The birds and the bees

Hormones turn brain to mush One way or another, children learn about sex at some point in the course of growing up. In our culture, which is rather coy about sex generally and especially so when it comes to letting children know what the whole big deal is, their curiosity is awakened long before adults deign to actually give them any solid information to work with. Generally children learn fairly early at least the simplest basics – the externally visible anatomical difference between boys and girls and the fact that grown-ups make babies (and this involves a man and a woman) – without adults going into more detail. Their approximate peers (particularly the ones slightly older than them) will tell them all sorts of garbled stories about it, using I know something the adults aren't telling you as a piece of one-up-manship that works just fine even if the alleged facts are wildly inaccurate or, despite being true, grossly misleading. The sets of myths they tell each other are, furthermore, split: the boys tell one another one set of myths, the girls have their own; and what boys and girls tell each other is even more confused and partial. The result is a remarkably effective recipe for confusion.

Adults will eventually tell them a certain amount about the subject, too: if they're lucky, this'll be an adult who's genuinely concerned to equip them to understand the topic, not one who's trying to exploit their confusion for some ulterior motive. Usually, the adults are a bit embarrassed about discussing sex and children pick up on that; which both teaches them to be embarrassed about discussing the topic and reinforces their suspicion that this must be a Very Important Topic, thereby strengthening their curiosity. Some sub-cultures feel that, beyond the very rough basics, the proper approach is to educate children on a strictly need-to-know basis: stern rules forbid doing anything that might actually lead to learning about the subject for yourself and when we think you're ready to marry we'll tell you what else (we think) you need to know. This ensures that children continue knowing only the confused mess of what their peers have told them. A more liberal approach is to tell childen, at about the point where they're hitting or about to hit puberty, at least the biological details of what's different on the inside, between boys and girls, and how baby-making is done. Adults might also take the trouble to warn children about the emotional turmoil that accompanies growing up, even if their attempts to do so aren't generally much help.

The problem with all of this is that the whole process just encourages an exaggerated conception of the importance of the subject. By all means, children need to understand that it has some importance to it. They also need to understand the biological facts – but it's counterproductive to teach them to be embarrassed about it and they'd likely be able to use the knowledge more sensibly if they weren't obliged to take it so seriously. So I propose a different approach to the whole topic.

Growing Up

Humans are animals – mammals, to be specific – who've developed some remarkably unusual things like language, culture and intelligence. Some other animals do have some degree of these, but humans have taken them to extremes, to the point where they dominate very nearly everything we do. Consequently, we have to learn how to use these things well. Fortunately, especially while we're young, we're very good at learning – which is why kids get to go to school, while they're still good at it. We don't lose the ability entirely as adults, but we're not as good at it as we were when we were children. Helping children to learn everything they need to takes a lot of work and providing food and shelter for them while they do so – and thus are too busy doing so to be able to sort out their own food and shelter – takes yet more time and effort.

Consequently raising children is burdensome. Humans are easilly smart enough to understand that and learn that it's true before we're old enough to actually bring children into the world. Consequently, if our intelligence was allowed to actually run our lives, only very dumb people would have children; and their children would be dumb, too. Any of our ancestors' contemporaries who were dumb lost out to those who were smart, while those whose biology allowed them to continue running on intelligence tended to avoid having children, so both groups will have left relatively few descendants, compared to those of their contemporaries who were intelligent but whose biology messed with their intelligence just enough to trick them into having children despite the obvious down-sides. This being so for every generation in turn, we're all descended from the ones whose ample intelligence had a loop-hole in it – and so, our intelligence has that same loop-hole.

That loop-hole consists of a bunch of instincts that make us want to do things that are apt, if we go through with them, to lead to us being parents. Which is a lot of trouble that you can easilly put off until you're well into your twenties, or even later, so it's a smart idea to not let those instincts trick you into any of this until you've got yourself economically well established, so that you can actually cope with the burden of raising your children. Since those instincts mess up intelligence, nature is kind enough not to inflict them on us until we've had a decade (and some) to make the most of our boundless capacity for learning. Until then, the instincts that encourage curiosity and play are hard at work encouraging us to discover the world in which we live and find out how to fend for ourselves. Those of our ancestors' contemporaries who didn't learn those things weren't able to provide their children with the victuals and shelter they needed whilst they were growing up, so not only had grim lives (due to lack of food and shelter) but didn't leave as many descendants as their contemporaries who did learn – who are, consequently, our ancestors.

So, as you live through your second decade, prepare to be hit by a bunch of instincts that may well make you very eager to get intimate with others – typically, but by no means always, members of the complementary sex. Some of you might experience the instincts differently: nature's more complicated than I can explain in just a few paragraphs, so pay attention to where your instincts are trying to pull you. Whichever way those instincts do pull, be aware that it's often smarter to be amused by them than to obey them. Quite apart from parenting, you may find you care – or those your instincts want you to get intimate with care – about more than just the immediate experience of that intimacy: those instincts are going to complicate your social life. As a general rule of thumb, it's smart to get to know someone well, socially, before allowing your instincts to have any greater influence than to encourage you to get to know them.

It may sound a bit coy that I talk about instincts making you eager to get intimate with someone: but actually that's a pretty literal description of the greater part of what they do. If you do get intimate with those your instincts are dragging you towards, those instincts will reward you with some pleasure: and hijack your intelligence a bit, interfering with your ability to think clearly about what you're doing and why. At the same time, while you're off balance, it'll sneak up on you with a bunch of stronger instincts that focus a bit more closely on the ulterior motive behind all thses instincts. At each level of intimacy, your instincts make sure you like going along with what your instincts suggest; and less subtle instincts trigger to encourage greater intimacy. The up-side of all this, for you, is that it can feel really nice; and sharing that experience with whoever else is involved can really strenghthen the social bond between you.

There are downsides. The relatively widely discussed ones include becoming parents and transmitting various diseases: both of those can largely be managed by taking suitable precautions. Your instincts may tell you not to bother with that – they're not as smart as you, so they don't see that you can wait a few years yet to have babies; don't let them fool you. Still, even with those precautions, there's a downside: in fact, I mentioned it just a moment ago: it can really strenghthen the social bond between you. I mentioned it first as part of the up-side, which it truly is – provided the social relation it binds you to is healthy. It works just as well to bind you into an unhealthy relationship, too: and that can work out pretty badly. Getting to know each other well is a good way to gain insight into which way such a relationship shall work out.

In any case, all of that will come along when it does: until then, rejoice in being the most intelligent creatures known to science, enjoy satisfying your curiosity – and don't let the preoccupations that make grown-ups dumb distract you more than just enough to prepare yourself to cope with them when your own dumb instincts start inflicting them on you, too. Until then, relish the ease with which you can make sensible decisions and learn, as far as you can, to distinguish good sense from distractions, wisdom from knowledge and genuine affection from mere desire.

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