There's probably nothing more fascinating than human sex, but how other species do it is pretty compelling too. A couple of recent nonfiction books take nature as a theme and use "sex" in their titles. Along the way, each blows away some common preconceptions about the way nature works.
One is Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World by Marlene Zuk, a professor of biology at UC Riverside. Isn't it fun to learn that approximately ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects surround you in the world?
Here are some pithy quotes, demonstrating Zuk's wry sense of humor and ability to make analogies that resonate with a reader:
Scientists established the characteristics that bees would use in their description of a dream house to a bee real estate agent, including a south-facing entrance, a small enough entrance hole to discourage unwanted visitors, and enough room for an average-sized honeybee colony to spread out in comfort. The ability to compare several different possibilities, like enterprising couples scanning the online real estate ads, indicates a rather sophisticated cognitive ability on the part of the insects and has even led to the suggestion that the bees possess some form of consciousness. Why being able to choose a split-level ranch over a refurbished Victorian is peculiarly emblematic of higher intelligence, while other decisions are not, is unclear to me, but it is undoubtedly a complicated decision.
In groups, the caterpillars, like schoolchildren egging each other on to eat Doritos and Twinkies instead of carrot sticks, will often end up choosing the less nourishing offering. The problem seems to occur because, like ants, the caterpillars follow odor trails left by their companions. . . . The caterpillars thus follow each other to their collective nutritional doom.
Amid all the hand-wringing and contention about whether what the bees do is really "language," no one seems to question whether it's really "dance." Maybe the dance scholars are just more easygoing than the linguists, or maybe we are already comfortable sharing that capacity with other species, though one could argue that the struts and tail shimmies of a peacock are hardly analogous to a waltz. But this points to the futility of the discussion; if we always narrow our definition of language, sooner or later we will end up with a capacity only we can possess.
MORE SEXY SCIENCE
The second book I will mention is Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, an essayist and novelist. This is a memoir-like linked collection of 13 essays, with an overall theme of lost species and lost wild places. Hoagland also writes also about his own aging. His style feels somewhat old-fashioned to me, but the writing is clear, original, and thought-provoking. One example (notice the subtle reference to what might be a flow state):
Nature throbs in us through our digestive gases, sweaty odors, wrist pulse, unruly penis or bloody vulva, and nervy tics. We flinch, gasp, fuck, cluck, grin, blink, panic, run, fight, sleep, wake, and wolf a meal like animals. Our official seven deadly sins are rather animal, too, and so is bliss, I think: not only lust but that out-of-body happiness you may feel when being quite still, yet aware and self-contained. Nature is continuity with a matrix and not about causing a stir in the world, and as we destroy our links to other forms of life, it's like whittling at our heels and shins and toes. You can do it for a while until you cut a tendon, nick a bone, and find you limp. And we've now done that.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry