by: Olivia Judson
This is one of the awesome books I have been reading and talking about in my blog lately. I am completely and totally in love with this book. It’s 16 kinds of fantastic.
It’s a book, of course, about the evolutionary biology of sex – that is, Judson talks about all the weird and wacky ways that animals reproduce and why scientists think they act like they do. The format of the book is a huge part of why it’s so amazing – animals, like fish, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians, write in with their sex-related questions and problems. And she answers, going off on tangents to explore concepts or similar practices in other animals. It’s glorious.
Every question and answer is only a few pages long, making the information easily digestible. Judson does an excellent job of defining science terminology in layman’s terms. She also – and this is just absolutely superb of her – introduces terms and concepts as they’re relevant, rather than doing a huge info dump at the beginning of the book. I hate huge info dumps – a lot of science concepts are kind of complicated and people need time to digest them once they’re introduced. Even if someone picks up the information easily, the terminology is often new and weird and multisyllabic, so introducing a word and allowing the reader to learn it before introducing another new word is a much better tactic than presenting what amounts to a vocabulary list at the beginning of the book. (I have Strong Feelings about this, guys. Very. Strong. Feelings.)
Anyway, Judson’s presentation of information is smooth and, er, whelming. It’s generally just enough new information to make the reader feel like they’re learning something new and cool but not enough to make the reader feel lost or unable to keep up. (Well. Full disclosure: I am a science person working in the sciences. So please let me know, readers, if you feel differently!) She’s honest and open throughout – when something is not known, she says so and then proceeds to discuss competing theories that are thought to explain it, noting which theory she most agrees with.
Her vocabulary is quite good, which I don’t know if I liked or disliked. I liked her precision with words, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like she could have stuck to a more common vernacular since she was already using an extensive scientific vocabulary, which many of her readers were presumably already unfamiliar with. The tone of the book was light and interesting but sometimes the vocabulary was fighting against the tone. It’s from 2000, so I can safely assume relevant discoveries in the field have been made since then, so some of the gaps in knowledge may have been filled since publication.
Okay. Now that that’s all out of the way – this book is just fun. Creatures are weird and they do weird things! It’s fascinating! I just wanted to quote this book over and over and over – preferably with no context, because the quotes are much more startling that way. I often found myself laughing at the sheer silliness of animals everywhere. (There’s an ocean-dwelling species where the female is 200,000x bigger then the male!)
You don’t have to like biology to like this book – it’s not heavy or technical and it doesn’t feel like something you’d read to “improve” yourself. Rather, it’s wacky facts of animal sex presented with style and wit by Judson.
Judson covers topics like monogamy (everybody cheats), females vs. males (it’s not she-wants-commitment,-he-wants-freedom!), incest (a species gotta do what a species gotta do, y’all), asexualism, homosexuality, sex (like gender here) (also there are species that have more than 2 sexes, which I didn’t know), and so much more. It’s all in animals – there are no political discussions here – and all based on evidence and research and just really cool information. (I think this information is also important to developing thoughts on some hot-button issues, because people often trying to justify their stances by incorrectly evoking evolutionary biology. This, however, is not something the author pushes.)
This book is fantastic and I love it! I would recommend it to anyone who likes nature or animals, or who is interested in sex, or who wants to read something science-y that isn’t scary – this is a great book! If you have a serious dislike of rodents, if there’s an animal that grosses you out, or if the thought of bugs mating makes you gag a little, than alas and alack!, this may not be the book for you.