Sex, Trees, and Other Things


But you all should definitely go check him out at GW’s Lisner Hall on Wednesday night!

Many of us know Bill Nye the Science Guy as the quirky man who popped up on our classroom projectors explaining what cells are and how they work or other topics from science. In this article, he takes on a new topic that I think will make his young viewers a little uneasy: sex! To be more accurate, he explains how sexual selection is an evolutionary trait, something that exists so that all biological organisms could evolve. Nye starts his article with a comedic introduction, for all of the readers out there who might be uncomfortable with this topic, by saying that the best evidence for sexual selection is when he caught himself staring at his hot cousin. Obviously, this means that our sex drive is a biological characteristic that is instilled in everyone.

Nye points out that not only humans experience sexual selection but animals, plants, trees, bugs all have to mate to produce offspring. The article highlights the unique, and often difficult, sexual processes of different organisms. Like apple trees, they put in immense effort to produce the trunk, branches, leaves, and apples, all in hopes that some other organism will take an apple and plant the tree’s seed somewhere else. He speculates that sexual selection began with two primordial microbes that shared genes with each other and these began to develop into complex genes which lead to the invention of sex.

To simplify natural selection and sexual selection, he describes the latter as the first step in a stream of reproduction. Organisms must first select a mate to make “good-enough” offspring with. Nye argues that this concept of producing “good enough” offspring is more practical than saying the “fittest” offspring.

Referring back to Nye’s explanation of the birth of sexual selection, he maintains that the reason why there are only two binary sexes is because sex began with two microbes, one being the recipient and the other the donor. With the rise in awareness of the queer culture, does Nye’s argument of a two-sex society conflict with people who identify as intersex or transexual? Or does it provide a different insight on this society? Adn what about asexual people, who have little to no desire to mate? Where do sexual selection and eugenics differ and is the urge to produce a child that is physically and mentally “good enough” an unconscious factor that influences mate selection?

If you are not familiar with terms used by the queer community then here is a link to some definitions:

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36 Responses to Sex, Trees, and Other Things

  1. I love this post, pigfish1116, and I think that it draws attention to a really important issue in today’s intersection between science and social justice. I think that Bill Nye’s line between the “recipient” and the “donor” in sexual selection is a soft one, and one that will become increasingly malleable as public opinions and policy around intersex and transsexual individuals moves towards a more accepting end of the spectrum–which I hope will happen sooner rather than later. I think that the urge to produce a “good” offspring stems from societal demands, and though the queer community may have a decreased overall need to mate at all, they still feel the need to be good enough the same way that others feel the need for their offspring to be good enough. Moreover, I think that the need to be “good enough” is something that permeates not only mating, but nearly everything that humans do. To the end of evolution, being good enough is essentially the basis of survival of the fittest, as you briefly mention in your post. I think that we are moving more towards a world where being good enough means something different for everyone, particularly the LGBT community, and I think that the continuation of this will make Bill Nye’s ideas about binary genders more of a guideline for some than a hard and fast rule for all.

    • pigfish1116 says:

      I think that your comment about the connection between recipient and donor and binary genders becoming more malleable is very interesting! I’m assuming that you mean the connection will become more socially malleable, meaning that it can be individually interpreted however people would like to and would also include other possible sexes. Do you think that our daily struggle to be “good enough”, which you argued, is an evolutionary trait, a part of human nature? Also, is there a societal definition of good enough?

      • I think that it is something that has evolved in us as a population/as a society, but i’m not sure if the evolution of the constant need to be sufficient is something that came from the normal guidelines for evolution. I see it as more of a product of cultural evolution.

    • sm4321 says:

      I think you made a very good response to the post, apluckypremed. I applaud your inclusion of the LGBT community in your analysis. I think that the “good enough” idea is something that is particularly true of humans, as we are a species that is often driven by our desire for sex. Somebody had to say it. I think that our desire to “mate” often overrides our desire to stick it out and find the “best” mating partner. Do you think there will be evolutionary consequences for this inability to wait? Or do you think our species will stop making significant advances in evolution (not including technological advances in this consideration) because of this and stagnate to some degree?

      • Sm4321- That is a very interesting question you bring up. I would just like to add a little insight to your comment. After taking biological-anthropology, I learned that the desire to mate is found more expressed within males, that may be in humans or chimpanzees. Females, on the other hand, are willing to wait and find the partner that will provide them with whatever they need to survive, in chimpanzees that might be the ability to acquire food. Having that in mind, I do not believe that there could be evolutionary consequences to this being that females, most not all, will wait to find that “perfect” match as well natural selection rule out the un-wanted or unnecessary traits. To answer your second question, I believe that humans will get to the point were we will be able to create clones of ourselves and keep them stored, such as what occurred in the film The Island if anyone recalls. We are near the point were we will have the ability to play the role of God or natural selection, whichever you may suit best.

      • butterjones says:

        I think it’s so interesting that you bring up the question, “do you think our species will stop making significant advances in evolution (not including technological advances in this consideration) because of this and stagnate to some degree?”

        to some degree, i think that this question cannot be asked without taking technological advances into consideration, because I think that any hypothetical slowing of our naturally-propogated advancement (through sexual selection) will be made-up for many times over by technology for artificial selection. It may be that people nowadays are less disposed to choose “mates” for survival reasons (although, I’m not even certain of this… aren’t we still attracted to intelligence? muscular physique? nurturing characteristics? just a thought) but we already have the beginnings of technology to allow for us to select desirable traits for our offspring. With PGD and the like, it is likely for our evolution to pick up speed, if anything… not slow down. Although, whether this is desirable is a whole ‘nother animal…

        Also, people keep mentioning the “rise” of the LGBT community “lessening our need to mate”… This isn’t really relevant, for several reasons… first, that although in the past many LGBT couples could not produce biological offspring, new technologies have made it quite possible. Not only are sperm and egg donors an obvious option, but it is possible for two women to have a baby without a man’s contribution whatsoever. Also, even without the contributions (of babies, that is) of LGBT individuals, we have a growing problem with over-population. There are more children in need of a home than there are people to adopt them, so the lack of lil gay babies is not an issue in that sense

        …but maybe i misinterpreted people’s point in regards to that?

  2. pigfish, thank you for the interesting post.
    This is an interesting topic and can be very loaded. In regards to your question about whether or not there is a unconscious sexual selection driving our mating desire, I think that it is possible. Oftentimes people are more attracted to those who they find to be like minded and share common values. In this sense there might be an urge to have them as a partner because the individual has the belief that they can create a child with these similar attributes and values together. But this only deals with issues of morality which can be argued isnt a genetically transferred aspect of humans. As far as genetics goes, and passing on physical genetic traits to children, the idea of sexual desire affecting our sexual selection becomes a little more tricky. For me it seems like it would make sense for sexual selection to affect sexual desire. The desire to create a healthy, attractive, and “fit” child is inherent in all humans. However, where I think the problem lies is in the changing perception of beauty. Whether its right or wrong, true or false, new cultural opinions about beauty appear often. Back in the middle ages it was more attractive for people to be pale and a little fatter because it was a symbol of wealth. These attributes showed that people werent working out in the fields and that they had plenty of food to eat, so it would be beneficial to be with them. And this affected the general perception of beauty. However, nowadays it can be argued that skinnier or more fit people who have a nice tan are more attractive. Because of the changing cultural perceptions of beauty I find it hard to believe that there is a biological drive that conditions who we find to be attractive and who find to not be attractive. There are hormones that make you want to preform the act of reproducing but these hormones dont explain why some people find different types of people attractive. It is all relative, which presents a problem for a common sexual selection.

    • sm4321 says:

      I agree with your argument, vikingsfootball33 and I think this is an area where the argument of Nye is lacking.

    • pigfish1116 says:

      I think your argument about sexual selection being relative is explained comprehensively and even intriguingly! The process of selecting a mate has social elements, of course, but I interpreted your argument as stating that sexual selection has socially evolved rather than biologically evolved. Are you saying that the only biological process in sexual selection is the human’s need to mate? Would you say that sexual selection has evolved because more and more people are not wanting to reproduce “good enough” offspring or could this occurrence be something that just wasn’t documented in history?

    • greyelephant1 says:

      I really like this point vikingsfootball33. I agree with you and sm4321 that Nye does not elaborate much on this. I agree with your idea that there is not a biological drive that formulates a general idea to how someone finds someone attractive. Pansexuals will be attracted to any gender, of any orientation. While there are hormones, as you made a good point of mentioning, hormones don’t dictate why some men find blue eyes and blonde hair more attractive than brown eyes and brown hair. Nye tries to uncover what drives one to mate with another and having it be someone that will best provide for their offspring, but that does not explain the cultural aspect of sexual attraction.

    • waterbottle19 says:

      I think your cultural interpretation of the concept of beauty is really interesting. I agree that the concept of beauty does change with time and is not the same in different cultures as well. The question truly is how much of attraction is biological and how much is socially imposed.

      • butterjones says:

        i totally agree, water bottle– i think that an interesting point Nye failed to address is the influence of nature vs. nurture when it comes to what we find sexually attractive. I’m not expert, but I would reckon it has quite a lot more to do with nurture. Which, actually, relies back to what we were talking about in our discussion of the paleo diet, and the like…

  3. greyelephant1 says:

    pigfish1116, you chose an interesting and relevant topic for this week. I really liked this article because it is interesting to hear about Bill Nye’s ideas on something that is not discussed as much. As vikingsfootball33 said, it is a very loaded topic. To bring in your topic of relating what Bill Nye said to the queer community, I think that there is support to Nye’s idea about how humans are attracted to other humans. As he said, “we are all driven to find a mate”, I think that not only applies to heterosexual beings but it also applies to people who classify themselves as a pansexual, transexual, homosexual and asexual. I personally have a friend who defines herself as an “asexual pan-romantic” person, meaning she does not feel sexual attraction yet she still feels romantic attraction to people of any type. While I think this mating concept is correct, I think some of his other statements could be viewed badly by society. As pigfish1116 mentioned, saying there are two genders could offend people. There are genderless people. My friend has another friend who does not identify as ‘him’ or ‘her’ and likes to be referred to as ‘it’ or other words that do not classify a sex even though it has a biological sex of female. Nye’s insight into this topic is well written and has good information, such as his own experiences, to back up his claims. In the end, Nye is just taking data and formulating ideas. So with the awareness of the queer community, some of the ideas may be amended, but for while the concepts of asexual, transexual and many of the other terms people identify themselves as were not recognized with society greatly, so I can see how he formulated his claims. This does not mean I think they should not offend people, but in the end, Nye just took his experiences and other data he has gathered to come up with ideas.

    • sm4321 says:

      greyelephant1 – I think that your comment poses something we had really yet to consider. There are so many different types of identities today as far as sexual preferences go, and these preferences span much further than the typical “male + female = sex and sometimes baby” equation. Although Nye does make some compelling arguments, as you mentioned, his findings are founded on “taking date and formulating ideas”. Much of these formulated ideas are based off of scientific findings and information and lack the reality of modern day society and how much different we are than the generations that have come before us. So do you think that with a changing society things such as this (what is discussed by Mr. Nye) will change and find new types ideas and concepts? I think that it is fair to assume that things will always be changing to some degree, but this may be a time of extreme change for the scientific understanding of sexual preferences and how that relates to the practices of mating.

      • greyelephant1 says:

        sm4321, you raise a good question. To be completely honest, I’m not sure whether there will be an extreme change. I think that as society evolves, there will bow some changes in ideas and scientists will always be looking for more answers.

    • collegeblogger19 says:

      greyelephant1, I agree that some of the things that Bill Nye brought up could be controversial to our modern society–especially his concept of “binary genders”. Many people do not identify themselves in this once “traditional” concept of society. I think it is important to consider that we need more scientific investigation to explore these relatively new gender identifications due to our more accepting society and how it relates to evolution, sexual selection, and genetics.

    • pigfish1116 says:

      Thank you so much for sharing information about real people who could possibly be offended by Nye’s argument. Just to clarify, Nye was arguing that there are two binary sexes in the world, he didn’t specifically say gender, which sex and gender differ.

      • sunny2018 says:

        Absolutely. I think that a lot of people forget that biological sex (what you are assigned at birth) is different from gender (what you identify as, separate from biology). It’s definitely an important thing to distinguish

  4. waterbottle19 says:

    Interesting post! In response to your first question, I am going to presuppose that homosexuality and asexuality are genetic. There is already ample evidence to support this found in genes. I would like to offer a scientific response in contrast to the responses so far that are social or cultural answers. I am primarily basing my comment on this article :

    Essentially, the article outlines the hypothesis created by certain scientists that views homosexuality as a mechanism for protection from overpopulation. Civilizations have been observed to decline with an overabundant population. With organisms having the ability to adapt to the environment, it wouldn’t seem completely far-fetched that animals and humans could adapt (only part of the population) to overpopulation by the emergence of homosexuality. If part of the population doesn’t reproduce, then it could potentially save the rest of the species from extinction. However, this is just a hypothesis and could all be wrong. I introduced this because I found it interesting. Tell me what you guys think.

    • sm4321 says:

      I think that you bring up a very interesting idea, waterbottle19. I had never heard of this idea that homosexuality is a mechanism of protection from overpopulation. I wonder then, what you think the long term effects may be? As you mentioned above, you believe that “homosexuality and asexuality are genetic”. With this being said, is homosexuality really a mechanism to prevent overpopulation? How could it be when it will continue to be passed on to other generations? Will this be a constant in humans from this point on or is it simply a temporary trend as we have surged in human population? I do not mean to interrogate you, I mainly am enthralled by this idea and would like to explore it more.

      • graduallychanging says:

        Sm4321, homosexuality could not serve as a mechanism to prevent overpopulation. According to natural selection, the genomes of the the individuals that have more children will be better represented in the next generation, assuming that all other factors are the same, and will eventually be established in the population. From a reproductive point of view, the people that do not reproduce will not leave copies of their genes, preventing future generations from having a gene established that promotes not having children.

        If you need a fairly recent point of reference, approximately “37% of lesbian, gay,
        or bisexual (LGB) identified individuals have had a child.”

        Source for above statistic:

        • moneytrees3001 says:

          I don’t think that we have to throw out the idea of natural selection protecting us from over-population. It seems like a reasonable idea, because the people who have the most kids pass on the most of their genes and are successful; overpopulation seems like a necessary product of that model. However, it is in no one’s interest to overpopulate, as this drains the ecosystem and comes with a host of other environmental and survival problems. For example, the best viruses don’t keep 100% of the people they infect, even Ebola, as they need the population to continue growing so more hosts will become available. If all mammals die, the virus dies with them. So natural selection seems likely to benefit those who control their growth- no more panicking about Ebola!

    • pianokid123 says:

      waterbottle19, there is evidence for your claim that homosexuality protects from overpopulation. For instance, for every additional child a mother rears, their chances of being gay increases. Some even hypothesize that homosexuality is a form of altriusm, and that homosexuality emerged because gay couples would be able to help their brothers and sisters raise their children, thus helping a close-knitted family pass on their genes. While nobody knows for certain why homosexuality exists, there is overwhelming proof that it is genetically linked. I hate when people claim (not that anybody on this blog has) that homosexuality cannot possibly be geneticaly linked because in some indentical twins, one is gay and the other isn’t. Yes, but that same is true for autism. Do people choose to be autistic?! No. Clearly, sexuality is much more complicated than a simple dominant vs recessive Mendelian archetype, and has an extremley complicated method of inheritance, involves multiple genes, and is extremley complex in gene regulation.

  5. collegeblogger19 says:

    Great post, pigfish1116! I think the concept of sexual selection is very interesting when talking about humans because our society affects our desires in a lot of ways. As vikingsfootball33 brought up, humans’ perception of beauty doesn’t seem to be a constant variable but rather a changing conception. Therefore, while selecting a mate, it is a different process for different individuals. People are attracted to different kinds of people, which I think this gives insight into the diversity and individuality of the human species. Bill Nye talks about the effort that all organisms put forth to reproduce, and I think humans are no exception. We want to present ourselves as “good enough” in order to mate with another “good enough” human being. I think this concept of “good enough” that stems from sexual selection has affected our society with materialistic things that we hope will make us look “better” to others.
    I also think that the idea of “binary genders” will transform to accommodate for the LGBT community. As our society becomes more accepting, people are becoming more comfortable to share their sexual orientation and preferences. And, furthermore, as our society becomes more accepting the “binary gender” idea will become more malleable as apluckypremed mentions to include the LGBT community.

    • sm4321 says:

      I think you’ve mentioned a lot of good points here, collegeblogger19. You have accounted for a lot of the holes in Nye’s work. I agree with what you articulated and the way you presented the idea of “good enough” as it pertains to modern day humans.

  6. This except from Mr. Nye’s book is very interesting and shows his ability to make fun of himself as an adolescent. Even when he was in high school, his intelligence forced him to look into his prom so much deeper than a simple date night. HIs insight is extremely fascinating.

    Pigfish1116, I really enjoy the questions you present; they dive much deeper into this topic and bring up the controversy in his scientific research. It’s applicable to modern day controversy rather than debating the validity of evolution from Darwin’s time.

    Bill Nye’s argument may be weaker if we focus on transexual or intersex persons. I believe that much of the research today regarding homosexuality or asexuality, is psychological and a possible abnormality in the brain rather than an trait that goes against our evolutionary nature. While I’m not planning on pursuing a career in the scientific field, I assume that Mr. Nye’s argument is pretty valid. I believe in the power of our brains to overcome the ‘natural’ heterosexual urges, since we as a human species have evolved so much beyond simple animalistic mating.

    • pigfish1116 says:

      I am a bit confused by your post slowdownyourmind. Can you clarify: Are you saying that being anything but heterosexual is an abnormality in the brain and if it is, wouldn’t that make it a mutation, something changing our evolutionary nature?

    • sunny2018 says:

      I agree with pigfish; could you clarify? And if you believe that anything other than heterosexuality is an abnormality (genetically speaking), do you have evidence/an article that corroborates this?

  7. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it for the Bill Nye event, however, thanks to you pigfish1116, I did the get the opportunity to read a splendid article of his. It’s interesting how he juxtaposes sexual libido with the battle of the sexes to drive his point home about the Darwin’s secondary theory on evolution, sexual selection. It’s important to understand why he emphasises on sex that much throughout the article, even though it’s considered something that is not to be mentioned or taboo in cultures. The following article talks about how male cognition would reduce in the absence of sex. It’s testament to the importance of sex and how fundamental it is to our evolutionary progress:

  8. sunny2018 says:

    I’m not sure that Nye is necessarily arguing that we are simply a two-gender society. There is a wide gender spectrum, and I think this shows that society is very complex. As waterbottle19 mentioned, there are theories that our sexual orientation is influenced by genetic factors, and that homosexuality is perhaps a mechanism to correct overpopulation. Our current ideas about sexual selection in humans don’t really address the fact that there is a gender spectrum rather than a simply binary divide. Human identity and sexuality is complex, and I think theories regarding sexual selection should be broadened in order to reflect this. After all, even our societal views of what is attractive are constantly changing. So many things concerning this topic are relative, so it’s hard to define the nature of sexual selection in humans.

    • butterjones says:

      i think you missed an important clarification that was made earlier in the discussion– “Nye was arguing that there are two binary sexes in the world, he didn’t specifically say gender, which sex and gender differ.” –Pigfish

  9. thinkbrush says:

    Nye is talking about the scientific process of reproduction in the human species. Biologically speaking, his arguments are sound as there are currently no widespread methods known to produce humans without one egg and one sperm (disregarding twins). I think that discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in this context requires a much deeper understanding of LGBTQ identities than I am currently aware and I’m afraid most of GW’s population is aware of. I think I can safely say that sometimes, things may not make perfect sense at first glance purely from the perspective of a biologist but in my opinion, all identities are valid and worth celebrating regardless if they are biologically equipped to independently produce offspring or not. Not everything in our universe must strictly adhere to the laws and principles we have established as humankind.

  10. macnplease says:

    Such an interesting article, especially imagining Nye’s cordial voice narrating it. I remember learning about the fundamentals of biological theories on sex, and its origins in our evolutionary history in High School biology. I was lucky enough to go to a school that explicitly and exclusively taught evolution, so this information is not new to me.

    I also do not think his theory and argument conflicts with the queer community’s interpretation of sexuality. Biologically, there are only two (common) outcomes, and these come from a determination of X/X genes or X/Y genes. Your attraction to the same sex is simply a slightly different genetic makeup; but the biology remains the same.

  11. pianokid123 says:

    I would like to make a few clarifications: biological sex is determined by the X and Y chromosomes and anatomical characteristics an individual posses. Gender, on the other hand, is how an individual chooses to express themselves (in terms of mannerisms, clothing, etc.) in society. Sex is innate while gender is constructed by society. (

    Also keep in mind people do not “choose” to be transgender. Gender dysphoria is a serious and deadly pyscological condition where an individual feels complete disgust with their body because it does not coincide with their internal resonance of what gender they are. It is a medical condition, and is therefore ridiculous transgender individuals are not ensured medical treatment, such as hormone therapy. Would you deny a suicidal person antidepressants? No — so what’s the difference? It is time we step up as a society and speak out against transphobic laws and attitudes.

    Note: Being transgender is NOT a medical condition or disease. However, gender dysphoria is.

  12. lumastan says:

    Interesting article! I never watched Bill Nye as a kid, but the few times i have seen him, he is very entertaining and fun. I have to agree with, macnplease, in that I don’t believe the article to be in opposition to the concept of sexuality, because sexes and sexualities are completely different thing. I find that there is no conflict in that sense at all.

    Regarding how sexualities in modern society reflect reproduction, I feel that the more we progress as a species, being a sentient and self-aware species, we no longer are constricted by the primal objectives that nature, instinct, and such say we must have – meaning that I dont believe that reproduction is as important to humans on an individual basis.

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