This morning, I read a pile of bullshit about Tyson written by an anti-intellectual reverse-snob — he thinks he should be proud of being so blatantly pro-mystery and anti-science.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space.
There’s a hint of a point to his long-winded diatribe; scientists who simply drily list the facts or point to a pretty picture from the Hubble telescope aren’t really promoting understanding. But we also need to dispel the nonsense that that writer seems to think are essential, like clouds
inhabited by angels or his
Lord Jesus Christ. It’s disgraceful when a scientist dismisses poetry or philosophy, but you can also go too far in the other direction, and dismiss reality. Both are deplorable.
I was ready to go off on a rant about that this morning, and then Tyson had to open his mouth and leave me completely deflated. An interview was published that just left me muttering, “Why, Neil, why?”.
He’s going to double down on his claim that species with painful sex would go extinct, by making the goal posts dance.
“With regard to the sex, that was interesting because some biologists jumped on me claiming that it’s just false. And people love nothing more, apparently, in revealing or finding that I’ve said something that’s wrong. Now, so do I. I take great joy in finding if I said something wrong, because then I’ve learned something.
“But what happened in the case of the sex hurting and the species going extinct, biologists and people were quick to say, ‘Oh, he should stick to astrophysics.’ Well, why? Oh, because there are species where sex hurts and is quite painful.
“There is a woman who has a blog (Emily Willingham, writing at www.forbes.com), who wrote a whole thing giving examples of painful sex. And in every single case, it was describing the pain of one of the partners in sex, not both.
“In another case, she was describing the praying mantis. The female praying mantis, after they mate, bites the head off the male. But was it enjoyable up to that point? Right? She doesn’t bit the head off before they mate!
“So yes, of course, there are situations that are painful. So I wrote back to her. She said, ‘Clearly he doesn’t know all these cases,’ but of course I knew all those cases. What I don’t know, and maybe they’ve put it out there, I’m looking for a case where both parties to a sexual encounter experience pain. Because if only one experiences pain, that doesn’t prevent reproduction. Because it could be so pleasurable for the other party that, who cares? They just go on in.”
I was left breathless by 1) the arrogance, as if biologists know so little, 2) the ignorance, because he is so unaware of the facts that even when he’s told about them, he denies them, and 3) the complete lack of imagination — sex feels good for humans, therefore pleasure is the only drive imaginable. Throwing in the cavalier mention (and dismissal) of “a woman who has a blog” is just the shit icing on the cake.
Nature does not rely on making things feel good to gently compel organisms to do them. It also uses pain. And often it doesn’t even bother with these kinds of perceptual games.
Here’s an example we’re all familiar with: we have to poop approximately every day. Is it because it feels good? While of course some people can fetishize it, and there is often relief when the mission is accomplished, the primary impetus to do it is discomfort and pain. Abstain, and the pressure builds, and the awkwardness grows in your bowels, and it may lead to cramps and severe physical pain if we avoid the duty long enough. But we aren’t (well, most of us) aren’t dancing about in joyous anticipation of release.
For many organisms, pleasure and pain aren’t even relevant. Nematodes, for instance, are driven by a clock — they have a sphincter that opens rhythmically, with a relatively fixed period for which we even have mutations with different period lengths. You can even measure their behavior by looking for the regular trail of little fecal dots they leave behind.
“But that’s not sex,” I can hear Neil protesting. Sex is different.
No, it’s not.
There are times when sea urchins spawn. There’s nothing intimate or personal about it — the males and females just simultaneously spew out clouds of sperm and eggs in such volume that they can make the sea milky. Do they do it because it feels good? I don’t know. Echinoderms are notably lacking in expression. They’re also lacking in an inclination to masturbate, so these sporadic expulsions of gametes have more the character of a compulsion, a drive triggered by water conditions and tides and seasons and hormones. It’s also an expensive behavior, marked by stress. Sea urchins lack a brain — they have a nerve ring with five radiating peripheral nerves — so even associating the behavior with a function like “pleasure” is problematic.
And then his excuse, that all that matters is that it feels good for one sex and that Willingham failed to mention any case where both sexes suffer, is so pathetically bad that it just confirms that he doesn’t know much of anything about biology.
His example of mantises is awful. How does he know that the male or the female is doing it for pleasure up to the moment she bites his head off? Mantises are only slightly more capable of expression than a sea urchin. Apparently, Neil deGrasse Tyson imagining that they’re having fun counts as data.
I’ve watched spiders mate — the females sometimes eat the males there, too — and if I had to attach an emotion to the male’s activity before hand it wouldn’t be “happy anticipation of a pleasurable dalliance”, but “stark raving terror”. They sneak about and dart in, hoping not to be caught. It’s a need, not a fun choice for an afternoon’s pleasure. I have no idea if they have the equivalent of an orgasm when they reach her oviduct, but it’s unlikely — they make their sperm packet before running in to stuff it into the female’s opening.
And Willingham addressed his excuse with her very first example: semelparous fish, like salmon. Neither sex gets a lot of joy out of reproduction. They batter themselves half to death trying to get upstream; they exert themselves to such a degree that their flesh is like an exhausted desintegrating bruise by the time they get to the spawning grounds, and then they die. Is Tyson seriously going to suggest that these animals with very tiny brains are doing this in anticipation of the orgiastic ecstasy of the one time they get to have sex, an event that they have never experienced, and which they haven’t even read about in letters to the Penthouse forum?
They suffer because they must, because their physiology compels them, and I very much doubt that they’re deliriously joyful at the agonies they must undergo to end their need. To infer that Nature must make them happy in addition to making them strain to die is to bestow an unwarranted beneficence on biology, without evidence.
Neil Tyson, learn a little humility. Biologists actually do know more about biology than you do. These are questions that biologists have been thinking about, and trying to answer, for over a century, and your excuses sound more like natural theology than natural history.
It’s disappointing. It’s bad science. And it’s spectacularly atrocious science education.