Even though a worldcon like L.A.Con is a good place to meet people, it turned out that not everyone we wanted to see did attend. Someone whom we wished could have been in Anaheim is Sharon Farber. We'd looked forward to seeing her (for the first time in three years!), but not long before L.A.Con we received a postcard from her saying she couldn't be there. She was missed, and L.A.Con was less fun without her; we'll have to try again next year in San Antonio.
'Tales of Adventure and Medical Life #13.5' by 
  Sharon Farber; title illo by Kip Williams
The Seven Year Itch -- Reproductive Strategies in the Star Trek Universe  ..or..
What Happens When You Drive a Lot to a Satellite Office and Listen to Twelve Hours of Stephen Jay Gould on Tape...

Years ago, before I went to medical school, before I studied chemistry, back about the early Pliocene when it was hard to get to class what with all those giant tree sloths blocking the path... Years ago I was a biology major, studying evolution and animal behavior and comparative anthropology. And I learned what it is that organismal biologists think about all day.


Well, they called it 'reproductive strategies', but it was really sex. Everything else -- food, shelter, parenting -- were all subservient to a creature's need to pass on his or her genes. And every single evolutionary adaptation led, in some way or other, to enhanced reproductive fitness. In other words, you ate, drank, grew, slept, interacted, and breathed in order to have sex.

This eventually led to the realization that sex-obsessed teenaged boys must be the larval form of PhDs in biology.

Around that time, a local station began showing Star Trek reruns for the first time. I re-watched "Amok Time," where we learned that every seven years Vulcans must return home to spawn or die. Like salmon. (That puts a bit of a damper on your desire for lox and bagels, doesn't it?)

But it just didn't make sense. Because we had also learned (in "Journey to Babel") that Vulcans are monogamous. And it doesn't make sense for monogamous animals to only mate every seven years. Infant mortality in the wild is too great; the species would die out. The only animal I can think of with a remotely similar cycle is the elephant, and they can get away with it because they're big, live a long time, and are more than able to protect their young.

Okay sure. Infant mortality in civilized society can be pretty low. Modern humans and Vulcans could easily keep a population stable or even expanding by a single birth per breeding every seven years... but remember, it's only been in the last 150 years or so that a human baby has had over a fifty percent chance of surviving to adulthood.

Well, a friend pointed out, this could have evolved after Vulcans got real tough. But we know from our own history that major physical changes in species stop once cultural evolution takes over. (I don't count sickle cell anemia and racial differences as major changes.) Unless it was the product of conscious gene engineering... yeah, sure, like the Vulcans would consciously invent a method of reproduction that simultaneously scares and embarrasses the hell out of them. A complex reproductive strategy of this sort obviously had to evolve early in the species history. It may even have been a holdover from pre-Vulcan homonids.

illo by Kip Williams Maybe, you say, protoVulcans went into season yearly, and then when more kids survived they only had to do it once every seven years. Okay, that sounds good... but it's hard to evolve in the direction of diminished reproduction. Think of it... Joe and Tom only go into pon farr every seven years. But Fred has a mutation that allows him to get horny every five years. Why, in just a millennium or two, everyone will be descended from Fred and cycle twice a decade. That's what they call a reproductive advantage.

Or we could get around it by saying that Vulcans have litters. Yeah, and Spock was an only child because he was mixed breed. I don't think so. Humanoid babies are just too dependent and too demanding of resources and parental care. Most twins in primitive societies don't survive -- sometimes there is ritual sacrifice of a twin, which at least assures the survivor of a chance.

We've established that mating every seven years won't keep the species going. And think about the problems of a monogamous relationship -- what if the timing is off, and the female isn't in estrous when the male is in pon farr? The phrase, "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache" could signal racial suicide. Obviously then, females could not also have a seven year cycle. One suspects, rather, that they are seasonal induced ovulators, releasing eggs as the need arose.

So why did CroVulcans only go into cycle once every seven years? I suspect it has to do with the temperament of Vulcans. I remember Spock saying, sometime or other, that his pre-logic ancestors were emotional and violent. Add sexual competitiveness to that volatile mixture and you lose any chance of pack cooperation. The men are too busy killing each other to hunt mammoths and fight other packs.

# # # #

Back we go to the dawn of time, early summer. A tribe of australopithecus vulcanis is huddled about the waterhole, making stone axes, picking vermin from their loved ones' pelts, and fighting over carrion remains. One of the guys puts down his flint knife, and wanders away to sit apart from everyone. He's shivering and a little wild-eyed. His hunting buddies watch him go, and exchange the prehistoric version of 'nudge nudge wink wink'. The women giggle. It'll be a hot time in the old desert tonight.

Night falls. Our hermit (assuming he's not just been picked off by a saber-toothed selat, away from the safety of the fire) steals back to camp, grabs a woman of fertile years without a baby at her breast, and...

...And what? Romances the love of his life? Engages in a lengthy courtship dance? Get real.

No, he rapes her. And then he grabs the next available woman of child-bearing age and rapes her. And so on. Remember, he's only got a night or two, and he has to impregnate as many women as possible to keep the tribe going.

Romantic, huh?

(Though I will admit I had a killer crush on Spock when I was fourteen, I didn't recognize the attraction of his horny incarnation. He had all the subtlety of a teenager full of peach brandy, all hands and looking ready to vomit.)

One suspects that interpersonal affections might have entered into it, or at least that a lack of mutual repugnance was necessary. A male would go first to his favorite female. She might try to keep him there for another go around -- repeated matings increasing her chance of conception. (Not consciously, of course. Remember, reproductive drives constitute an urge to breed, without a consciousness of the consequences.) If she didn't like him, she might fight... and he'd be smarter to look elsewhere than to waste his limited time and energy on an unwilling mate.

# # # #

The seven year cycle raises a few interesting related points. The first is that male and females would have to achieve sexual maturity at different ages, in order to prevent brothers from mating with sisters, with the resultant chance of a high percentage of unfavorable mutations. This would only matter for the first pon farr, but given the lifespan of primitive populations, the majority of males would only get a single pop, so to speak.

Also, it would imply that early Vulcan cultures were matriarchal, or at least matrilineal. (This was suggested by the role of T'Pau in Spock's pon farr ritual. Face it, Vulcans were portrayed as a very sexist society, but here was a woman presiding over a religious ceremony.)

illo by Kip Williams And remember Spock's dorky brother from Star Trek V? (Actually, I prefer to think that when Kirk fell off the mountain and was caught by Spock at the beginning of the movie, his entire spine was sheared from his brain, and he spent the next six months regenerating, making the whole dreadful movie a hallucination while he was sedated. It beats the alternative.) He was the offspring of Sarek and 'a priestess'. 'Priestess' in this case meaning holy hooker. Vulcan society would need a way to deal with the unpleasant fact that unresolved horniness was fatal (unlike human males, who just say that)... probably by a religious sisterhood (the Vestal Vulcans?) who have as their spiritual healing mission the succor of unattached males in need.

# # # #

But wait, where does monogamy come into this? How can marriage evolve in a species where males only mate every seven years? The closest you should get would be clans with communal harems.

Time for a little hand waving, as my theoretically-inclined professors used to say. What would happen if those saber-toothed selats got organized and ate everyone in the tribe except a very few males and females? Or let's say the tribe has grown too large, resources are short, and everyone's quarreling. Naturally, a small band splits off and crosses the great Red Desert to new hunting grounds. Pon farr mating just can't support a small group. How can the species survive, let alone expand?

We have to hypothesize that a Vulcan male and female, in constant close contact, will become able to mate more frequently than every seven years. Maybe, for you romantics, as often as they want to. Thus they will have lots of kids, found a big tribe... and once population density reaches some critical point, the males will once more go into cycles.

I initially thought that this implied pon farr involved negative feedback from the pheromones of other Vulcan males -- in other words, male-bonding cutting down on libido, kind of like a perpetual bowling night. Then, every seven years, like tension building up on a fault line, horniness bursts out. But if that were the case, Vulcan civilization would inhibit monogamy simply by so many people being around, and Mr. Spock, isolated from his species' pheromones, would be much more attentive to Nurse Chapel.

Thus, monogamy must be possible with positive feedback between pheromone secreting males and females in close proximity, with pon farr as the reproductive fall back position. The resumption of pon farr would be behavioral -- guys associating with guys in hunting groups in larger tribes, with probably a milder group pheromone negative inhibition. Thus, modern Vulcan civilization, with small groups living in dwellings, would allow pairbonding.

One final word on the subject... The low libido of the species goes a long way to explaining how Vulcans could accept a philosophy of logic and self-restraint. After all, it's easy to act cool when you're not hot.

# # # #

The Star Trek universe has this bizarre ability to make all humanoid aliens, no matter how weird and socially obnoxious, monogamous (and able to interbreed. Go figure. We can't interbreed with chimpanzees and we share 99% of our genomes. But I guess it's not quite as bad as Independence Day, where a laptop interfaces with an alien computer. I can't even get my Mac to make nice with a PC!) The Federation may have done away with nuclear power, but the nuclear family is everywhere. It's like Father Knows Best in outer space. (Hey, no wonder Jane Wyatt was there...)

Let's look at the Klingons. All we know about them is that they live in clans, have a rigid hierarchal social structure, and are very romantic and monogamous. How does that evolve? (And remember, no one's really sure how our species went from the primate basics -- harems or amorphous interbreeding tribes -- to out current putative monogamous state.)

The closest analogy might be the wolf. Everyone knows that the alpha male and the alpha female are loyal mates, and their adorable puppies are raised by the parents and older siblings, uncles, aunts, etc. It's a bit less well known that the loving alpha couple spend a large proportion of their time preventing other wolves in the pack from mating. The pack can really only support a single litter, so mom and dad have to bully and snarl and interrupt to make sure no one else has any fun.

Perhaps early Klingons were like that -- pair-bond couples with subordinate kin. Of course, wolf packs don't mix well with their peers, and Klingons need some mechanism for getting together and forming societies. Perhaps CroKlingon spent the summer months in small packs, hunting, mating, and raising kids. Then in winter they'd join into larger groups, again with rigid hierarchies, to follow migrating herds.

# # # #

The Ferengi... let's think about them for a minute. Make that a brief minute, please, being that they are truly obnoxious antisemitic parodies. Ferengi males like to claim they keep their women naked and subordinate, but so far as we can tell they live in all-male units (the only family we're familiar with being two brothers and a son) and invariably get the hots for tall, domineering women. And their major visible drive is the acquisition of wealth.

(Okay, let's pretend that the recent show with Quark's mom, I Love Lucy-esque as it was, never happened. My scenario is a lot more entertaining.)

I was thinking Ferengi just pretend their women are weak and inferior -- the poor short guys get picked on enough. So they brag, trying to make themselves look like macho dudes whose women stay home tending to kitchen, church, and children.

But I suspect that Ferengi women are big and tough. They stay on the home planet, living separately from the men, hunting and gathering, and raising the kids (kicking the boys out at puberty to join a male herd, like elephants and numerous other relatively social mammals).

They don't need the menfolk until it's time to mate. Then the little guys approach boldly and with great display, bearing gifts. They impress the women with their wealth. (Think bower birds, only with taxfree bonds and jewelry rather than real estate.) They... hell, they bribe them. The guy with the most stuff wins. (Of course, he winds up broke, but I'm sure there's a Rule of Acquisition about starting over.) The women know their suitors are intelligent and canny, and get some nice presents to boot. It certainly fits the facts better than the 'Ozzie and Harriet' scenario that DS9 inflicted on us.

(I personally like to think of Quark's mom as looking something like Julie Newmar -- tall, in control, and disdainful. And she may be naked... but only because she's wearing so many jewels and scarves and other expensive gifts that there isn't any room for clothes.)

Well, that's all for Star Trek aliens and their evolution; I've got more important things to ponder on my long drives between hospitals... like who's stronger, The Hulk or Superman?
illo by Kip Williams

All illustrations by Kip Williams

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