From: Wade T.Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sat 09 Nov 2002 - 19:27:43 GMT
BOOKS ON SCIENCE
A Racy Guide to Evolution
By NICHOLAS WADE
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," by Dr. Olivia Judson,
Metropolitan Books, $24.
"Dear Dr. Tatiana,
My name's Twiggy, and I'm a stick insect. It's with great embarrassment
that I write to you while copulating, but my mate and I have been
copulating for 10 weeks already. I'm bored out of my skull, yet he shows
no sign of flagging. . . . How can I get him to quit?
Sick of Sex in India."
Dr. Tatiana is the pen name of Dr. Judson, an evolutionary biologist who
has discovered that an advice columnist's pose is a deft device for
discussing the mating game's many amazing variations in nature.
In the replies to her finned, furred and feathered correspondents,
titled "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," she counsels
creatures caught in the most curious predicaments, from a fig wasp in
Ribeirão Preto, Brazil, concerned that her lovers keep decapitating one
another, to an elephant in Amboseli in Kenya bothered that his penis had
turned green, to a male bronze-winged jacana bird of Tamil Nadu, India,
cruelly neglected by the female who keeps him in her harem.
Beneath these racy tales and the saucy advice offered for their
solutions, a less visible agenda is at work. The reader is nudged to
start thinking like an evolutionary biologist. Why did this bizarre
behavior evolve and what advantage does it confer? Does the male stick
insect copulate for 10 weeks because he has nothing better to do with
his time or could it be to prevent other males from fertilizing his
Eggs are few, and sperm are many. This microscopic-level asymmetry is
the root cause of ardent civil war that in every species pits male
against male, and male against female. Males, from sea lions and fruit
bats to to Taliban, are driven to control females' fertility so as to
ensure their own paternity.
But a female's interest usually lies in having many lovers. There are
many sound reasons for the female to pursue a policy of determined
promiscuity, Dr. Tatiana informs a male yellow dung fly of 12, including
to guard against male sterility, to ensure diversity in her offspring,
to encourage each male in her group to think that he is the father and
protect her children accordingly and to encourage competition among the
sperm of several males so as to ensure her egg gets the best.
"Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets," Dr. Tatiana
writes without much hint of regret. "Sorry, boys."
Despite Dr. Tatiana's dark and worldly wisdom, her creator is a
fair-haired young woman with an infectious laugh. Dr. Judson studied
biology at Stanford and at the University of Oxford in England, where
she was one of the last students of Dr. William D. Hamilton, whose
theory of kin selection undergirds large arenas of modern biology,
including sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. In 2000, he died of
malaria that he caught after a trip to Congo to investigate a hypothesis
about the origin of AIDS.
In an interview, Dr. Judson recalled her mentor's imaginative gift for
entering the minds of the insects he studied.
Once she asked him about the biology of a species of asexual weevil. A
few days later, a pinned specimen arrived in her mailbox.
But there was the occasional disagreement. "I once had an argument with
him," she said. "I burst into floods of tears, and he sat staring at his
Dr. Hamilton was famously impractical. University administrators
required him to give just one lecture a year. But on at least one
occasion he forgot even that. As a profound evolutionary thinker, Dr.
Hamilton knew the difference between a sex symbol and the real thing.
After he received a prestigious scientific prize with a big cash award,
there was a dinner in his honor. "One of his friends said," Dr. Judson
recalled, " `Bill, I expected you to arrive in a Ferrari.' " He replied
to the effect that he thought of arriving with a couple of young women.
Dr. Judson's foray into writing occurred despite some early
discouragement. As a child, she knew that writing must be an arduous
profession because of the occasional tortured groan she heard emanating
from the study of her father, Horace Judson, a historian of molecular
At Oxford, she started writing articles for The Economist. The pseudonym
Dr. Tatiana first materialized when, as a joke on the business affairs
editor, she put on a disguise and posed as a candidate for an interview
that lasted until his questions grew too uncomfortably technical.
Dr. Tatiana's advice is never too technical. But beneath the levity and
romps, it raises some deeper issues. After surveying the baroque variety
of sexual arrangements in the animal world, she concludes that the least
common, the very weirdest of all, is monogamy. A handful of species
practice it, like the chin-strap penguin, the long-eared owl, the mantis
shrimp, a few termites and the black vulture.
Monogamy is so rare, Dr. Tatiana suggests, because it can evolve only in
the special styles of life where male and female interests are perfectly
aligned and where stable couples leave more offspring than cheaters.
An observer of the many draconian laws and sanctions that society has
developed to enforce monogamy would be hard pressed to declare it the
default condition of humankind.
Humans have telltale signs in their physiology like the male's largish
testes and the size difference between the sexes that indicate that
their natural propensity is mildly promiscuous.
There are no people among Dr. Tatiana's ark of correspondents, although
human biology is mentioned in passing, in part because of what she
considers the unreliability of information about their sexual behavior.
People mislead researchers on questionnaires and can conceal their
dalliances with abortions and contraceptives.
"I tried as much as I could to stick to studies which are rigorously
done," Dr. Judson says.
The ultimate mystery is how sex started and why it is necessary. The
immediate purpose of sex, as everyone knows, is to provide new
combinations of well-tested genes. Hence sex is the perfect complement
to mutation, which engenders novel genes. But meiosis, the cellular
quadrille that produces the egg and sperm cells, is a highly complicated
and burdensome dance, and many species have reverted to simple
Virgin birth is no ticket to longevity. Most asexual species become
extinct after a time. That might confirm the notion that sex is an
absolute necessity in the long run, but for the puzzling existence of
the bdelloid rotifer, a species that has been asexual for 85 million
Bdelloid rotifers, however, have a special trick not shared by sexually
reproducing rotifers. They can dehydrate themselves when their pond
dries up and blow away on the wind. Such a disappearing act has the
advantage of leaving parasites far behind.
Dr. Tatiana notes that another longtime asexual species, the fungus
cultivated in the gardens of Attine ants, is also dispersed by a method
that lets it escape from its deadliest parasite. Young queen Attines
select a parasite-free sample of fungus for founding their new nests.
These facts lend support to the Red Queen theory of sex, that its
purpose is to help a species keep reinventing itself and stay one step
ahead of its parasites.
Whatever the reason for the sex, nature has developed so many variations
on the theme that it is hard to discern any clear moral or imperative,
let alone any support for the idea that what is natural must be right.
Even Dr. Tatiana is at a loss.
"When it comes to the topic of gender," she concludes, "Mother Nature's
been having some fun. Take nothing for granted! Remember, You won't find
any rules — not a one!"
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