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The Straight Dope 

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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? --Larrie Ferreiro, Alexandria, Virginia

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 bimbos in high school who seemed to think they were exceptions to the rule.

The general run of humankind, though, 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, 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 copulation/pregnancy/birth close up. It didn't take a prehistoric Stephen Hawking to figure out that 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. 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, abo 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." But the abos aren't complete idiots. They recognize that intercourse somehow paves the way for the spirit child's arrival. They just don't think it's essential. (For that matter, neither do Christian believers in the virgin birth.) In other words, while they're clueless about fertilization, inheritance from both mother and father, etc, they still know SEX = BABIES. 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 these fellas.

What purpose do the "fins" on a fountain pen serve? --La Mantia, Washington, D.C.

Lest the Teeming Millions visualize a fountain pen equipped like a 1950s Buick, let me point out that the fins we're talking about are those inky ribs or vanes just back of the writing tip. Pen engineers (no joke--one guy I talked to about this, Steve Hohl of Sheaffer Pen, used to be in aerospace) call this the "comb feed." Basically it acts as a sponge to keep excess ink from dribbling out the tip. Suppose your ink cartridge is half full. When you pick up the pen, your hand's warmth makes the air in the cartridge expand, forcing more ink into the tip. Rather than get all over your page, the ink flows into the thin slots between the fins ("combs"), remaining there by capillary attraction. As ink flows out the tip during writing, the slots empty out, air manages to get up the fill tube into the cartridge, and more ink flows down to replenish the supply. Meanwhile you just scribble away, blissfully unaware of the technology that makes it all possible. Maybe now you'll be more appreciative.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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