Brain Pickings

Dorion Sagan on the First Ejaculation in Earth’s History

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“When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked.”

Whenever we talk about the origins of sex and its cultural baggage, we’re inevitably talking about human sex. And yet our planet has a salacious record dating much further back than the solipsism of our species might suggest.

In Death & Sex (UK; public library) — a curious two-in-one volume with one half comprising Death by NYU biologist Tyler Volk and the other, printed upside-down and back to front, Sex by science writer Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan — Sagan takes us back to the very first ejaculation in recorded history:

The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)

Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.

Detailed preservation of sperm ejection from sporangia in the Rhynie Chert fossil

And yet that primordial canoodling came at a price: The awareness that, as Leslie Paul wrote in 1944, “all life is no more than a match struck in the dark and blown out again,” which makes the wax-and-wane dance of life unsettlingly palpable as we come to grips with the notion that, to use Henry Miller’s words, “to escape death is to escape life.” And yet, like in the afterlife of a whale, there’s a strange serenity in that awareness. Sagan writes:

The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine.

But Sagan ends on a note of rational optimism, equal parts soulful and scientific, poetic and pragmatic — a poignant addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

Death & Sex is remarkable — fascinating, absorbing, often stimulatingly uncomfortable — in its entirety. Complement it with The Origins of Sex, one of the best history books of 2012.

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