Review: Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation - Olivia Judson

If I tell you that this is a book about science, zoology, and aspects of evolution - some of you may immediately tune out and rush to click on to another page. Well then, it's a book about the sex lives of various creatures - oh let me just make it easier and give you some quotes, so you can see what sorts of questions Dr. Tatiana receives, and some of her answers. This will give you a better idea how the book is both humorous and completely weird. Not to mention hard to categorize.

Pg. 176, from Chapter 11: The Fornications of Kings, in "Part III: Are Men Necessary? Usually, But Not Always."

"Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a true armyworm moth, and I've gone deaf in one ear. I've read this is from having too much sex. Trouble is, I'm (sob) still a virgin. So what's happening to me?
---Piqued in Darien

Be assured, you have nothing to worry about. It's just that your inner ear is now hosting a torrid, incestuous orgy. ...What happened is that one evening when you stopped to sip nectar from a flower, a mite scrambled up your tongue as if it were a ladder. When she reached your face, she crawled through the tangle of your scales and hairs to the outer caverns of your ears... Then she stepped up to the delicate membrane...that screens off the inner ear from the outer ear, and she pierced it. In doing so, she destroyed forever your ability to hear with that ear.

After settling and and perhaps taking a light supper of - I'm afraid - your blood, she started to lay her eggs, about eighty in all. A couple of days later, the eggs hatched... First to emerge were the males of the brood; then came all their sisters. The males grew up faster than their sisters, prepared one of the innermost galleries of your ear as a bedchamber, carried their sister brides thence..."

And you now get the idea of what's going on in Piqued in Darien's ear. There are some details I cut purely for reasons of space - because the details and examples of various matings are what makes the book so fascinating.

Another example, this is part of an answer to a male stickleback whose eggs were stolen. Dr Tatiana brings up the male bowerbird, which also the gender that does the nest building, and has to deal with rivals messing with their nests.:

page 73, from Chapter 4: Swords or Pistols, in Part 1, Let Slip the Whores of War!
"...Because they are quite big, bowerbirds are easily able to monopolize fruit trees, scattering smaller birds out of their way. Thus, like aristocrats everywhere, most of these birds have lots of free time. And so, naturally, they have a hobby. It's art.

Male bowerbirds spent weeks building and decorating elaborate "bowers." Depending on the species, the bower could be anything from a clearing strewn artfully with leaves to huts more than four meters (thirteen feet) wide or towers more than three meters (ten feet) high, woven out of sticks, painted with juice from crushed fruits, and decorated with flowers, mushrooms, feathers, snakeskins, snail shells, butterfly wings, beetle heads - or anything else that catches the artist's eye. One scientist nearly had his camera stolen by a bowerbird who wanted to add it to his decor; another almost lost his socks. Artistic styles differ greatly among populations - even populations of the same species - so that whereas flowers might be fashionable in one area, beetle wings will be all the rage in the next. Moreover, this is no random collection of junk: the objects are selected and placed with great care...

Why do they do this? To impress girls, of course. Females come to the bowers to mate. And one way to make your bower look even better than a rival's is to resort to theft and vandalism. Yes, I'm afraid that bowerbirds are not above foul play to further their own ends. Stealing is rife. Rare or fashionable objects vanish from one bower only to appear in another. And some bowers are regularly vandalized or completely destroyed."

This example in particular so interested me that if someone had asked me (just after I'd read the page) to join an expedition to observe and take notes on bowerbirds over the next decade I would have probably signed on. (Especially if I'd managed to forget how many poisonous things are frolicking around Australia.) The book is full of such unique examples, pointing out similarities between species and theorizing as to why such behaviors and traits had helped species succeed in the big race to procreate.

I do have to add that the chapter on the praying mantis' habit of eating her husband is grim yet amusing. That would be Chapter 6: How to Make Love to a Cannibal. Because it's not just the mantis that tends to do this.

So this is science with a sense of humor, albeit sometimes a dark humor. There are end notes and a long bibliography should you want to find out more about any particular creature. (I'm trying not to look and find more to read about the bowerbird - I already have a huge To Read stack.) This is also a great book to pick up, read a chapter or two, and put down. I must admit that I've reread it a few times - but then I'm a bit of a zoology geek.