Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation


Olivia Judson




Date Reviewed:

February 4, 2009

magine yourself as a science fiction author, searching for novel ideas to base a society of alien creatures. But you can't think of any bizarre but plausible behavior for your aliens. Read Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for all Creation, and you will find yourself brimming with ideas of strange mating habits of different species. But this book isn't science fiction, and the creatures are not aliens, but in fact the strange actions described in this book are all real animals that live here on Earth.

The author of this book is Olivia Judson, a biologist who writes an interesting weekly column on evolution for the New York Times, which is where I first learned of her existence. I don't know why she adopts the persona of "Dr Tatiana" for this book, but the format has her pretending to be an sex advice columnist for all the creatures on this planet. A typical section begins with a question such as "I am a male black widow spider, should I be worried that I will be eaten when I attempt to mate?" The answers are fascinating - why do some females eat their mates after sex? A whole host of questions is covered in this book; the strangest actions are usually the smaller species like inveterbrates, but often times advanced creatures such as birds and mammals will write a question to the sex advice columnist, such as "I am a female hyena, so why do I appear to have a phallus?"

One of the strange ways animals have evolved is when the males grow up into one of two forms. In one form, the male invests his energy into large body size, perhaps with horns and fierce tempermant. These males will gather a group of females into a harem, so that they may mate exclusively with them, to ensure that their genes are successfully propogated to the next generation. These males will fight off challengers and defend the females. The other option for the males is to invest their energies into forming large testicles. These males are much smaller and sneakier than the harem-guarding males. These sneaky males will attempt to mate with a female when their champion is distracted or inattentive. If they can get access to a female, their huge testicles will allow them to flood the female with sperm, hoping the prodigious quantity will result in a pregnancy. The lives of the males are not programmed at birth, rather it is environmental circumstances when the maler reaches adult that determine whether or not he will develop into a harem-champion or into a sneak with large testicles. Isn't that cool? Imagine if human society had two different types of males!

Another fascinating section describes the constant evolutionary battle between males and females of a species. Judson describes how fruit flies in lab constantly adapt to the breeding strategies of the other gender. The males want females to mate exclusively with them, while the females attempt to mate with the strongest, best adapted males. Some how (I'm not sure how) researchers were able to prevent the female fruitflies from changing their DNA each generation, while the males were permitted to keep adapting. The lab researchers found that after 80 generations, the male fruit flies had developed phermone/chemical strategies that rendered the female fruit flies helpless to resist them. In just 80 generations, the male fruit flies had developed into irresistable super males that no female could refuse - in just 80 generations! So if a human male could build a time machine that sent him back 2000 years, would he be irresistable to the females of that era? Another great idea for a science fiction tale!

This book covers a lot of tricky questions - such as, why have sex at all? Wouldn't cloning be a better option - that way 100% of your genes are transmitted to the next generation, not just 50% from each parent. Why are some animals hermaphodites - having both male and female parts? (Flowers have both male and female parts, but they are immobile.) If gay animals do not produce any offspring, why does the gay gene persist in animal populations (there are gay primates, gay porpoises, gay penguins - it's not just humans that have homosexual relations.) Why is incest such a bad idea? Why do some species fight to the death for the right to mate? Are there ANY species that are truly monogamous - certainly humans are not! How can some species change gender? Why do some insects copulate for months - the male stays attached to the female to prevent any other male from getting access.

This book has tons of interesting material. How is it that rotifers appear to be genuinely asexual and yet have survived for millions of years? Did you know that males elephants continue to get bigger and bigger, they don't stop growing after puberty. I could include more of the subjects covered in this book, but you get the idea. The mating habits of earth's species are surprising and whacky and interesting.