Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


12.2.2  Optional Sex

What about the fascinating possibility that extraterrestrials might be able to choose their sex voluntarily in some fashion? How much different the world would be if sex were a matter of choice rather than accident or compulsion! It would also matter a great deal whether the decision to switch was made by society, by pressing cultural or environmental exigencies, or by the individual himself (who might exercise his sexual option at puberty).

Xenologists are convinced that optional sexuality is a real prospect for alien lifeforms because of the many times this system has arisen independently on Earth. One common transformation, found among starfish, the slug (Limax maximus), and the molluscan gastropods Crepidula plana and Patella, involves a changeover from male to female. The cause in this case is environmental. When necessary to maintain proper ecological balance, some members of the colony will voluntarily transmute from male to simultaneous hermaphrodite. Soon thereafter, they blossom into full females without any trace of maleness remaining.

Given the relatively major body alterations that occur during puberty in the higher mammals, it is not inconceivable that ETs might be capable of altering sex in response to the environment.

Extraterrestrials may also be able to change sex as a purely personal prerogative.2863 Quite a few terrestrial creatures can switch back and forth between male and female on a regular basis -- and at their own pleasure. The most notable examples include the oyster and the clam.

The native oyster begins its life as a male. After a year or two, it may change to female much like a sequential hermaphrodite. But after the animal has "ovulated" (deposited its ova into the mantle cavity), it becomes "white sick" and reverts to maleness.

While still carrying its own embryos, the female oyster can fully retool as a working male in a matter of weeks. Male and female phases typically follow one another, in irregular cycles a few months long. This ensures that all fertilized eggs are the product of different parents, and eliminates the problem of accidental self-fertilization.

Intelligent extraterrestrials modeled after the changeable oyster would probably experience fewer psychological conflicts, in many ways, than humans. Each individual would have the advantage of knowing the world from the viewpoint of either sex. Furthermore, the opportunity to assume the role of either mate at any time could encourage what some earthlings might regard as a promiscuous social and cultural code of liberal sexual behavior. Their political, legal, religious and humanistic traditions would doubtless reflect this added layer of complexity.

While the sexual identity of aliens may be regulatable either by the environment or by the individual as discussed above, it may also be subject to sociocultural management. There is ample precedent for this on Earth. Numerous behavioral adaptations exist which allow colonies to regulate their sex ratio (the fraction of each sex in the population). These systems usually favor the female, and it is easy to see why.

The female carries the egg. This is the basic raw material of reproductive activity. On the other hand, the male’s function is clearly ancillary. He is expendable.

Consider the purely "parthenogenic" species, in which the male is dispensed with altogether. In such systems of virgin birth, eggs develop into full adults without ever being fertilized at all. The sawfly is a case of an all-female species. All of their eggs develop into more insect females, with no males -- or sex -- required in the process.89 This amounts to practical unisexuality.

In less extreme systems, the male is not totally expendable but is still optional. A typical colony of the crustacean waterflea Daphnia is all-female, producing offspring by parthenogenesis like the sawfly. But at the first sign of trouble, such as overpopulation or the approach of winter, an interesting thing happens. The females "panic," and lay some eggs which quickly develop into males.

If the trouble passes without incident, the males have no duties to perform and are ignored by the females -- who continue breeding parthenogenically as before. But if major difficulties do materialize, the females deign to use the male stud service to increase variability in the gene pool and ensure survival of the colony. Says one marine biologist of this arrangement: "Males are necessary, but only as a last resort."*

So we might expect that if society has the final say, alien races will consist mostly of females when optional sex is available. Many females can be sexually serviced by a single male, so this choice is hardly surprising. What is striking and unusual is the degree of social stratification which frequently results. Biological caste systems are not uncommon.

Honeybees are a case in point. The focus is on the only fertile female, the queen bee. A hive’s queen mates but once in her lifetime, and then only with a single male and only on her nuptial flight.** All the eggs the queen will ever produce must be fertilized by the sperm stored from that single mating.

As a general rule only female offspring are produced, and the beehive is populated almost exclusively by sisters. Males appear only occasionally in small numbers, whenever a new queen is needed either to replace an aging matron or to found a new colony.

The apian assembly line is faintly reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All eggs start in the queen’s ovaries. If they are not fertilized they grow into male bees called drones. Most eggs, however, are fertilized and placed in tiny compartments in the hive. Those which are fed the regular pap of the drones mature into female bees called workers. Larvae raised on a specially enriched nutrient mix (royal jelly) grow into queens.

Notice that the honeybee has a genetically programmed three-caste system. Queens constitute the reproductive caste. Workers, while technically females, are really neuters because their sex organs are degenerate. They represent the laboring caste, able to carry on with the daily chores of the hive without the distraction of sex. The drones, or stud caste, are virile males who lack this admirable detachment and are not good for useful work. They are usually exterminated by the workers at the approach of winter.

Ant and termite societies have four castes -- generally two classes of royalty and two classes of industrious eunuchs. As with bees, the queen retains many fertilized eggs in her swollen belly. Kinghood and queenhood is the reward for those few active larvae who are fortunate enough to make an early escape from the maternal womb. For the vast majority, however, the exit is delayed and a horrible thing happens to them: They begin to be reabsorbed back into the body of the gravid female. The longer they delay, the smaller they are at birth. The largest become soldiers, the smallest workers. (All are sterile.)

It is a kind of merit system. The more active the organism, the bigger its body and the higher its social status.

The extrapolation of a breeding system with genetic castes to a race of intelligent extraterrestrials has been attempted by science fictioneers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their recent collaboration The Mote in God’s Eye.668 Their aliens, the Moties, have many tens of biological castes, each one specializing in a particular societal function. Depending on the details of birth, there are Engineers, Farmers, Mediators, Warriors, and so forth. Though the Moties are fictional, can reality be much less strange?

As suggested earlier, there is no real limit to the dimensions of bisexual reproduction. To some ETs, optional sex may mean more than mere changeability. It may mean instead the decision to reproduce, the option to mate, the choice between life and death.

Consider the common mole, Antichinus stuarti. These tiny animals have a brief but concentrated rutting season spanning only a few days in June. Shortly after copulation, a sudden surge of hormones automatically kills the male. This makes available greater quantities of food, water, and other critical resources for the pregnant female and, later, for the developing fatherless family.

The price of love is death.

Extraterrestrials patterned after such a scheme may exist on some arid world in our Galaxy. Could humans hope to fathom the psychology of an alien species in which marriage was the culmination of the life of every father, in which only females lived on from year to year and provided social continuity, and in which a single act of sex meant inevitable, almost instant, death? Conversely, could such sentient ETs comprehend our peculiar addiction to erotica, our marriage vows, our complex family life, our political institutions, or our social sexual mores and taboos?

And which of us would better know, and understand, the true meaning of ecstasy?


* Parthenogenesis (all-female reproduction) is not limited to insects. Many species of lizards, for instance, commonly reproduce without males.2583

** The penis of the male honeybee breaks off during mating, and he promptly bleeds to death. The severed organ remains inside the queen for some time thereafter, serving as a plug to prevent the semen from dribbling out.


Last updated on 6 December 2008