A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

When did mankind figure out that SEX = BABIES?

October 12, 1990

Dear Cecil:

About a year ago I asked the question, `when did mankind figure out that SEX = BABIES?' (I mentioned that I'd read about the discovery being alluded to in some Abyssinian or Hittite texts.) So far I haven't seen the answer in print. What's holding things up?

Cecil replies:

Keep your pants on, stud. You know how much I hate reading stuff in Hittite. Besides, looking at it purely from the standpoint of global priorities, we can probably assume ignorance on the SEX = BABIES front has reached historical lows. Although you never know. Some think Australian aborigines still haven't figured it out, a matter I'll return to directly, and I remember a couple high-living creatures in high school who seemed to think they were exceptions to the rule.

The general run of humankind is thought to have tumbled to the concept early in the New Stone Age, which began after 10,000 BC. A couple things may have contributed to the discovery. First, what with the invention of agriculture, looking for food did not occupy every waking moment and people had some time to contemplate the mysteries of their environment.

Second, the domestication of animals gave folks a chance to see the cycle of boink/swelling belly/birth close up. It didn't take a prehistoric Stephen Hawking to figure out if you had only girl sheep, all you wound up with was a bunch of old maid sheep, but if you threw in one or more boy sheep, you soon had baby sheep popping out all over.

Why couldn't primitive humans deduce the secret of sex just from watching their own species? Well, they could have, of course, and there's a chance some did. But the difference between humans and animals is that women are always partial to sex, whereas females of other species are in heat only during certain seasons. If you're constantly hosing and the women are constantly pregnant, the connection between the two phenomena isn't all that obvious. With animals, though, sex is infrequent and the linkage of cause and effect (a tumble, an interval, a birth) is clearer.

But some cultures — including, allegedly, Australian aborigines — never got the picture. One writer says that as late as the 1960s "the Tully River Blacks of north Queensland believed that a woman got pregnant because she had been sitting over a fire on which she had roasted a fish given to her by the prospective father."

Whatever may be said for the Tully River crowd, aborigine ignorance is probably exaggerated. It's true most Aussie natives don't think intercourse is particularly important in making babies. They think pregnancy results from a "spirit child" immigrating into the womb from a "spirit center." On the other hand, the aborigines recognize that intercourse somehow paves the way for the spirit child's arrival. They just don't think it's essential. Considering the state of sexual knowledge among some Westerners, e.g., my brother ("Whaddaya mean she's pregnant? We only did it once!"), I wouldn't be too hard on the aborigines.

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