Information exchange gives bacteria close relationships that
facilitate cooperation in communal living.
– Elizabet Sahtouris
In this post, I want to continue exploring some of the issues arising from our identity as sexual beings in the context of the new Universe Story. My interest in working with these issues at present is motivated in part by the ongoing debate around abortion in this country (and others, as I learned on my recent trip to Kenya). My interest, however, goes beyond this single divisive issue, to perhaps finding through the Universe Story a renewed way to think of ourselves as sexual beings relating with one another in diverse, mutual, and generative ways.
My thoughts on the topic of abortion go back many years as I have tried to understand the complexity of the issue. As a feminist, I tend to support the thinking of those who continue to back the famous Roe vs. Wade decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1973. The decision essentially legalized abortion in this country for pregnancies under three months in length. Supporters of legalized abortion claim the issue centers on a woman’s right to privacy and to choose what happens within her own body. They argue that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to full term. Opponents of abortion claim that a woman’s right to choose is superseded by the “right to Life” of the unborn fetus, clinging to the opinion that “Life” begins at conception.
Even prior to my encounter with the Universe Story, my stance on abortion went beyond the simple dichotomy of choosing to save or abort a fetus. For me, the crux of the matter is a historically patriarchal approach to human sexuality that in the majority of cases has not recognized a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will engage in sex leading to pregnancy, never mind whether or not she will carry the fetus to term. For me, a complete re-thinking (and in Christian terms, re-theologizing) about human sexuality is required.
Let me illustrate this with a story. My professional work in the past two years has introduced me to the efforts of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac to provide nurture to the literally thousands of “foundlings” of Paris in the 17th century – these were the unwanted infants, products of extramarital encounters, routinely abandoned on the streets of the city. While in response to this situation, funds were raised, hospitals organized, foster mothers engaged, and other extraordinary efforts were coordinated by Vincent, Louise and their supporters, all to address the needs of these foundlings, nothing seems to have been done to publicly address the crux of the issue: that men apparently felt they had the right to go about impregnating women indiscriminately, completely without taking responsibility for the ensuing child, or his or her mother.
At the same time, the Christian sexual ethic, still dominant in this country, historically has prohibited sex among married couples unless it is done with openness to procreation. Interestingly, however, I recently learned at a workshop on sexual ethics that researchers now realize that this proscription appears to be based solely on the male experience of intercourse. We were reminded in the workshop that during the sexual act, a man experiences ejaculation of his sperm simultaneous with every orgasm. Therefore, from the male perspective, the potential for procreation is directly tied to the experience of orgasm during intercourse.
However, a woman engaged in intercourse may experience an orgasm completely independent of her being fertile. Therefore, from a woman’s perspective, the pleasure and meaning found in intercourse simply is not directly tied to the issue of procreation. This realization leads me to ask, if we finally took women’s experience into account, would we have a different ethical understanding of intercourse?
Finally, the new Universe Story tells us that we humans are the evolutionary product of some 14 billion years of cosmic processes, and that Life has developed through a continuum leading from simple hydrogen atoms, to stars, to the formation of planets, to an Earth teeming with an astounding range and diversity of creatures. When it comes to us – humans – we can now look back at a scientific story that appears to answer with a high degree of certainty the question: “How did we get here?”
At the center of this story of our origins is how the first organic molecules that developed on Earth learned to link and rearrange themselves into patterns, some of which led to the development of what scientists call RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Life actually extends generation after generation because these molecules, RNA and DNA, make possible the transmission of genetic information. Evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris (1998) writes of this important step in evolution in A Walk Through Time:
Both RNA and DNA come to play key roles in the information systems that direct the building and maintenance of organisms….DNA and RNA work together with proteins as the information-storing, copying, and building systems of life. (pp. 41-42)
Sahtouris goes on to explain that the first single-celled bacteria, through the development of DNA, began to keep a record of the successful adaptations that allowed them to grow, repair themselves, and try out new lifestyles. They also developed the capacity to pass on this information to future generations in two ways, reproduction and sex. Of note here is that these two processes initially were completely independent activities. In the reproductive process, the cells simply copied their DNA, pinched their cell walls together, and divided themselves into two parts, each carrying a copy of the DNA.
Sex, on the other hand, occurred between reproductive divisions and involved the fusion of genetic material from more than one individual. As Sahtouris explains:
Bacteria can literally rub up against each other, dissolve a common opening in their touching membranes, and slip DNA genes to each other. Bacteria have been doing this since they first evolved and continue the promiscuous practice to this day. Alternatively, they can release bits of DNA into the surrounding environment where other individuals can pick it up and assimilate it into their own DNA. (pp. 51-52).
From this description of the sexual and reproductive lives of bacteria, our very ancient ancestors, I draw the conclusion that what is important here is the process of information exchange. In other words, the goal here is not simply procreation – a new generation – but the process of information exchange that allows Life to continue.This awareness spurs me to ask, then, is “sex” really about procreation or communication?
Apparently, whether it is to thwart present dangers, adapt to new conditions, or exist into the future, Life needs the steps of this process of information exchange – we might call it a process of connection, communion and communication – through which necessary data is passed to existing or new generations. Considering the importance of this process of information exchange to Life, I want to suggest that the biology of human sexual intercourse, as with the first single-celled bacteria, is derivative; it derived as a successful means of allowing information exchange.
Further pursuing this line of thinking about the derivative nature of human sexual biology, it becomes possible to place sexual intercourse on a broader continuum of human connection, communion and communication. The act of sexual intercourse, in other words, has as its primary purpose far more than procreation, or the physical exchange of DNA. At the human level, we have so much more to communicate with one another than our genetic code!
Furthermore, on this human continuum of connection, communion and communication we can find ourselves in a multitude of relationships, each offering opportunities for “knowing” more, for an exchange of information that continues to bring Life. Such a continuum of knowing may or may not involve sexual intercourse.
This continuum of connection, communion and communication begins with my relationship to my self, and expands to other relationships – my family, my friends, my work colleagues, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, and finally the community of Life on Earth.
Questions arise for us in terms of these relationships and the continuum of connection, communication and communion:
What is my connection – to my self and my body, to you and your body, to us and our bodies?
How will I/We respectfully and reverently achieve communion and communicate self?
What do I/We need to feel welcome and secure in this communion?
What do I/We need to be in healthy communion with self and others?
These questions bring me back to the spiritual questions that form the framework for this blog, and which I think also form the foundation for considering sexual ethics:
Who is God?
What does it mean to be human?
What does it mean for humans to connect, commune, and communicate with God and one another?
I continue to find that the new Universe Story invites an expanded view that help move us beyond past answers to these questions that are burdened by perspectives and assumptions coming out of a more limiting, if not unhealthy, paradigm.
Liebes, S., Sahtouris, E. and Swimme, B. (Eds). (1998). A walk through time: From stardust to us, the evolution of life on Earth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.