In the guise of an advice-to-the-lovelorn column, evolutionary biologist Judson masterfully conveys astonishing facts and figures about the sex lives of many, many creatures great and small.
“Dear Dr. Tatiana, I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal? Perplexed in Cloverhill.” From openers like this, Tatiana provides reassurance along with a biological/natural selection rationale. “For your lovers, this is the way the world ends—with a bang, not a whimper,” she jokes, then explains that by plugging up the queen, the drone hopes to prevent her from coupling with another. And so it goes as Judson surveys the plant/animal/fungal kingdoms’ repertoire of sexual practices. They defy easy summary, so her chapters cluster in three parts: “Let Slip the Whores of War!” (long sex acts, the problems of sperm-making, lots and lots of philandering); “The Evolution of Depravity” (rape, necrophilia, the cannibalism of lady manti and spiders); and “Are Men Necessary? Usually, But Not Always,” which concludes with a chapter about Philodena roseola, a half-millimeter-long creature that has been reproducing asexually for 85 million years. This flouts the usual theories that eukaryotes (creatures with their genes enclosed in a cell nucleus) need gene recombination (meiosis) and the mixing up of genes that results when two parents have sex to avoid lethal mutations and fatal infections. Miss Philodena explains that her line has escaped extinction by periodically going dormant and blowing away, thus making a new life in a new environment. The tour-de-force backdrop for this chapter parodies the Jerry Springer TV show. You might think that all this whimsy would pall or seem heavy-handed. It doesn’t. Judson brings it off with great style and wit, laced with the authority of a research evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London.
Consider inviting Tatiana to your next dinner party—most assuredly there’ll never be a dull moment.