The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex


What the Critics Say About Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation

Tim Birkhead - Nature

A Bestial Feast

The first time I went to an international conference and stayed in an expensive hotel, I was amazed by the veritable wall of food that confronted me at breakfast the next morning. It was an optimal forager's fantasy and I creamed off all the tasty bits from a wide range of dishes. As far as I could tell, everyone else did the same. And that is precisely what Olivia Judson has done, under the guise of agony-aunt Dr Tatiana, on being faced with a surfeit of questions about sex. She's cherry-picked the good bits, flitting from one extramarital relationship to another, without getting bogged down in either a lengthy courtship, a frivolous foreplay or a tedious marriage.

Our understanding of sex is one of the biggest success stories in evolutionary biology. Since the mid 1970s the 'selfish gene' view of biology has completely transformed our view of all aspects of reproduction, from anatomy and physiology to behaviour, and continues do so as researchers reveal more and more of its remarkable intricacies. Why do male and female birds breed as apparently monogamous pairs yet still engage in extrapair copulations? Why do some flatworms have a dozen penises when some of us have to make do with one? Why does the female spotted hyena possess a clitoris the size of a courgette, only to have it ripped apart when she gives birth? These are the kind of questions that Dr Tatiana's concerned correspondents ask, albeit rather more directly: "I'm a queen bee, and I'm worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?" Judging from her replies I imagine Dr Tatiana to be something like Dame Edna Everage with a PhD. Nonetheless, as every agony aunt should, Dr Tatiana proffers light-hearted, informative advice. Sex is fun, and fun to read about, especially as in this case it is presented in bite-sized pieces that you can snack on as the fancy takes you. What's on offer spans the entire animal kingdom, from rats to rotifers, and bacteria to birds, and somewhat less digestibly includes some theory too.

The danger, of course, is that presenting research findings as a kind of buffet can trivialize the entire process, turning it into a fast-food fix with none of the benefits of a balanced meal. But Judson walks this particular hedonistic tight-rope with aplomb - her text is both wonderfully entertaining and authoritative - and the inclusion of an extensive section of notes and references ensures that she retains her scientific respectability. All in all this is a stimulating feast of extraordinary sexual practices, and my advice is to place Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice in the smallest room, where it will keep you entertained and informed for hours.