One of the most powerful instincts impelling the behavior of the human animal is the desire for sex - you already knew that, of course. But actually, to be more precise, it’s the drive to reproduce. Sexual lust is a secondary phenomenon, as is (you might be disappointed to hear) love. That’s right, love is only an add-on, a late addition, an epiphenomenon, an instrument, a contrivance and, along with sexual pleasure, an inducement to do the right thing for the species. To us, this surely sounds like sacrilege.
It’s pretty obvious that a strong reproductive drive is an essential prerequisite for the continued existence of any species. No reproduction = no future; ‘extinction', in a word. How then does this drive manifest in the human species, specifically? It manifests in the insatiable hunger for sex and in sexual attraction to others, especially those who exhibit the greatest reproductive potentiality, which, as far as the ancient instincts are concerned, are the youthful, fertile, healthy and physically fit.
What about the love bit? Oh yeah, at bottom, that’s just the need to form psychosocial bonds that will keep a male and female together long enough to rear children to independence, which in humans takes years.
Nietzsche’s one-time Hero, Arthur Schopenhauer, called this reproductive drive ’the genius of the species’. He argued that it tramples the welfare of individuals underfoot by determining their emotions in such a way that they willingly enslave themselves to the species’ irrepressible instinct for survival. Think about it, sexual lust causes people to do some crazy, even dangerous, things - it’s not particularly rational. Similarly, having a child isn’t the most rational means of pursuing one’s apparent best interests. It is hugely expensive and frequently requires that parents de-prioritise or give up their own goals and dreams (assuming they have any, beyond having a family) in order to meet the development needs of this new person.
For Schopenhauer, love is best thought of as a kind of trap that has evolved to force couples together so they form a strong team, willing and capable of nurturing the next generation - not very romantic. The love for one’s child serves precisely the same end - to keep parents striving and contributing to the child’s development. Physical attraction, which is really just a kind of positive, mutual, evaluation of respective, reproductive potential, draws a man and a woman together. Lust induces them to mate and then they become the full-time servants of this late-coming interloper. Perhaps this is why couples sometimes break up once their children have left home - the pair-bond, their love, becomes surplus to requirements having served its evolutionary purpose.
This is all a simplification, of course, and many objections and exceptions may be cited. For example, human attraction is far more complicated - surely almost nobody is explicitly looking for reproductive potential? And isn’t it the case that people most often have sex purely for pleasure, avoiding at all costs the meeting of sperm and egg? What about homosexual love and sex - there’s clearly no reproductive driver there, right?
All wrong, of course. Nature determines everything. What we must understand is that the reproductive instinct is one of the oldest animal urges that inheres in our subconscious minds. It resides beneath the hugely complicated, multi-layered, fragmented and, as Nietzsche aptly demonstrates, fucked-up psyche of the modern individual. The reproductive instinct is blunt, it is blind, it is dumb and it can only change or adapt very slowly over enormous periods of time - in all probability, millions of years. It just commands us, in no particular order, ‘be drawn to maximally fertile physiology and successful genes’, it commands 'pair up for a long time’ and it commands ‘have sex’. These commands are felt as feelings, urges and tendencies but they are filtered through the complex layer of psychological accretions unique to each individual, including their familial genetics, their culture, their circumstances, their upbringing and their life experience.
The reproductive instinct doesn’t get that having big muscles might not be an optimal attribute for survival in the 21st Century. Though this preference is present at some level in each of us, it can be muffled and transmuted by our individuality into an attraction to, for example, someone who looks like a parent who was emotionally distant. Or perhaps there may be a preference for the nerdy type - especially since the attributes of a tech entrepreneur are a superior genetic recipe for success in our modern world when compared with the mere ability to hunt game.
Likewise, having evolved during aeons where humans were lucky to make it into adulthood alive, the reproductive instinct doesn’t get that youthful procreation might be practically disadvantageous in our society. It doesn’t get that the more sophisticated human cognitive apparatus that we have developed over the most recent millennia enables us to figure out how to enjoy the exquisite pleasures of love, intimacy and sex without the consequences. It doesn’t get condoms. It doesn’t get the pill. It doesn’t get homosexuality. It doesn’t get adoption. It doesn’t get Pornhub and will compel a young man to waste countless hours sweatily browsing, with zero chance of procreation taking place. At some level, all of us are driven to breed and raise children - it's just this signal is distorted by our unique individuality, and our historical situation, creating a diversity of tastes, preferences and lifestyle choices. It is even sometimes warped out of all recognition and taken to some very, very dark places.
Now, just because sex and love are little more than snares that have evolved to get us to obey the ‘genius of the species’, it doesn’t mean they are to be shunned. Inarguably, sex and love offer some of the greatest pleasures in life. For many of us, having children is enormously fulfilling too, even if we are ‘enslaved’ thereby. These things feel good, and those good feelings are the reward provided by our instincts for ostensibly promoting the survival of the species, even when we are being rewarded in error.
Though the primitive reproductive instinct is easily shortcircuited and seems rather dumb at times, Nietzsche encourages us to honour our instincts and avoid the historical mistake, a mistake which the Christians were especially prone to, of denigrating or attempting to eradicate our animal natures. They are powerful forces that will not be denied. They can break out in unhealthy ways if not given room to discharge. By the same token, these forces can be harnessed and put to productive use in the highest of endeavours.
Nietzsche was very positive about sex, especially when you consider that he lived in the late 1800s, when cultural prudishness was a part of the dominant moral climate. We will talk about his views in the next post, then go on to explore how we can be successful ourselves in our own ‘romantic’ lives. This is the first of a few posts I will be publishing on loneliness, dating and relationships as seen through the lens of Nietzsche’s teachings and appears here in response to a request from a subscriber to this blog.
Next post: To be no longer ashamed
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