Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Enjoy being a male, a human male anyway

It's election day and I expect we're all tired of politics. So instead let's talk about sex.

If you're a young man--the intended audience of this site--it's possible that you've been thinking so much about sex that you've barely noticed an election was going on anyway. Having once been a young man (I'm still a man) I know how it is. It's enough to drive you mad. There's the sex drive, combined with a debilitating fear of potential mates, combined with feelings of inadequacy around other males . . . well, that was me anyway.

If you've got problems like this you could call into a sex talk show on the radio like Dr. Drew's Lovelines, or you could read Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for all Creation. If you take the latter route, you may not get actual advice for resolving your sexual concerns; Dr. Tatiana, after all, doesn't specialize in human sexuality and in fact mentions humans only in passing. But by reading the advice she offers to creatures as diverse as fruitflies, sponge lice, honey bees, fig wasps, lions and chimpanzees you'll definitely get a different perspecitive on sexuality and its place in the world.

Dr. Tatiana is the alter ego of evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. In Dr. Tatania's Sex Advice for All Creation she responds in advice columnist form to the sexual concerns of animals of all sorts. Here's an example of a letter she might receive:

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


Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a yellow dung fly and I've heard rumors that in my species sperm are actually chosen by the egg. Is this true, and if so, what can I do to make my sperm more attractive?
  The Dandy on the Cowpat

Reading these accounts, and the good Doctor's responses, can be, for a human, a strangely comforting experience.

If, for instance, you've learned that your girlfriend is cheating on you, Dr. Tatiana will help you understand that in the animal kingdom you have plenty of company. Early in the book, Dr. Tatiana dispels completely the notion that philandering a primarily a male activity. In nature, it turns out, it's quite the reverse. There are any number of reasons for females to seek multiple mates. They might, for instance, be looking for genetic variety, or may want to encourage competition between sperm or may want simply to make all the males in their community suspect that some of their children might be theirs which helps limit infanticide (nice, eh?). It turns out, according to Dr. Tatiania, that promiscuity among females makes a species more robust.

What Dr. Tatiana (or Olivia Judson through her) does so well, though, is not just present and describe the sexually odd and unusual, but describes how such varied sexual practices have evolved via the competition between individuals to pass on ones genes. Male members of species with promiscuous females, for instance, quickly evolve ways to limit promiscuity since every other male a female mates which reduces each individual male's chances of passing on his genes. Thus, after copulating the stick bug male coplulates with the female for over six weeks, preventing rivals from getting to her; the house mouse actually seals off the female's reproductive tract with an impenetrable plug after he deposits his sperm, creating a sort of chastity belt; even bolder the the spiny headed worm Moniliformis dubius can not only seal off the female's reproductive tract with a kind of cement but can even use its cement to seal off rivals' penises. This is not the worst thing to happen to a male in this evolutionary battle. Some species of bees actually explode after mating with the queen, leaving only their penises behind to block the way for rivals. A particular species of slug, Dr. Tatiana mischeivously reports, often gnaws off its own penis after sex to acheive something of the same end. The fruit fly Drosophila bifurca grows a sperm with a tail twenty times its own length. No one knows exactly why, but it may be to knock rival sperm out of the way.

See, fellow human males? See how much worse it could be?

There seems to be no end to what males in nature will do for a chance to mate. The natural world is a veritable treasure trove of highly inventive and often downright dirty tricks. Dr. Tatiana tells the tale of the sponge louse, whose males come in three varietys. The alpha males, as their name implies, are big muscular brutes who preside over complete harems. The harems, however, are infiltrated with beta males, a smaller version which looks just like a female and, posing as a member of the harem, has its way with the females behind the alpha males back. It gets weirder. There are also gamma males, who are even smaller and disguise themselves as the alpha male's offspring, also in order to sneak a few special moments with the females.

And you thought the dating game in high school was bad.

It goes on and on. Offering helpful advice to insects, arachnids, a variety of bacteria, numerous mollusks and jellyfish, and the full range of vertebrates, Dr. Tatiana cheerfully exposes the weirdest sex tales in all of creation.

And then she asks the most frightening question of all: "Are Men Necessary?" I bet you can guess the answer.

Calm down. For now, at least, human men are most definitely necessary. Enjoy being one.


Charlotte said...


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