Happy Unpaid Sex Worker Day 050811
The Fringe talks about Your Mother!
This is the day we celebrate the most prized of human beings, women who have had sex, our mothers.
It’s pretty clear that without women there would be very few men. For this reason, our society picks out one day a year to celebrate motherhood.
We’ll pause to recall that before we came to believe that capital produces all of meaningful life we used to understand that it was women, who literally put their lives on the line to bear the next generation, who were the fount of all life. In that past time, motherhood was celebrated every day, and a mother figure was often seen as producing not only human life, but the entire web of living things which ecocentrists have only recently rediscovered, and continue to misconstrue. Mothers are continuation, literally life. “Mama” appears in many forms in the Indo-European languages, and is the root of the word “mammary,” or boob, the defining feature of our class.
Motherhood was well established long before hominids arrived. The first mother was probably not even a complete cell. There are several theories about the beginning of sexual reproduction, but the most intellectually satisfying is this: Somewhere in the primordial soup of complex amino acids, long chain molecules, arose which had a tendency to replicate, or repeat themselves. There were many more long chain molecules that didn’t replicate themselves, they just grew and broke apart, but those that did replicate themselves very quickly came to outnumber those that did not. It’s simple math, we can see how that happens. As time goes on the molecules which protected themselves in various ways were better represented over time, and so some very complicated structures emerged, massive things with nearly impenetrable walls that protected the long chain molecules from damage. We call these fortresses “cells”. It’s important for our discussion that we distinguish the kind of sexual reproduction that produces mothers from the kind that benefits a simple assemblage, but in the primordial soup there were some molecules that learned to parasitize other, similar molecules to get them to do the work of reproduction. That tendency carried on to simple cellular and multicellular critters, until eventually there were multicellular plants and animals with specific sexual roles.
Part of that division of labor resulted in an unequal division of cost. The “males” of the species do not produce seeds, eggs, or young.
Sexual reproduction of all kinds benefits the individual indirectly, the species generally, but it is still the long chain molecule that is at the heart of life, and all the rest, cells and species and cell phones and drunken prom dates, all spring from the selfish tendency of the molecule to want to replicate itself. We tend to view individuals in our own species, and the entire species in other animals, but in truth all that matters are the tangles of mathematically replicated long chain molecules.
Even now, the combinations of long chain molecules that produce the most “efficient” protein packages are most prevalent in the population, and most represented on earth. Currently, we know, the most superior and so most prevalent protein packages on earth are the insects, particularly the beetles. It has been estimated that if everything on the planet were to disappear leaving only insects behind, the essential features of Earth could still be seen, outlined by insect life.
The cost of sexual reproduction to females is obvious, and species attempt to minimize this mostly wasted resource in a number of ways; in some insects the female eats the male and uses his body to fuel egg production.
In others, the males contribute nothing but sperm, and the female drops the fertilized eggs in the sand or water. Is that still motherhood? Yep, the cost of producing eggs is nearly always more than the cost of producing sperm. In many mammals, such as humans, the females have a limited number of eggs, but the males have sperm to waste on each other and Victoria’s Secret ads.
Always, though, producing males is a cost to the species. In some, like bees, there is just one mom and a handful of dads who do nothing but compete with each other to have a go at mom. Kind of your nightmare “welfare mother” scenario. In those species there are generally a zillion nonsexual females to support mom and the dads.
So, why do moms of all cellular classifications tolerate mostly useless and often dangerous males? Because they have nothing to say about it, they are in service to the long chain molecule, and if they don’t serve it well, they will disappear along with it. It’s a very simple rule, with very complex results expressed as a very complicated protein package. The best of them are reading the Prospect right now.
The benefits to the long chain molecules of sexual reproduction are manifold. Again, to really understand all the benefits we should imagine the globe covered with just DNA molecules. Some of them are hugely long; the genetic material of some ancient forms of bacteria contain long sections of code which apparently do nothing. Some may represent parasitic forms of DNA which are isolated but not eliminated from the code, but more likely long segments contain genetic instructions for environments the bacteria no longer inhabit, but which might switch on again if the right chemical message were produced. Because of our homocentric and biocentric view, we tend to see “species”. We understand the world by classifying it; what we call a “species” is simply a compilation of protein packages with very similar DNA. Taking the long view of life on Earth, what we call “species” are really just temporary manifestations of some very busy organic molecules, and they are all temporary, and all shift and change or die out. In our minds, we can imagine the variations of the molecules in different colors, and the colors shift and blend and suddenly end as Earth goes through its various changes.
What really matters is prevalence, and to maintain prevalence the cells have to make compromises between two factors: fidelity and frequency. In other words, ideally a molecule would replicate itself perfectly, and many critters do that. Viruses are very simple, but they can be seen as the perfect molecule in some ways because they produce no energy or waste (very little) but are successful at getting much larger organisms to replicate and spread them. In a sense, we are all mothers when we have the flu. It has even been suggested that viruses are responsible for some effects of direct genetic evolution.
Fidelity has problems, though, mathematical genetic problems which can cause the line to end suddenly. Sexual reproduction, meaning combining haploid material, half from each parent, bestows many benefits toward maintaining the odd balance of frequency and fidelity which are expressed in the workings of the genes as a balance of novelty and stability. A genetic code will be more represented if it bestows on its protein package traits which benefit it in the environment. To complicate matters, the protein package has to be successful at finding the best traits in other protein packages. This seeking of the best traits is partly why species all generally look alike: that’s stability. But, if your protein package can succeed a little better, that marginal difference can eventually take over the species, so you want novelty, something new about the protein package, which gives it an advantage: a longer snout, better night vision, big boobs, what have you. However, specialization can mean extinction if the environment changes rapidly, and big antlers and long necks have structural costs the protein package must bear.
All of which makes mothers singularly important. They bear the cost to our DNA of balancing stability with novelty. Our molecules benefit through variation and moderation, meaning a balance between something new and the same old thing. We all look alike; we all look different. It’s because our species supports males, at a cost to females. In a sense, those old 70’s and 80’s feminists were right, all heterosexual sex is a usurpation of the female body. We must ask ourselves this: how well represented are old feminists in the population?
As with most other species, the majority of us do little more than provide a gene pool and a source of energy for those long chain molecules among us who really bear novelty. Most people in most generations replicate, but females are generally more likely to reproduce, while males are more likely, if they have children, to have more. We carry around in our protein packages a wonderful selection of DNA with built in variability, some expressed, some not. Should the weather turn cold and technology fail us, those who are now suffering from too much food will perhaps live to bury our scrawny brethren and sisteren. In the fluctuating rainbow sea that represents our DNA in real time, each of us bears our own selfish molecule.
But, what about our mothers, human females, certainly there is more to being a mother than simply giving birth?
There are a wide variety of mothering styles around the world, but through time, because she already has so much invested in her young, mothers from T. Rex to crocodiles to polar bears protect and care for their offspring, sometimes against males. In many social species, if a female loses her offspring she’ll come in to season again, so, for example, when a new male takes over a troop of some kinds of primates he kills the babies and all the babies born right away. It works so well that the females of some primates actually delay gestation if they’re pregnant when a new male takes over. They copulate with him, and resume gestation, bearing the child of the last leader and presenting it as a child of the new.
Why does nature work against the mother, forcing her into estrous for the new male? The loss to her is the effort and energy she put into the old infant, but the benefit is, perhaps, a more fit new infant. If the molecule within her has a strategy where social interaction is a source of resources, as many, many mammals do, there is a greater benefit in producing a child for the new king. A similar dynamic often works in the social world of humans.
For the best mothers in the world, of course, one need look no farther than the bird kingdom. The Birdian folk also produce some of the best dads. Pair bonding, at least long enough to raise one or more offspring, is a winning strategy, and one that recovers some of the energy produced in making males.
Among humans, temporary pair bonding to produce one or more children is very common. Life long pair bonds are the anticipated norm for Western society, but by no means is this the rule in history, or exclusive even in the West, where many people currently have serial monogamy through the rate of divorce, as is evidenced by the high number of “blended families”.
Most often, even in the West, it’s mother that does the blending. Fathers often come into and out of the home, but in some societies only women own houses, and the men often stay in a common house or the homes of the woman they have a young child with. When the child can care for itself, if the couple doesn’t produce another young child, they might move on and he might return to the longhouse, or in our society, become homeless or worse, go to live in an apartment complex full of other divorced men who see the majority of their income go to past wives and kids. Over time a woman becomes somewhat resistant to the sperm of her on-going mate, and a momentary misstep during an ovulatory haze means she’ll probably present her mate with a kid that looks nothing like him. With luck, he’ll accept it and move on, particularly if mom and grandma make a fuss about how he has dad’s nose.
In our society, we have high expectations for mom. Some mothers have a problem with the role. It’s one of sacrifice, some individuals aren’t into that. Others are called by economic demand to work away from children. Some become addicted to drugs. In these instances it has traditionally been grandmothers and aunts who step in to care for children, and that remains generally true today. In some cultures the first born daughter learns to care for subsequent siblings, both improving her mother’s reproductive and social success, and gaining valuable experience and so improving her own.
It is the dilemma of the modern Western person that one is no longer allowed to merely fill a role, one must be an individual and fill many roles. Attention to the individual, or even the idea of an individual being a discrete unit as opposed to a member of a larger society whole, is not ubiquitous in human society. For us, it’s very important, and women are pressured to become full fledged members of the capitalist society, having their own jobs, their own credit cards, their own inheritance. In human societies, simply knowing whether a woman can own property and under which criteria will often tell you a lot about the entire society, and especially the relationship between men and women.
Regardless what other compromise she must make with the cost of males, a woman always knows something a man has to accept on faith, that her children are her own. This might well explain her generally greater willingness to invest in her offspring, while men are haunted by the realization that, statistically, as many as a quarter of our kids aren’t our kids.
Not everyone is raised by their birth mother, though. Who gets mother’s day, the biological mom, or the grandmother, foster mother, aunt, or even dad or grandfather? It’s a tough question, for some people, and humans in general, however much they might love a surrogate, seem to long to belong to their biological mothers. Adoption agencies are often presented with requests for information on biological parents, but mothers in particular. However drunken or crazy a mother is, for many of us she still holds a singular and irreplaceable importance for us.
Happily, many of us were raised by loving, attentive mothers, and to them we owe the foibles of our long chain molecules and the various neuroses which make us all special individuals.
So, today, the Prospect salutes all mothers everywhere, and encourages you not to dwell on the grunting, sweaty act that catapulted her, often inadvertently, into her exalted position.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Back in the day she was booty: Whistler's famous ma