This is the first in a short series of essays about the origins (origins, because there are more than one) of sex. The essays are inspired by my mentor, the biologist and geoscientist Lynn Margulis, and by a little quote by one of my favorite philosophers, Michel Serres:
For Part 1, I’m going way back, to some early starfucking.
Life Superlives: On the Origins of Sex, Part 1
Sex in the Gaze of the Sun
For all the problems that accompany sex in our lives — shame and fear, jealous lovers, unplanned pregnancies, STIs — one might be surprised that, according to the scientific narrative, sex began as a healing act which diverted crisis.
Once upon a time, billions of years ago, the Sun’s violent and ultraviolet rays cascaded over an ozone-less Earth, greeting the only lifeforms with harsh light. These were the bacteria; prokaryotes, so named for their lack of nuclei (pro = before, karyon = nut or core).
These beings arose only to dissolve in the radiated presence of light. They already had a way to repair themselves, or life would have never survived its bright beginning. Their DNA — the double-stranded molecule that many of us know about but that scientists still have trouble understanding — had begun to replicate itself through a series of gestures from various enzymes. If one part of a DNA strand was damaged, it was amputated by an enzyme that could cut the DNA bonds apart (a nuclease), and then another enzyme arrived to create wholeness and heal the void.
In the gaze of the Sun, the tiny prokaryotic innards were often too damaged to recombinate on their own. So these beings reached, in the mordial soup, for the ejected DNA of their dead kin, the floating pieces of bodies amongst them. They used their own enzymes in conjunction with the dead to repair themselves.
This was the beginning of sex for living organisms.
It was a co-mingling of partners. The Sun was there first. It aroused the prokaryotes, initiated sex, and then the presence of the dead infused the living with a new possibility for life.
Experiments today that replicate ultraviolet early-Earth intensities prompt similar responses in bacteria.
Life’s first sexual partner was a star.
That also means that by evolutionary implication, our first sexual partner was a star. The ancestors of all our ancestors undulated across the Earth, under a pulsing sexual sphere.
As children, we stare at the Sun, and it blots out our perception. As adults, we know better. When we look at the Sun, we turn away, flushed. It remains a flirtatious, sexual glance cast upon an unbearably beautiful face.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. What Is Sex? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Serres, Michel. Variations on the Body. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012.