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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 540-541 ( 30 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/tatiana.html
True Tales of Kinky Carryings-On
David P. Barash*
A review of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to all Creation
By Olivia Judson.
308 pp, Metropolitan (2002)
Breathes there a person with soul so inky,
as not to have wondered at sex that is kinky,
in various creatures whose love lives have sprung,
unwept, unhonored and unsung? (apologies to Sir Walter Scott)
To the rescue of such souls – as well as the rest of us, who have indeed so wondered - comes “Dr. Tatiana,” aka Olivia Judson, one of William D. Hamilton’s last Ph.D. students, who not only knows her evolution, but how to write about it. Her book is informative, sometimes hilarious, nearly always well-informed, and altogether delightful.
Its premise may seem a bit weird, and is. It consists of questions from various perplexed creatures (dung flies, moorhens, field crickets), inquiring about their sex lives, whereupon Dr. Tatiana answers with wit, wisdom, and a wide-ranging familiarity with the literature. There is more here than meets the eye, since the author isn’t shy about venturing down the manifold byways of sociobiology, providing references as she goes. If, as Mary Poppins used to claim, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, Dr. Tatiana’s lively banter helps a lot of solid, bona fide biology go down.
And so, we learn of the sea slug from the Red Sea, which sports its male genitalia inside its mouth, and for whom “copulation is an extraspecial kiss,” not to mention hearing from a green spoon worm appalled because she has just inhaled her husband (not to worry: he wouldn’t have had it any other way!), or the female golden potto who is troubled that her lover’s penis is covered by alarming spines (“all the better to tickle you, my dear”). And lots more.
I do, however, have a few complaints, all minor. For one, how could Judson have allowed her book to be titled “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to all Creation,” when it is a glorious paean to evolution, certainly not to creation? Presumably, this is merely a literary device, but with the know-nothings of “intelligent design” making daily inroads into American education, every such device warrants careful scrutiny. For another, she misuses the term “promiscuity,” referring to situations in which females seek out sexual relations with more than one partner; as Dr. Tatiana points out very effectively, such cases do not exemplify random or careless sex, but precisely the opposite.
She is also unfairly hard on geneticist A. J. Bateman, whose pioneering research inspired Robert Trivers to point out the immensely useful concept of “parental investment.” To be sure, we now know that earlier sex-based generalizations – especially those emphasizing coy, monogamy-disposed females – were exaggerations, and that females in many species are sexual adventurers in their own right (Barash and Lipton, 2002; Birkhead, 2000). Nonetheless, it would scarcely serve the goal of understanding and predicting behavior if we were to go heedlessly to the other extreme, and deny any meaningful male-female differences whatsoever.
Our sex advice columnist errs, as well, when she asserts that the key to inclusive fitness considerations is that “related individuals share a certain proportion of their genes.” Rather, they have a certain probability that a gene present in one is also present in the other, by virtue of their common ancestry; the overall proportion of shared genes is simply a consequence of summing individual genetic loci, and not a relevant evolutionary consideration per se.
A final gripe: while considering how homosexuality could be genetically maintained, Tatiana/Judson asserts that for same-sex preference to be an evolutionary mystery, “at least some individuals engaging in homosexual behavior must be confirmed bachelors or confirmed spinsters who never attempt to breed. If they breed, its no mystery why the genes persist in the population.” Not so. Given that selection differentials as small as one hundredth of one percent can drive substantial evolutionary change in remarkably few generations, it is only necessary for practicing homosexuals to have a slightly lower fitness for their behavior to be an evolutionary conundrum; they needn’t be non-reproductive at all. Incidentally, this complaint is more than compensated by Dr. Tatiana’s interesting suggestion – one that seems plausible and to my knowledge, never previously articulated – that genes for homosexual orientation could be maintained if despite a disadvantage in the “target” sex, they somehow contribute a compensating fitness advantage in the unaffected sex (e.g., if genetic factors contributing to, say, male homosexuality resulted in higher-than-otherwise fitness in females, and vice versa).
Overall, however, this is a marvelous book: saucy, bawdy, irreverent, and crammed with more than enough biological accuracy to compensate for any minor shortcomings. Tatiana/Judson writes about animal sexual escapades with nearly as much exuberance as natural selection has evolved them: no small feat!
Let me therefore conclude with my own anguished inquiry -
Dear Dr. Tatiana: I am a middle-aged evolutionary biologist who teaches – among other things – a course in animal behavior for undergraduates who, by and large, aren’t seriously interested in animal behavior. They generally like animals, however, not to mention sex. Accordingly, I’m planning to use your book in my course. My only problem is that it (your book) is going to whet their appetites (scientific, although perhaps sexual too), and then leave them frustrated, unsatisfied, and probably panting for more. In short: one is not enough. Will you do it again? And soon? -- Seduced in Seattle
Barash, David P. and Judith Eve Lipton. 2002. The Myth of Monogamy: fidelity and infidelity in animals and people. Henry Holt/Times Books: New York
Birkhead, Tim. 2002. Promiscuity. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.
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© David P. Barash.
* Dr. Barash teaches, writes and does research at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he has been in the psychology department since 1973. His work and interests are diverse: He was one of the early contributors to the growth of sociobiology, and he continues to conduct occasional field studies of animal behavior, especially the evolution and ecology of social systems among free-living animals, notably mountain-dwelling species such as marmots and pikas. At the same time, much of his attention has recently been directed to understanding the underlying evolutionary factors influencing human behavior, a discipline sometimes called "evolutionary psychology." And finally, since the early 1980s he has been active in researching, promoting, and practicing the field of Peace Studies. Dr. Barash feels that these issues - animal behavior, evolutionary psychology and Peace Studies - are fundamentally linked, especially since they all involve questions of how biology affects behavior, including male-female differences, reproductive strategies, and the troubling problem of violence in living things generally. Dr. Barash also has a long-standing interest in philosophical matters, notably Buddhism and existentialism, and their connection to each other and to the question of "life's meaning."
Books by David P. Barash | 2 | 3 |
Barash, D. P. (2002). True Tales of Kinky Carryings-On. Human Nature Review. 2: 540-541.