How Humans Figured Out The Connection Between Sex And Babies

I’m a big fan of Slate’s “Explainer” column, which enlists experts to answer those questions that boggle the mind. Oh, how this appeals to my inner science geek. Like when they explained why the rich and famous sunbathe topless. The answer: Because they can. Ha! OK, back to the question that caught my attention: How did humans figure out that sex makes babies? Ooh, good one! An abridged version of the answer after the jump.

Biological anthropologist, Holly Dunsworth theorizes that we have animals to thank for inspiring what she calls our “reproductive consciousness.” She explains:

“Most likely, we got the gist from observing animal reproduction cycles and generally noting that women who do not sleep with men do not get pregnant. But that doesn’t mean that early peoples—or for that matter, modern people—thought or think of the process in the utilitarian, sperm-meets-egg way that the scientifically literate do now … Of the entire animal world, ‘reproductive consciousness’ is unique to humans. That special knowledge may help explain both the evolution of our taboos around sex and our ability to bend nature’s procreative capacities to our favor in everything from dog-breeding to family planning.”

So, I think what she’s saying is that even though we may not have gotten the scientific details right of how babies are made — in 1927, the Trobriand Islanders thought that semen coagulated menstrual blood, the stoppage of which eventually led to a fetus — we are the only species that is actually aware of our ability to procreate. Interesting. [Slate]