A Review of Sex on Earth

The August 1st issue of The Hindu BLink carried a review I wrote a while ago of the book Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard. There have been some issues getting the review online, so in the meanwhile, here it is:

sex on earth

Of the many routes you might take into the lives of the animals, a route that takes you through the varied, weird, and thoroughly entertaining world of animal reproduction is perhaps one that you may not admit taking. But embarrassment surrounding the subject of animal sex is unwarranted. Because almost all creatures depend on it to reproduce persist, sex has been tremendously important in shaping the natural world, and any attempt to understand animals depends upon understanding sex. Contemplating animal sex can lead you to think about some of the most puzzling questions in biology, so set aside your prudishness for a while, and go read Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard.

Howard doesn’t travel far or wide to bring you first-hand accounts of the oddest animal sex on the planet, because he doesn’t need to. The woods, gardens, zoos, and museums of his native England are filled with plenty of organisms with fascinating sex lives, and this book includes the stories of ducks with explosive penises and corkscrew vaginas, the sex arenas of retired race horses, and chicks raised by a pair of male flamingos named Carlos and Fernando.

But investigating the “sex lives of the everyday” quickly leads Howard to the limits of our knowledge about animal reproduction. For example, while waiting to catch frogs in the act, Howard raises the question of how exactly male and female frogs decide when to migrate to the breeding ponds in which they mate with each other. Turns out this is a question we don’t really know the answer to. In examining the mysterious lives of bdelloid rotifers, which inhabit almost every corner of the globe and never have sex, he ponders why sex evolved in the first place, a puzzle that scientists have been mulling over for many decades but have only recently begun to solve. By balancing stories of what we do know about animal sex with constant questions about what we don’t know, by talking to and learning from the scientists who spend their lives asking these questions, Sex on Earth shows us how science really works. But don’t expect any large revelations about life on earth or the human condition when you reach the end of this book—it is better read as a series of essays, occasionally repetitive and some decidedly better than others, without a central narrative.

There are many, many articles and books about the science of animal reproduction written for people who aren’t biologists, which makes writing yet another one a risky proposition. I don’t think I’d recommend Sex on Earth to you if you know nothing about biology and aren’t willing to learn some of it on the fly—Howard doesn’t define some basic terms (expect to see words like “sexual dimorphism” and “sub-hominin”), and only quickly explains some fairly difficult concepts. What sets this book apart from most popular writing about the science of animal reproduction is Howard’s willingness to voice an opinion on some of the most problematic aspects of how people have studied and talked about animal sex. Foremost among these is our tendency to impose human values and insecurities about sex onto the animal world. Why else has it taken scientists so long to acknowledge that females play as important a role in sex as males? What’s with our abhorrent tendency to describe some animal sex as “rape”? And why do we speculate, on only the shakiest of scientific foundations, about the length of an erect T. rex penis? Howard takes on these questions forcefully but also funnily, and the result is a refreshingly different account of animal reproduction.

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