John Launer M.D.

Sex versus Survival


Time for Sex? Or Time to Focus on Survival?

Bridging evolutionary science with everyday life

Posted Mar 06, 2015

Sex versus Survival: a strange title for a blog. Intended to mystify, or to inform? Definitely to inform. Here's why.

I am both a physician and a therapist. For many years, I’ve been fascinated by evolutionary thinking, and how to make use of it in the consulting room and in everyday life. Evolutionary ideas can be misunderstood and abused. They can also help people understand and forgive themselves. In this blog, I want to explore how this can happen.

One extraordinarily important idea has emerged in the world of evolution over the years. Everything we do – everything – is aimed directly or indirectly at reproduction. How on earth could it be otherwise? Each of us is the descendant of an unbroken line of ancestors who were successful in that task. Otherwise we simply wouldn’t be here. Each of those ancestors turned out to be fit for reproduction, within the environments they lived in.

Charles Darwin and his son William in 1842
Wikipedia Commons

That was actually what Charles Darwin meant by ‘survival of the fittest.’ Our grandparents and great-grandparents may not have gone to the gym every day. But they were physically and psychologically equipped for what they needed to do: to have descendants.

How can this help us to make sense of the thousands of things we do that aren’t directly about reproduction: feeding ourselves, taking our kids to school, putting the cat out at night, being nice to our neighbours? And what about the people we know and love who don’t reproduce, maybe because they don’t want to? According to modern evolutionary thinking, they fit the bill too. What we contribute to reproduction doesn’t have to be through sex alone. It’s done indirectly too, through almost everything we do throughout our lives, in order to survive and help ourselves and others, including our close kin and communities.

We feed ourselves to stay healthy. We take our kids to school to increase their chances of leading successful and productive lives. If we treat the cat well, she’ll improve our moods and health – and maybe even kill the odd rodent to keep the place clean. If we’re nice to our neighbours, chances are they’ll be nice to us too. All these things ensure continuation in one way or another. If they didn’t, no-one would bother to do them. In the end, it all comes down to investing in the chances of continuation.

It also involves making constant choices. Some of these choices are huge. They include who to marry or have sex with, whether to have children and when. The vast majority of choices are smaller ones. Like: ‘Shall we go the beach this weekend, have the grandchildren to stay over, or both?’ Whether we decide these things carefully or impulsively,  consciously or unconsciously, we are always balancing risks and benefits. In effect, we are placing bets for the future.

The first person who had this idea – or something approaching it – was an early psychoanalyst called Sabina Spielrein. She worked with Jung and Freud, then with the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Later she taught the greatest psychological thinkers in Russia, Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria.

Overlook Press, NY
Source: Overlook Press, NY

She thought that life choices were particularly difficult for women because of the risks that sex involved for them. She meant the dangers of conception and pregnancy, of mothers having to devote many years to child-rearing, and of course the possibility of abandonment. She was ignored and marginalized in her time, and then forgotten after her death. Because I consider her one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, I have written her biography, explaining her ideas about evolution, child development, language and many other fields.

There is a modern thinker who has come up with similar ideas, and backed them up with huge amounts of research evidence. He is the evolutionary anthropologist James Chisholm. He has written a wonderful book called ‘Sex, Death and Hope’. In his view, every choice we face in our lives about what to do at any moment, comes down to one very simple question: Sex Now or Sex Later?
Sex Now or Sex Later?.
Cambridge University Press

Even when we’re not having sex or thinking about it, we’re always doing something to help ourselves and those around us to survive, and hence to increase the chances of continuation. One way or another, the name of the game is reproduction. As you go about your everyday life, try thinking about what you do in those terms. You may be surprised by what you notice.