danny writes "Having problems with your sex life? Read on for my review of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation -- it may not get you laid, but you can have some fun learning about the evolutionary biology and natural history of sex." With that disclaimer in mind, read on for the rest.
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation mimics a write-in advice column, in which anthropomorphised animals of all kinds ask for help with their sex lives. That is just the framework, however, for an entertaining tour of the natural history and evolutionary biology of sex. Pretty much every aspect of animal sex is at least touched on, though the "all creation" of the title is an exaggeration -- there's only the occasional reference to plants and bacteria, with nothing (for example) on the fascinating topic of pollination.
The columns are grouped thematically in thirteen chapters, divided into three parts. Part one covers the "expenses" involved in sex, female promiscuity, conflicts between males, and alternative strategies for those who are poor and small. Part two covers sex and cannibalism, sex and violence (male and female), love potions and homosexuality, and monogamy. And part three looks at incest, at hermaphroditism, facultative sex and other variants, and at asexuality and theories for the evolution and persistence of sex.
Each column typically runs to four or five pages, beginning with a question.
Dr. Tatiana never answers directly, but looks around first at other species with similar or related problems
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm an Australian redback spider, and I'm a failure. I said to my darling, "Take, eat, this is my body," and I vaulted into her jaws. But she spat me out and told me to get lost. Why did she spurn the ultimate sacrifice?
and sets the question in a broader context
"... most guys prefer not to be eaten at all. ... In the scorpion Paruroctonus mesaensis, the male whacks his partner several times before racing off; in the wolf spider Lycosa rabida, the male tosses his lover in the air, leaving her in a crumpled heap as he hurries away.
... In the bristle worm Nereis caudata, something similar goes on but for once it's the man who eats his wife.
... Do other males eat their mates? I have never heard of it. But note: this is not to say males don't eat females. They do. Just not during sex. Platonic cannibalism is a problem for creatures from apes to amoebae. It's depraved out there."
before finishing with the answer, if there is one.
"... It goes without saying that such a death wish can evolve only in special circumstances. That is, being eaten must mean you leave more offspring than if you are spared. So far, your species is the only one known to meet this criterion. A male redback who gets himself munched fertilizes more eggs than a male who survives. Why? ... it turns out that sex takes longer when she's chewing away on you, which gives you the chance to deliver more sperm and thus fertilize more eggs. So your challenge is to make yourself more appetizing."
Links to many different areas of biology are explored.
"The secret is picking your moment. Female redbacks aren't greedy; when they're not hungry, they don't eat. If you offer yourself right after she's feasted, forget it. You've got to wait until she gets that mean and hungry look in all eight of her beady little eyes. And then, for what you are about to receive, may your kiddies be truly thankful."
And for those who want to follow up specific topics in the technical literature, there are thirty pages of notes, giving annotated references for each column, with pointers into a forty page bibliography. (Though a short recommended reading list of non-technical popular works on evolution would have been a more useful inclusion for most readers.)
"Lysin, the protein that determines whether an abalone sperm can enter an abalone egg, is evolving at record speed. Tantalizingly, abalone are also splitting into new species at a startling rate."
Sex Advice to All Creation assumes no background in biology, and there's the occasional wordy or repetitive explanation. But even scientists for whom the evolutionary biology is old hat are likely to find some new details in the natural history. The chatty tone and the framing conceit of an advice column -- extended in the last chapter to a mock television show -- remain entertaining and decorative, never pushed so far they become annoying or distort the science.
"If you are not a hermaphrodite, incest is best if you come from a species where males have only one set of genes. If you're not a member of such a species, I urge you to avoid sex with your nearest and dearest."
You can purchase Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.