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From Sex to Humanity: (Part 2 of 2)
How to be Human - A Guide in Two Parts Click Here for Part 1

Sex and sexuality are central to our being and socio-biologists are keen to emphasise the role they play in determining every day actions. But the result of our sexual origins is that we are bound into an intricate web of personal and social relationships.

by Pete Moore

Ever since giggling over rabbits in school biology lessons, we knew where we came from. There was the Daddy that bought the sperm and the Mummy that supplied the egg – and, at least in the case of mammals, a place for it to grow. But take a moment to think about it. Once we step out of the classroom into real life, our parents donate much more. They come with families of their own - a pedigree that stretches back further than records can tell.

Most of us take this for granted and think of it only occasionally. We see our grandparents from time-to-time, and a few of us are lucky to meet our great grandparents. And we know their stories. We are told what they did in the war, about the time they spent in far-flung countries; we might even hear of the time that a wayward uncle spent in jail.

The stories become part of our own identity. The family as it emerges in the way its history is retold infiltrates our very being, which is why it can be so painful to discover that the family you had always believed you had, was in fact fake.

This happened to Christine Whipp, a woman born in the south west of England in 1955. She was brought up believing the person she called ‘Dad’ was her father, only to discover just after she was 40 that her true Dad had been an anonymous sperm donor. She’d always suspected that there was something wrong with the family. After all how come she had blond hair instead of her ‘father’s’ genetically dominant dark hair. Her sense of who she was didn’t map with the story she was told. In Christine’s case the act of sex that initiated her arrival in the world had been disjointed, impersonal and occurred in a doctors consulting room, but it was still intrinsic to her being.

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Ssssh...Keep it quiet...You are turning into your parents!

The issue is now more than one of simple scientific curiosity, but is now pawed over by lawyers and politicians alike. A case crawling little faster than a snail through the English high court is challenging the law that guarantees anonymity to adults who donate sperm or eggs. It’s difficult to see how this law can stand. Your genetic heritage and the family you are therefore linked to is a part of a person, so deliberately withholding that information must infringe the person’s rights and therefore stand contrary to European human rights legislation.


Back to our biology class and we remember that sex passes on genes. One question has been chased around for decades. To what extent do these genes, which have been so strangely selected and sorted through generations of family history, install a personality within us, or do they simply create a biological machine that is then shaped by events and environment?

Reproduced with permission of Wileys

Ann Jeremiah and Judy Tabbott

The now classic way of looking at this is to study identical twins who have been separated at birth. Ann Jeremiah and Judy Tabbott are two such people. They were born in 1946, into a large working class family in South Wales, and Ann immediately found herself moved to live with distant middle-class relatives. While the two girls were hardly even aware of each other’s existence, some aspects of their lives had striking similarities. Both were married and pregnant when they were 16, and both found themselves living with violent partners. But the way they responded to the situation was different. Middle class, educated Ann, had the power to walk out and start a new life. Judy had no education, and therefore no options. She stayed in the marriage for 17 years.

The first time the two spent any serious amount of time in each other’s company was when, aged 48, they went to Minnesota to join in with the world’s largest twins study. It was here that they discovered how similar many of their mannerisms, motivations and hobbies were.

The genes stationed in the day one embryo that subsequently split into two people have left an indelible mark on much more than just their physical appearance. That said, they are quite clearly two very different and distinct people who have been individually shaped by their challenges, successes, disappointments and triumphs. Their genetic endowment is an important part of who they are, but just one part of their complex beings.


Reproduced with permission of Wileys

David Barker pulls a book from the set of data held in the Hertfordshire archives in 1986 - data that would change his life, and make us realise that heart disease starts in our history

Sex might bring our parent’s sets of genes together, but that is not the start of the conundrum – the complexity starts earlier. The puzzling question of who I am, of what it is to be the human being called ‘me’ seems to start decades before. When in the 1980s epidemiologist David Barker was trying to make sense of patterns of heart disease around the country, he hit upon an idea that was so outrageous it was laughed out of court at first, but with almost two decades of increasingly well-funded research to support him, he is beginning to convince others.

One of the more remarkable aspects of his theory, sometimes referred to as the Barker Hypothesis, is that your chance of having heart disease or diabetes when you are middle-aged is highly influenced by the diet your mother’s mother ate while your mother was in her womb. And the rationale that is developing is that by the time that a female fetus is just a few months old, her ovaries contain all the eggs that will ever develop. Okay they need to mature, but they are there. Not only are the primitive eggs present, but Barker now believes they are sensing the nutritional environment. If the mother’s diet is poor then they will respond and influence the genes they are carrying in a way that the offspring of those eggs will have the best chance of surviving in this impoverished place.

The problem then comes when the offspring are born some twenty, thirty or forty years later, into a nutritionally rich environment. They weren’t prepared for such riches, and readily succumb to heart disease. In the quest to make sense of who we are, as part of the discovery of what it is to be the human called me, we find ourselves having to look back to find the human who was my grandmother.


John Donne

This intergenerational thinking is strange to Western societies that have taught themselves to value individualism, and have started to believe that we can live in a way that almost denies John Donne’s famous comment in the 17th century that “no man is an island, entire of itself”.

It is not so strange, however, to the peoples of Africa who for generations have lived by a notion that they refer to as Ubuntu. The word has no direct translation into English, because the concept has no immediate counterpart in Western thinking. But the gist of the idea can be summed up in the phrase, “you are a person through other people” - it is as you take responsibility for other people, and respond to those around, that you find your own identity. Living in isolation is not living at all.

For Nobel Peace prize-winner, Desmond Tutu, this interrelationship is a way of life, because a self-sufficient human being is subhuman. “I have gifts that you do not have, so, consequently, I am unique - you have gifts that I do not have, so you are unique. God has made us so that we will need each other. We are made for a delicate network of interdependence. We see it on a macro level. Not even the most powerful nations in the world can be self-sufficient,” he claims.

And the notion of community does not just rest with those living and breathing. In African thought it extends to those ancestors who came before you and goes on to those who will follow. In this, you, the living individual human being, are part of a multi-dimensional lattice of relationships, some of them linked though acts of sexual union, others through a knowledge that you are part of the same community. “Ubuntu,” says theologian Michael Battle, “refers to the person who is welcoming, who is hospitable, who is warm and generous, who is affirming of others, who does not feel threatened that others are able and good for [this person], has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing they belong in a greater whole, and known that they are diminished when another is humiliated, is diminished, is tortured, is oppressed, is treated as if they were less than who they are. What a wonderful world it can be, it will be, when we know that our destinies are locked inextricably into one another’s.”


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"Get Spiritual Man!"

Recognising that there are aspects of our life and existence that reach beyond pure physical explanation, that seeks to see why relationships are so important, that looks for ways of empathising with others’ feelings, points us towards the spiritual nature of humanity.

You could see the relationship between a person’s spirituality and their religious outlook as analogous to the relationship between a person’s sexuality and their sexual activity. Sexuality influences many different aspects of a person’s life and the way that he or she relates to other people, only one of which is their pattern for sexual activity. People’s sexuality is part of the way they are made and also reflects the way they are shaped by their upbringing, but the way that they express that part of their being in sexual intercourse is strongly influenced by moral values, religious teaching and legal rulings of the society they live in. Sexual activity is often the issue that becomes debated endlessly because it is the most obvious outward revelation of a person’s sexuality, but to limit the discussion of sexuality to sex would miss the full extent of the issue.

In terms of spirituality, could you say that a person’s religious behaviour was the tip of the spiritual iceberg? If so, it would be a mistake to say that the tip was all there was, equally it would be a mistake for religiously minded people to forget the mass of spiritual existence that supports their faith.

“On the project of what it is to think of oneself as fully human, to be fully human, I think the spiritual dimension is enormously important, but very difficult to pin down,” says moral philosopher Mary Warnock. “My general definition of the spiritual dimension of a persons life? It is what really exercises a person’s imagination, it would embrace the aesthetic.”

She believes that it is the spiritual facet of human beings that allow them to see beauty in an arrangement of coloured blobs of paint on a canvas, and to be emotionally moved by an operatic performance - to see the true likeness in a portrait, or feel pain and excitement in music.

The first person to put forward a biological view of spirituality was zoologist Alister Hardy. In 1965, shortly after he retired from the Chair of Zoology at Oxford University, Hardy gave the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen. As a committed Darwinist, he proposed that religious experience, or spiritual awareness, has evolved through the process of natural selection because it has survival value to the individual. Hardy was suggesting that this form of awareness is potentially present in all human beings and has a positive function in enabling individuals to survive in their natural environment. He provided an evolutionary mechanism to explain the biological mode in which spiritual awareness emerged in the human species.

The Challenge

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Above all... Be Yourself

Sex undoubtedly creates unique individuals. The sexuality that flows from this shapes our activities, and is a critical element in forming who we are. It also has a powerful influence over the way we share our existence with others.

The challenge for anyone wanting a holistic view of humanity is to assemble many disparate facets of our being and fashion them into a single entity. It’s easy to place a prism in front of a beam of light and split it into its constituent colours, but less easy to reverse the process. Similarly it is a relativly easy task to look at any one of the many facets of human existence and scrutinise it in isolation, but the challenge then is to recombine them in a way that honours each element, but also celebrates the apparent simplicity with which most people live out their lives.

Any process of analysis that spends too long concentrating on a single aspect, such as our genetics, history, physique or nurturing environment, at the exclusion of the others will never describe a full human being. It is the task of integrating many elements that will drive our understanding forwards. The failure to take on this task runs the risk of reducing the value we place on human life and lessening the excitement we have when we contemplate what it is to ‘be me’.

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First Science 2014