Let’s Get It On (Asexually)

Seed Magazine asks, “Why Sex?” Now hold on — before you answer “because it’s fun,” think it over a second.

Think of all the time and energy we waste tracking down and screwing a suitable mate. Think of the money we spend on dinners, drinks, flowers, jewelry, lube, and full-body harnesses just to get a piece. Think of the emotional stress of trying to figure out what someone else is thinking, and of course the stress of trying to figure out who someone else is doing. Think of the frustration at starting over every time you bring someone home and they’re just not into the full-body harness.

oh babyWhat if we could just split down the middle, creating a perfect little clone of ourselves? On the plus side, your wardrobe would effectively double, and if you ever needed a spare kidney or pint of blood, you have it on tap. On the down side, your clones may build up exponentially harmful mutations, eventually killing off you and the rest of your self-loving species. At least according to the as-yet unproven mutational deterministic hypothesis, an idea that has been tested by Ricardo Azevedo in a recently published paper in Nature. 

That’s all fine and good, but what about other alternatives? Why didn’t we evolve to reproduce in other ways, for instance, like fish? I’d like to be able to just drop off my eggs under a tree somewhere, and whoever wants them can just swing on by and get with the fertilization. Maybe then the lucky dad could cart around the offspring seahorse-style and I’d be free to continue sleeping through the night, taking vacations, and other benefits of the childfree.

I suppose science is pretty close to giving us that anyway — if I were so inclined, I could probably get a few thousand dollars just to drop off my eggs for somebody else to fertilize. Thanks for the blonde hair, blue eyes, and college education, dad and mom! I think I’ll pass, just in case at some point in the future I decide that all the hassle of reproducing sexually is somehow worth it. But as of this moment, I’d really rather be a mermaid. Or a paramecium-maid. Hubba hubba.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. " On the down side, your clones may build up exponentially harmful mutations, eventually killing off you and the rest of your self-loving species."

    This sounds like a Star Trek quote. How come this doesn't happen to the current species that reproduce asexually?

  2. I just finished "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and he makes an excellent point that most societies developed farming from annual types of plants. They were easier to drive desirable traits towards than perrenials. You keep the plants that produce the largest seeds with the fewest hassels. Much easier if the plants were asexual. The sexual plants kept making it more of a crap shoot.

  3. It's not just about the bad stuff, like avoiding accumulating mutations, it's also the acquisition of the good stuff. Let's suppose you're an asexually-producing species and you see this really cool biological feature in one of your conspecifics. There is no way on this Earth will you ever be able to acquire it intentionally. The only way would be to wait for the right random mutation to happen to your clone the next time you "bud off". However, if you're a sexually-reproducing species, and the conspecific is of the opposite sex, you can mate with it and there's a 50/50ish chance that your kids will have that cool feature. If it's reciprocated (i.e., you've got a biological character that your mate thinks is quite groovy too) then your kids have a good chance of being doubly blessed.

    From a "But evolution doesn't really do things because they produce a useful end result later on!" perspective: any species that reproduces sexually will have a richer and more thorough sharing of all the good mutations, thus spreading about any "Good Tricks" (copyright Daniel Dennett) that pop up by random, rather than keeping them to the lineage of clones of the lucky individual who mutates one.

  4. Of course, even the "asexual" unicellular types can in fact exchange genetic information (conjugation, viral transfer, ?I forget one way?). This underlines the point that the exchange of genetic material is *important*. (Or to put it acausally, it represents an overwhelming advantage for lineage survival.)

    I'm afraid humans are pretty committed to their reproductive style… I've never heard of a mammalian lineage that switched *back* to eggs, and the biochemical interplay between mother and fetus is complicated enough that I don't see "vitrowombs" happening any time this century. Furthermore, the way we do it is in good keeping with our position as the ultimate in K-strategy species. (That is, parental investment in caretaking of young, as opposed to spawning in great numbers.) One possibility would be to shift another month or so of early development out of the womb, but then a newborn would be even more vulnerable and dependent.

  5. Uh, scubajim,

    Many perrennials also reproduce sexually, they just don't die every year after producing the annual crop of seed.

  6. Well, I read that backwards, at any rate, both annuals and perrennials often reproduce sexually.

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