What if Humans were Asexual

Sometimes I like to think about weird counter factual universes. In other words, if you change one knob of our universe, what are the implications? This kind of exercise can illustrate the particular strangeness of things we often take for granted.

So, just imagine for a moment what the world would be like if humans reproduced asexually instead of sexually.

In this world, there’d be no genders. No men and women. So from the get-go, culturally this would be a very foreign world.

But more than that, there’s no sexual attraction in this world; it’s not just that there’s only one gender and that you can map this onto what it might be like to be homosexual (to be sexually attracted to your own gender). No, it’s more subtle than that.

Sexual attraction results from sexual reproduction: In a gendered world you need a mate to reproduce, and you’re attracted to those that you perceive to have good genes. So in a world without sexual reproduction, there’d be no reason to be attracted to anyone else in that way. There’d be no pining love songs, no valentine’s day, no teen-age hormonal recklessness.

The idea of romantic love just wouldn’t exist. There might be deep friendships, but no chemical craziness in your brain would be drawing you towards women with hip-waist ratios ideal for birthing. Romantic love seems at first like such an integral part of the human experience — but from this perspective it seems almost just like something tacked on by evolution.

Of course, it’s both.

Licking trees: Why do we drink coffee instead of taking caffeine pills?

I have a mild coffee addiction. The aroma of good coffee is intoxicating, and the balanced bitterness of an Americano just hits the spot in the morning.

The funny thing is, I used to hate the taste of coffee. Yet now on most days I will gladly spend a few dollars at Einstein’s or Starbucks.

I also appreciate a good beer. A brown ale with a hint of vanilla, a pale ale like Magic Hat #9, or a Tucher hefewizen. There is a remarkable variety and depth among beers, and I love trying out new brews.

However, my first Natural Light in a friend’s basement in high school was awful. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would drink something that tasted like urine. But now, I can spend $5 on a bottle of craft beer without second thought because it tastes delicious to me.

Coffee as a drug-vehicle

It’s funny how over time coffee and beer became habits of mine. I had to acquire both tastes. Why is it that so many people do acquire these particular tastes that initially offend our tongues? The answer is simple and unsurprising: Both coffee and beer are vehicles for psychoactive drugs (caffeine and alcohol) with pleasant effects.

You might initially drink a coffee as a pick-me-up in the morning (not initially for its flavor), and perhaps have a beer to relax after a long day of work (though at first not because you like beer). But here’s an interesting question: Why not just take a caffeine pill instead of coffee when we need some energy — or a quick shot of alcohol instead of a beer when we want to take the edge off?

While this might seem like a dumb question at first, it is interesting because a caffeine pill more purely meets the need that coffee initially fills, i.e. a quick burst of energy.

It’s cheaper and more direct — a caffeine pill costs less than 10 cents and is equivalent (in terms of active ingredient) to a cup and a half of fresh coffee. Further, it doesn’t have the “learning curve” of coffee — it’s flavorless. Yet how many people do you know that pop caffeine pills instead of drinking coffee? No one does that. Even though on some level it is more logical — it delivers the effect without the unnecessary ceremony. You should take caffeine pills for energy, and drink a beverage for its flavor.

Drinking Honestly

A friend of mine relayed an interesting story about a drinking habit of someone they knew. When this person wanted to drink, he would measure out a few shots of alcohol and drink it quickly with a funnel (kind of like some people funnel beers in college). In about an hour, the alcohol would take effect suddenly.

While most people might think this is weird, I respect this odd habit: It seems more intellectually honest. Many people drink to get drunk sometimes on the weekend, and get caught up in elaborate ceremonies: Drinking games, beer after beer, mixed drinks and shots taken over time. Why not just embrace that ultimately drinking is all about alcohol: Purify the effect and admit that you are just consuming a drug to temporarily affect your psychology.

Licking Trees

The point of all this is just to bring to awareness that the habits you acquire are mostly a function of what they are a vehicle for; running and sex provide endorphins, wine and beer provide alcohol, coffee and soda provide caffeine. Many things have the potential for the same depth and variety that beers or coffees demonstrate.

But beers and coffees are drugs at heart, socially-acceptable ones at that, with years of accumulated ceremony and culture. You can probably acquire a taste for anything given enough persistence, but you are more likely to acquire those that bait your reward circuits and/or are already socially established.

Hidden depth and variety is all around us. As a parting thought, imagine that every day for two years you go out each morning and you lick a different tree. I think that over time if you kept the habit up you would actually develop a taste for them. You would begin to perhaps prefer deciduous over conifers, and find new dimensions of variation among different barks. You might begin to recognize the effects of different soils on flavor, or how being struck by lightning leaves a certain bitterness. Perhaps in some alternate world, such a hobby emerged instead of stamp collecting or bird-watching (both of which also have surprising depth).

Also, my life will be complete if someone actually undertakes and documents this experiment for me.

While Not Climax: Insert, Remove

The way current illicit drugs work are crude. You take them, they short-circuit your pleasure circuits, they create addiction and ruin lives. But it seems likely that science will at some point allow us to create more effective mind-altering drugs. For example, what if there was a drug or a surgery that allowed you to change the structure of your internal reward system. First let’s just consider if you could remap what foods you found delicious.

Rethinking Delicious

We find fatty and sugary foods so hard to resist because they are energy-dense. Our bodies evolved in a time when energy was scarce. So our pleasure circuits reflect this. If you were drawn to high-fat food in cave man days, you were more likely to survive the winter. But those evolutionary circumstances no longer hold, as our waistlines show. People literally eat themselves to death because of our genes’ obsolescence (evolution is slow relative to how fast our culture has progressed).

What if you could make carrots taste like twinkees? What if you could remap your tastes so that what was healthy and what was scrumptious were found right in the middle of that Venn diagram. How disruptive would that be? Dessert shops would sell spinach-celery brownies glazed with salmon frosting, and all bars would offer up wheatgrass shots. We’d be healthier and happier, and the obesity crisis would be averted painlessly.

Rethinking Orgasm

Now consider sex. Imagine how much time is wasted, how much of the world’s intrigues are driven by a process that at heart is: Insert part A into part B — repeat — repeat. Before you get all huffy about how nice sex feels, remember that technology is granting us the ability to remap our desires. What if you got the sensation of super-orgasm from solving a particularly difficult equation — or from knocking the next item off your to-do list?

Don’t forget that sex feels so good only because our genes can control us through our desire for it. People cheat on those they love because it requires so much discipline to conquer the id. Our genes want to control us, to take us from our high-minded aspirations and make sure that we reproduce them. We’re their vehicles — they exert their dominance through our sex drive.

The Point

The point is this. At some point in the future, technology may force us to resolve the philosophical question that humans have always struggled with: What does it mean to be human? If being human is not about sex, or about delicious food (which we can see as transparent reflections of our genes’ wishes for us) what is it about? When we have the ability to align our motivations with our greatest aspirations (which I think is of vital importance to the human race, lest we destruct ourselves), then is what remains humanity?

Nature has imposed some weird constraints upon us. We eat ourselves to death, we hurt those we love, we fail to do the things we want, all because of our outdated genes. When the technology comes to help us overcome the need for discipline, it will be an interesting day.

Disfigurement Paradox; Hacking Attraction

One characteristic of hackers is that they are generally sensitive to logical inconsistencies; for example, the WAT talk making its rounds points out comical seeming inconsistencies in javascript and ruby: Why should empty array plus empty array = empty string? A more stereotypical example is noticing plot holes in movies that undermine plausibility, e.g. the entire Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the logic of relationships and dating. What follows is a paradox that reveals an inconsistency in our values.

Disfigurement Paradox

Imagine you are dating someone; she is attractive and funny and a perfect match for you. Over time, you fall deeply in love with her and eventually you get married. It is clear to you that she is the love of your life. Then, tragically, she is in a horrible auto accident by no fault of her own. She survives, but is horribly disfigured.

What do you do? You would hopefully stick by this person, this love of your life, even though you may no longer find her physically attractive. By this point in the relationship, what you most value about her are deeper qualities such as personality, sense of humor, and values. We would deem it shallow and perhaps even cowardly to leave only because of such a superficial trait.

Yet in the beginning of relationships such superficiality is the norm. That is, given the option of more attractive mates people tend not to date ugly people. At the limit case, I imagine it is a sad truth that those who are extremely disfigured and single find dating a significant challenge.

So what is inconsistent is that a key factor in beginning a relationship becomes increasingly unimportant as that relationship progresses; had your future spouse gotten disfigured before you met they would have likely been disqualified from your dating process. This is weird. It would be like if a key factor for hiring you for a job as a computer programmer was an orthogonal factor like how green your eyes were.

Biology imposes some weird things on us that we are tempted to accept as normal because it is ubiquitous as part of the human condition. We are attracted to weird things like hip ratios and facial symmetry because at one point these indicators were relevant to our survival and were encoded into our genes. Yet they don’t make sense any more. For example, obesity is a problem caused by our bodies being overly conservative, greedily storing energy just in case of a bad winter, because this made sense when we had to hunt and pizzas could not be delivered on demand.

Hacking Attraction

Imagine you were free of biological constraint, what would a replacement attraction system for dating look like? That is, if you could program what you were attracted to, what would it be? I would entirely discount physical appearance and focus on the merits of our intellectual matching, the quality of our conversation, our shared values.

The important thing would be that in this replacement system, I would not be turned off by ugliness. I might be aware of it, but I wouldn’t care. My ideals of attractiveness would simply be at odds with what biology intended.

As of right now, my heuristics for dating eliminate unfairly the ugly despite how unimportant that trait should be. It is a glaring biological hindrance that I am not strong enough to dispel. How would the world be better if we could reprogram attraction? Imagine if medical technology made such a thing possible? Would you allow yourself to reprogram your own attraction, or perhaps even your own pleasure circuits?

Misunderstanding Reality: Why Kevin Mitnick Needlessly Suffered

Kevin Mitnick was promoting his new book, Ghost in the Wires, on the Colbert Report. It turned out that of his 5 years he spent in prison for hacking, the first was in solitary confinement. Why?

Colbert: Why a year in solitary confinement? You don’t look like a dangerous guy.

Mitnick: [...] The prosecutor had told the judge during a bail hearing that I could pick up the telephone and connect to NORAD and whistle the launch codes and launch a nuclear weapon. And because of this the judge had a special order that I’d have to be held in prison without access to a telephone. So, the only place they could put me was in solitary confinement. So I was there about a year.Colbert: Can you do that? Could you do that? Because that would be bad-ass.


This seems like another situation in which sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s third law applies:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

To those who misunderstand reality and what is possible, the prosecutor’s ridiculous assertion seems plasuible. That is, when technology seems like magic to you, your intuitions of what this magic is capable of are going to be awful. As a result, a man was needlessly separated from human contact for a year.