In Sex We’re All The Same

I have a wonderful book called Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener, by plant geneticist and horticulturist Joseph Tychonievich. He explains the basics of genetics and describes with great passion his backyard breeding experiments. Tastier tomatoes, colour variation in his columbines (Aquilegia sp.), and his attempts at crossing sweet corn with the Mexican grass it was developed from a few millennia ago, Zea mays. He’s really quite a funny scientist. He reckons when he’s holding his little sterile plant tweezers with the stamen of one tomato flower, taking it across to pollinate another, he either makes a buzzing bee noise or imitates wah-wah pedal sexy-time funk guitar. Think Isaac Hayes, Bootsy Collins or Curtis Mayfield. Bow-chika-wow-wow.

This led me to thinking how similar we all are. Not us humans, but us eukaryotes (ie. all living organisms except eubacteria and archaea). It goes like this: when the time is right, a male joins his genetic material to a female’s genetic material, this grows and goes through different stages, and becomes a grown up not exactly like either parent, but a mixture of the two’. Bow-chika-wow-wow.

Don’t get caught up in the archaic human notions of homo, hetero, and bisexuality either. Cross gender and androgyny are mundane concepts in the plant world, completely uninterested in playing by your doltish rules. Many flowering plants have both male and female organs, either on the same or different flowers. Others, including marijuana (Cannabis sativa) and papaya (Carica papaya), have male and female flowers on separate plants.

You may see these sexual relations as rudimentary, but in another light these plants are manipulating organisms from other kingdoms to do their sexual biddings. Birds and bees aren’t the only animals that do a plant’s work by spreading pollen from one plant to another, attracted by flowers like the gorgeous pink magnolia or lemon yellow grevillea I can see from where I’m writing. I would include the aforementioned plant breeder Joseph Tychonievich and myself in this category, in the few attempts I have made to influence the outcomes of the next generation of plants I have grown.

Some prudish eukaryotes have worked out how to reproduce without sex. Female Komodo dragons for example, can reproduce without the messy big lizard sexy time. Instead, when there aren’t any eligible male dragons slithering about the island, they reproduce from unfertilised eggs by a process called parthenogenesis, or ‘virgin birth’. Bees are another example. In plants it’s called parthenocarpy.

The only documented case of parthenogenesis in humans isn’t altogether reliable, the same source also claiming people can come back to life after successful execution by crucifixion, and that a seafood lunch can be extended to accommodate as many guests as arrive at the picnic.

Back the subject of getting it on. Occasionally a news program or paper produces ‘new scientific evidence’ that this or that animal (often the dolphin or some fellow primate) occasionally have sex purely for pleasure, not merely caused by a basal drive to procreate. How it’s deduced that chickens don’t want to bump cloacas just for fun, I’m not sure. Or even that the pleasure humans and our oft airbrushed aquatic compatriots in pleasure derive from sex is that much different from what causes a Eucalypt to flower and send out its pollen in search of a suitable carpel to ravage.

Eucalypts, in fact, embrace the small country town that is Australia quite well. When the options are limited for suitable partners, the next closest willing sperm recipient will do – regardless of species. This can cause problems when humans are involved. The Tasmanian hardwood industry uses many mainland Eucalyptus species. The gene flow from these introduced species can hybridise with endemic Tasmanian species, loosing genetic diversity and therefore altering the ecosystem, all because of this human induced speciation.

Plants have played a part in human sex too. When God was trying teach the promiscuous French a lesson, She decided to create a nasty little disease called syphilis, then known as the French disease. Thankfully Mother Earth came to the party and reminded us we had in fact domesticated flax (Linum usitatissimum) thirty thousand years earlier, and had made fabric from it.

Making a snug little penis shaped pocket and dipping it in a solution to seal the weave, an early condom was created. Without personal experience, I would say this would dampen the mood far less than donning a bit of old intestine or goat’s bladder, as was the practice before the linen condom was created. I’m pretty sure the efficacy of a fabric franger would however be questionable.

A few centuries later the west would discover another wonderful plant. From the steamy rainforests of central and South America came a plant that would revolutionise contraception and the avoidance of STI’s. Hevea brasiliensis, from the euphorbia family, gave us rubber, and from rubber we derived latex. Extracts from another euphorbia, Euphorbia tirucalli, has been shown to have anti retroviral effects, a possible new avenue for treatment of HIV. Other species have been found to be effective against genital herpes.  What can’t euphorbias do!

So next time you’re feeling alone in the world, remember, we’re all in this together. Hug a tree and remember that the dating, mating game is universal, that you’re not so different from your fellow eukaryotes after all.

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