little clinical; it's just the opposite, though, in practice. Sex triggers the release of oxytocin, increasing trust between the lovers. Sex stimulates dopamine release, making lovers feel more important and meaningful to each other. The release of 2-phenethylamine appears to make one literally see new beauty in one's lover. Some accounts I've seen are written as though knowing about that chemical activity and talking about sex in those terms devalues it, but I think the opposite. Our emotions aren't just caused by chemical activity, dopamine and oxytocin aren't fooling our brain into trusting and loving; that chemical action is what our emotions consist of, and knowing the neurochemistry just makes it seem real to me. We aren't puppets of chemistry. Rather, these neurochemicals act at times that make sense (usually), as our bodies interact with our situations to produce these experiences. The lesson I take is that "making love" isn't just a pretty euphemism. It's an insightful and physiologically accurate description of an intense, glorious and very real -- even hypothetically measurable -- natural process.