Can you cross the road safely?
Can you cross the road safely? Emily Sweeten Photography/

Life has been on this planet for about 3.7 billion years. Five-sixths of that time, it was in a microscopic state. Modern humans appeared around 250,000 years ago in Africa. On Thursday, March 14, 2019, a male turkey walked on a road in Litchfield, New Hampshire and spread out its tail feathers not for the ancient purpose of attracting females but the very new purpose of indicating to humans inside of 4000 pounds of metal and plastic (cars) that a number of his kind were going to cross the road. The humans stopped and waited for the rafter of turkeys to get from one side to the other. When done, the male contracted his feathers and followed his kind into a winter forest.

Now, why is this small, rural incident so important?

Some might say it shows there's something of the human in this bird. Not only does it display a high level of intelligence but, more significantly, the capacity to express a mode of caring behavior we associate with cultivation or cultural refinement. A turkey is not so beastly after all. Deep in its breast is an emotional commitment to the well-being of other turkeys.

Some hardheaded types might scoff at such a sentimental reading and argue that this traffic management business isn't about care or feathered fellow feeling but a mere extension, rather than re-purposing, of strutting behavior. The tom (a male turkey) has no love for the hens but is instead acting on a fundamental and genetic directive to have as much as sex as possible. You can't fuck a dead hen. Fan your tail feathers. Stop the cars. Display your power in much the same way that Moses did when he parted the Red Sea. Impress the many princesses. Maybe you will get some on the other side of the road. It is as simple as that.

Now, this is where my thoughts must leave the turkeys in New Hampshire and briefly consider what exactly sex is and how humans might be the ones who do not understand it. In the hardheaded reading of animal life and motives, it all comes down to the eternal return of gene replication. There is not really a life here. There are just small and large robots that are designed by genes to find more and more effective ways to replicate themselves. This is sex as a production function. This is a Dawkins world, which is essentially zoological; and though it has been complicated (it now includes plants, more genetic plasticity, incorporates norm reaction) since it was first presented in the mid-1970s, we have never really left it. Caring, however, has no place in this wild picture. It is anthropomorphizing. It's a human feeling.

Here is Dawkins on the feelinglessness of forests:

Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest - let's call it the Forest of Friendship - in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees. But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the 'agreed' norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage.
I do not want to get into new discoveries of mother trees. That's another post. But I do want to make the strong argument that what's actually anthropocentric is the idea that other living modes do not care or have fellow feelings that are deep. We believe that scientists like Dawkins are speaking for (or accurately representing) the animal world, with its red teeth and claws, with their hard talk; but in fact, they are the ones imposing human hardness on animals and plants.

What does this have to do with sex? Many believe that it has a function from beginning to end. This is at the core of the debates about abortion, birth control pills, condoms, homosexuality, and so on. These practices are seen as perverting the true function of sex, which is the transmission and replication of genes ("go forth and multiply"). Here the churchmen and the proponents of gene determinism hold hands. But this is all a big mistake. These men and women have confused knowing the results of sex with sex itself. The two are not connected. Fucking is really about just fucking. It is its purpose. This is how and why almost all of it is unproductive. It's also why it should never be locked into the limits of a production function.

This mixup has caused so much trouble in the world. But if one sees the production function of sex for what it is, a concept, what will present itself immediately is an opportunity to critique not only the constraints it (the concept) imposes on our thinking but also how it has structured our religious, political, and scientific institutions and precepts in very specific ways. For example, what many see as a sober or hardheaded assessment of sex will appear to be an imposition of human cultural knowledge on nature—and not the other way around. What's really anthropocentric is not only the belief that caring does not exist in the forest or turkeys, but that sex's function is production. This is culture speaking to culture, not to or for nature.