ONE WONDERS sometimes: how
is it for them? For the copulating elephants, as seen on the back
jacket of Olivia Judson's book, or for the ladybirds doing the same
thing on the front? Adam in Paradise Lost asks the Archangel Raphael
why making love to Eve beats all the other joys of the prelapsarian
Garden, and is sternly told: "Think the same vouchsafed/To cattle
and each beast".
Raphael was the first sex counsellor. But he may
have been wrong, for we have no way of knowing the elephant's view
of the matter, let alone the ladybird's. All we know is that either
of them may go to great lengths to get what they want. But reading
the learned Olivia Judson makes me thank my Creator that I never had
to roar continuously for a fortnight like a stag, or perform every
half hour for several days, as lions sometimes have to do before their
mates declare themselves satisfied; or, to take the opposite extreme,
that I had only a 25,000-to-one chance of making it with my queen,
which is the fate of your average bee; or that I wasn't created as
a spider, with every chance of my head getting bitten off in the act
of love. It's enough to make your sperm run cold. Nor would I much
fancy being given two penises, like the iguana; And one can't help
feeling sorry for the hapless banana slug, whose own penis (which
is rather large) sometimes get stuck and has to be gnawed off by his
Dr Judson, a biological scientist at Imperial College,
London, has turned herself for the purposes of this book into a sex
counsellor and agony aunt to the birds and the bees, taking the anthropomorphic
view throughout. The females are "girls"; the boys may tend
to sleep around, or to spend their time fighting.
"Dear Dr Tatiana," writes a worried
fig wasp, "All the males I know are psychos. Instead of wooing
us girls, they bite each other in half. What can I do?" (Don't
fret, says the good doctor, the winner will mate with you.) An Australian
seaweed fly writes: "The girls in my species are tough Sheilas:
whenever I make friendly overtures I get beaten up". - "To
hell with political correctness," comes the answer. "The
girls are aggressive because they want you to overpower them."
Both Dr Tatiana and her clients express themselves
throughout in quasi-romantic terms. She can occasionally become a
touch too skittish for my taste, as when she writes of "seminal
fluid - the liquid the sperm, ahem, come in" (geddit?), or advises
bower birds, for example, who tend to steal each other's trinkets
so as to impress the hens, that "in these species, as in so many
others, I'm afraid that nice guys finish last." But on the whole
the agony-aunt formula holds up pretty well, and it carries a sometimes
quite bewildering amount of information. (The bibliography covers
38 pages of small type.)
Meanwhile there's certainly not much romance in
the behaviour of crab-eater seals, which bite each other so savagely
during sex that they may both end up covered in blood, or of the bigamous
house sparrow, who will help only the mate whose clutch hatches first,
so his second mate (or mistress, as Dr Tatiana calls her) does her
best to smash the first one's eggs.
The idea that birds are virtuously monogamous,
incidentally, seems to be mostly a poetic myth, though black vultures
are generally faithful, as apparently are jackdaws, hornbills and
that model bird, Bewick's swan, as well as the California mouse and
a shy creature called the mantis shrimp. Indeed, "true monogamy,"
as Dr Tatiana tells a scandalised hen vulture, "is rare. So rare
that it is one of the most deviant behaviours in biology".
In principle, of course, all these carryings-on
are done for the improvement of the breed, and for the survival of
the species in question - though it's hard to see what evolutionary
purpose could be served, for example, by the married male snow-goose's
habit of raping nesting females whenever their husbands are out, the
chances of conception in rape being less than in legitimate couplings.
Anyway, morals just don't come into it. "The
deadly sins would be different if they mirrored evolutionary no-no's,"
writes Dr Judson. "Lust, for one, would be deemed a virtue, chastity
would be deplored". But sin is not her department. All she can
say is that "Understanding human evolution and genetics may one
day tell us why we are the way we are."