Every now and then my science nerd self breaks out and decides that while romance is lovely, I really want to know what’s up with all that dopamine. So you can imagine my delight when I came across Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex. As it turns out I was not disappointed – it’s smart, funny, and interesting.
Author Olivia Judson came up with a clever way to get a ton of detailed science information across in an entertaining way. She invented the character “Dr. Tatiana”, who writes a sex advice column for animals. There are three main sections, each one containing several short chapters: “Let Slip the Whores of War!” , “The Evolution of Depravity”, and “Are Men Necessary? Usually, but not Always”.
Dr. Tatiana uses common names for species, with their scientific names listed in “Notes”. Read on for some sample letters to Dr. Tatiana, if you dare!
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I’m a splendid fairy wren, and I’m concerned about my husband. He keeps going to the doctor because he’s convinced his sperm count is too low and we won’t be able to have children. But he ejaculates eight billion sperm at a time, so I don’t see how he can have a shortage. Has he really got a problem, or is he being neurotic?
Bewildered Down Under
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I’m a slime mold –Physarum polycephalum is the name – and I don’t see how I’m ever going to marry and have children. I can only ooze along, so finding partners is difficult. I haven’t met one yet. Worse, whereas every other species I’ve heard of has two sexes, my species has thirteen, and I gather that before you have babies you have to convene them all. I don’t see how this is possible, and I’m worried I’m going to end up a dreary old mold. Why are slime molds so oversexed?
Looking for a Baker’s Dozen in the Forests of Romania
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
Perplexed in Cloverhill
I could talk about this book at length, but I think the sample questions speak for themselves just fine. If these questions amuse and intrigue you, you’ll like the book. If they bore you, or if they gross you out without also making you curious, then you probably won’t like the book. I found the book to be funny and gross and interesting and thought provoking. The next time someone tries to say that females generally evolve to be less promiscuous than men, you can wave this book at them, since apparently the animal kingdom is rife with promiscuous females. There’s also a fascinating discussion of how, if homosexuality is genetic, those genes might have continued to thrive despite not leading directly to reproduction.
If you are not faint of heart, you can read about incest and violence in sex (both during sex, as in mid-coitus cannibalism, and involving sex, as in courtship battles) and lots and lots of death by sex of the non-cannibalistic variety (as in the case of Perplexed in Cloverfield, who keeps losing her lovers). For the more romantically inclined, there’s a lovely section about presents. Apparently many ply their lovers with gifts – of food, of nesting material, or of chemicals that deter predators or protect against toxins. One spider takes great pains to wrap his present (a snack) so that his mate won’t attack him during sex (because she’ll be distracted by the unwrapping process).
This is the kind of book that you can read cover to cover or read in bits and pieces – it lived quite comfortably in one room of my house for a while and were it not a library book it would be living there still. I haven’t read every word of the book but I feel comfortable reviewing it because it’s a book you can legitimately graze on – and I have very much enjoyed the grazing process. However, if it turns out that the author has some sort of nervous breakdown on, say, page 266 that I haven’t caught, my apologies. I found this book to be great fun and pretty accessible. There’s just so much in this book to think about and to talk about, especially if you can find people who are willing to discuss the mating habits of gladiator frogs. I have a simply terrible memory for science facts. I've already forgotten which species of spider excels at gift-wrapping. But I do think I'll remember the idea that sex in the animal kingdom is crazy and varied. I’ve been trying to educate myself about non-binary gender issues so I’ll close with this poem from the book that I found both amusing and instructive:
When you gaze at a couple and wonder
What trait makes him “him” and her “her”,
Beware, for it’s easy to blunder
And be false in what you ever.
Some creatures change sex before teatime,
Others find two sexes dull,
And that virile male fish has no free time –
He’s got all his kiddies to lull.
When it comes to the topic of gender
Mother Nature’s been having some fun.
Take nothing for granted! Remember,
You won’t find any rules – not a one!