Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review - Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation : The definitive gude to the evolutionary biology of sex by Olivia Judson (Vintage 2003)

The premise sounds toe-curlingly trite - animals supposedly writing to a sexologist for advice on what would appear to be their species' sexual eccentricities from an anthropomorphic point of view. The reality is a book that is engaging, funny, and as clear an explanation of the evolutionary biology of sex as one could wish for, with each fact meticulously annotated, despite the light conversational style.

This could easily have been a disaster. However, the writing throughout has a surety of tone which perfectly encapsulates what appears to be the absurdity of some animal mating techniques, as we can see at the start of the alarmingly titled chapter "How to Make Love to a Cannibal"

    Rule number one - Never get eaten during Foreplay

    Dear Dr Tatiana

   I'm a European praying mantis, and I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first...they go into the most thrilling spasms. Sometimes they seem less inhibited, more urgent - its fabulous. Do you find this too?

Apparently, Dr Tatiana advises, male praying mantises are boring lovers. The loss of their head, however, causes them to lose that inhibiting part of the brain, turning them into passionate lovers. The fate of the male mantis seems positively benign compared with that of the species of midge, where the female sinks her proboscis into the head of the male whilst mating, injects him with an enzyme that turns his insides into liquid and sucks him dry. Yet there are very few males who kill the females during mating, for an obvious reason - the male sperm is needed to fertilise the female eggs, and so the females' role in reproduction in many species is not yet over. So if the male were to kill the female, the species would quickly die out.

Judson's starting point is the proposition of  A.S Bateman, who in 1948 posited that males of most species tended to be fundamentally promiscuous, and females fundamentally chaste. Judson effectively shreds this theory. Many of the more extreme examples of male behaviour - such as male bees whose penises explode and break off during copulation in order to block access to the queen from any other male bee, are in response to female promiscuity.

All sexual behaviour has one simple goal - the furtherance of the species. Judson explains how various behaviours may have evolved in order to deliver this goal - even if it involves, as in the case of the mite of the lesser mealworm beetle, both incest and matricide. In most cases, the health of the species is maintained through mixing two healthy sets of genes - but even then there are examples, such as the bdelloid rotifer, which has reproduces entirely through creating clones of itself.

From masturbating Marine Iguanas to homosexual octopuses to dolphins which try to mate with eels (!!) - the natural world has more sexual variety than you could ever hope to imagine. I will leave the scientific explanations to Olivia Jusdon, and applaud her for this wonderfully engaging work, deservedly shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize.

1 comment:

Cally said...

It was an absolutely fascinating book to read! Like you said, it was well-written and clear. It also managed to be fairly simple without becoming patronising. It did sound a little twee at times, with some of the problems sounding a little like they could have come out of the centre of The Sun newspaper, but that probably added to the appeal.