Monday, 24 November 2014

Sex On Earth - A Review

Sex On Earth - A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard

This is a very enjoyable read.  Many books about natural history fall into one of two camps.  They can be rather dry and anoraky, a bit more like train spotting manuals for geeks rather than written from a place of joy. Or, they can stray into Posers Corner and try too hard to be meaningful and clever - too arty - conjuring contorted associations and mystical images and far too often they seem mournful and somewhat tortured.  These are of course extremes, but not many fall easily into the middle section of factual and fun. This book does, and that is what I like about it so much, natural history could do with some more humour and irreverence.

Sex On Earth is written for anyone who likes animals, who is interested in how life carries on and isn't too squeamish about terminology.  Spanning the intimate encounters from mites to pandas, racehorses to ducks the private bits of the animal world are put on full show.  Your head will reel at the diversity of appendages males have developed and the physiological tricks a female's body can employ.  You will never dismiss a mite again as boring and you will look more tenderly upon the jackdaws blocking up your chimney.

Jules laces his text with personal insights about science and scientists which are sensitive and intelligent. He really likes and admires the range of academics he interviews and who let him peek into their weird world of observing and analysing animal sex.  Does Dr Chris Wilson really have a hand knitted rotifer on his desk?  Does Sharon Flint, the caddisfly genitalia expert, really look like a gothic princess?  Jules laments the passing of the hands-on skills of naturalists of old and the lack of contact with nature that is so talked about today.  If only children knew more about the mating strategies of sticklebacks and slugs they would not need a smart phone to amuse them.  He is saddened by the progress of science which looks like it might render as obsolete those who possess the manual dexterity to prize apart the genitalia of insects under a microscope.   A shame to lose such people, the odd bods who find the minutiae of life infinitely fascinating.

This book could only be written by someone who loves nature in all its strangeness, grossness and beauty.   Jules really does love life, the pages smile at you and ask you to come on in and be amazed at the extraordinary ordinary creatures that pepper our daily lives. Slugs and fruit flies, dogs and ducks may be unremarkable fare but their sex lives are far from ordinary.

There are many interesting observations about science, such as the seeming obsession with male sexual organs and by comparison the little interest in female ones.  Why?  Will that change as the gender balance in scientists gradually shifts to being more female?

There is a frank and explicit discussion on the sex supremos -bonobo chimps - the porn stars of the animal kingdom - but Jules sensibly pulls short of going on to talk about us. So many have done so in the past and it is a cheap trick. Each species is unique and comparisons are hollow.

Jules is a fine scientist and a skilled writer.  Sex is a fun topic under his pen.  If I have one quibble Jules - I HATE the phrase ""to knock her up" but that is my only quibble and a personal one.  Have a good time reading this and I guarantee the world will seem sexier and more intriguing when you do.

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