A provocative voyage on the “vast ocean of sexual function beyond the quiet backwater that we humans find ourselves in.”

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NATURE'S NETHER REGIONS

WHAT THE SEX LIVES OF BUGS, BIRDS, AND BEASTS TELL US ABOUT EVOLUTION, BIODIVERSITY, AND OURSELVES

An exploration of sexual reproduction across species, with emphasis on the evolution of genitalia.

Dutch ecologist and evolutionary biologist Schilthuizen (Evolution/Leiden Univ.) seeks to assume the mantle of Masters and Johnson in this examination of sex in the animal kingdom. The author holds Darwin at fault for focusing on “how secondary sexual characteristics—like colorful bird plumage, the prongs on beetles’ heads, and the antlers of deer—have been shaped not by natural selection…but by sexual selection.” These secondary features serve to attract females to mate with hopeful males and only indirectly influence survival in the struggle for existence. For example, the peacock that has the grandest display of feathers is presumably healthy enough to support such an excess, as compared to a rival more poorly endowed. Darwin explicitly relegated genitalia to the role of mere mechanisms. He believed that females were aroused by male displays, and the game was on. Not so, writes Schilthuizen, who cites a 1979 discovery by an entomologist who discovered that the minuscule penis of a damselfly contained “a miniature spoon” to clean out the female's vagina and thus remove the sperm of competitors. Schilthuizen shows that this is only one example of how male and female genitalia have evolved in a battle between the sexes over which eggs would be fertilized. By closely studying the process of copulation, biologists have also observed the role of orgasm. In one experiment, the sexual responses of laboratory rats stimulated genitally appeared similar to that of “humans in the throes of orgasm.” The author suggests that the timing of female orgasm before, during or after the male sperm deposit can influence the likelihood of fertilization in all mammals, including humans.

A provocative voyage on the “vast ocean of sexual function beyond the quiet backwater that we humans find ourselves in.”

Pub Date: May 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-670-78591-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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