Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees

In a marriage ceremony from a 1940s black-and-white comedy, the priest begins by invoking the birds and the bees. He keeps getting interrupted, which is an in-joke because the two at the altar are really supposed to marry other people. However, the real joke is the reference to birds and bees and marriage.

As this is spring, where a young ‘uns fancy turns to thoughts of love, and this is 2021, where some still point to Nature as evidence that heterosexual monogamy and genders are rigid, it’s worth thinking about. Because then they mention the birds and bees. Well, what do we all know about bees?

Research shows queen bees communicate honestly. Photo by Bernardo Ni, Penn State.

If Not Three Genders, then Three of Something

When a mommy bee and daddy bee love each other very much… oh, no. That’s not how it works. Let’s go to sixth grade biology. There are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we’re taught that the queens and workers are females and the drones are male. All the drones do is help in reproduction. They try to mate with queens. If they’re successful, they die from the experience. If they aren’t able to mate and still hang around the hive when food gets scarce, the workers will kick them out, and they die. Limited functionality, you might say. They do contribute to genetic diversity, which some explanations say counters the idea that the drone is the “most ineffective and unhelpful bee in the hive.” But the genetic diversity comes about because the queen mates with multiple drones, so arguably the queen is providing the diversity.

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Fate Has Already Been Decided

The Norns, weaving the past, present, and future. Artwork by Arthur Rackham.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the TV series “The Travelers,” “The Umbrella Academy,” and the movie Interstellar, as well as The Time Machine, Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Oedipus Rex. Plus thinking about things that make your head hurt.

Wyrd bið ful aræd: Fate is unalterable.
(“weird bidth ful ah-red”)

Old English poem The Wanderer and Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories

The Norse understood about Fate because their worldview envisioned Norns, Weird (Wyrd) Sisters who controlled all that happened, weaving the giant tapestry of our lives. The sisters represented what was, what is, and what is to be.  One Old English poet summed it up in that “weird” saying: Fate is unalterable. The Greeks understood it, too, at least the ones that told the story of Oedipus.

Science fiction writers are kind of on the fence.

Recently, I have been binge-watching series that happen to address time travel. We’ve gotten so used to this as a subject that we take for granted certain conventions, namely that it’s possible in a sci fi story to go back and change something in the past to alter the future. But what if it turns out that isn’t possible? What happens when Wyrd bið ful aræd — the idea that the future can’t be changed–smashes into the quantum technology that allows movement through time? Time travel, meet the Norns.

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The New Normal is Still Us

For today’s question, let’s consider the metaphysics of identity–wait! don’t run away! I promise to make it relevant, not full of highfalutin’ ideas! The intrepid Fandango wonders:

Is the concept of “you” continuous or does the past “you” continually fade into the present and future “you”? Considering that your body, your mind, and your memories are changing over time, what part of “you” sticks around?

Provocative Question #80

To me, this smells strongly of the Theseus Paradox, a thought experiment from the Classical Age of Greece, although my thoughts turn more contemporary. Never mind the You… what about Us? What can the Theseus Paradox tell us about living through a pandemic?

Theseus Paradox

The Theseus Paradox, video courtesy of Carneades.org

Theseus, after slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete, sailed home to Athens a hero. His ship was preserved and placed on display for all to see as a testament to his success and valor. Over time, the wooden ship rotted and planks were replaced. Then, the mast, bits of sail, rope certainly … and as decades and centuries wore on, all of the individual bits of the ship were replaced. Some of those replacements may have even changed the angle of the mast and the structure of the hall, since the blueprints were lost. Years later, the ship may not have even looked the same.

The paradox at heart, then, is If the entire ship is replaced, was it the same ship? That’s how I would rephrase that provocative question: What is the essence of You given that You are constantly changing? For some, the answer might be a religious one that mentioned the idea of the soul. For others who describe themselves as spiritual rather than adhering to a specific religious doctrine, they might say it’s your aura.

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