The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex


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

Sunday Telegraph (London) - Nicholas Bagnall

Even the banana slug does it When it comes to sex, Nicholas Bagnall thanks Heaven that he is not a bird or a bee

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 partner.

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."