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[F]rom an evolutionary point of view, the purposes
of life are clear: survival and reproduction. If you fail at either, your
genes go with you
[T]he need to find and seduce a mate is among the
most powerful forces in evolution. Perhaps nothing in life generates a
more ecstatic diversity
First, let me state unequivocally that this is an immensely enjoyable book. Creating an alter ego, Dr, Tatiana, who's a sex advice columnist to the animal world, Olivia Judson offers numerous fascinating examples of the myriad bizarre and entertaining ways in which bugs, fish, birds, and mammals (and a few other things) procreate. The format of the book, with her answering nervous letters from various creatures, is derived from a column she wrote for The Economist in 1997 and it allows her to keep the discussion light and sometimes very funny. Here's an example, included in slightly different form in the book, that appeared in that original essay:
Dear Dr Tatiana,
I am worried. All my lovers leave their genitals
inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
WITHOUT even looking at your picture, I can tell
that you are a queen bee. Unfortunately, dear, your partners plug you on
Is your case normal? Well, although it is extreme,
it is by no means unique. In the sexual wars, plugs, cements and glues
to clog up the female
That's pretty amusing and just a bit shocking. The humorous style allows her to explore sexual strategies like adultery, rape, murder, cannibalism, asexualism, homosexuality, etc., without getting too bogged down in their broader implications. That latter point though leads to what will be an equivocation.
It seems, particularly in light of the anthropomorphism that Ms Judson utilizes, like this survey of the sexual mores of other species is ultimately intended to inform our understanding of the various practices we humans engage in. If not strictly suggested by the humanized manner in which she presents her case studies, it is certainly implicated in her conclusion:
I hope that having seen the prodigious variety of sexual practices out there, you'll be more tolerant of the predilections of others.
This hope is hardly justified by what has come before. Even if we grant for the nonce that Ms Judson has demonstrated that evolutionary pressures have created a wide range of reproductive strategies, a "predilection" is a mere preference for something. Assuming that evolution is sound science, animals respond to an overwhelming force of nature; they don't just pick and choose sexual behaviors because they seem like fun; only humans have this privilege.
Taken at face value, Ms Judson's point might invite us to broaden our minds to the point where Jeffrey Dahmer's cannibalism may be tolerated as just another in a wide range of entirely natural sexual practices. Or rape could be accepted as just an evolutionary adaptation; indeed, evolutionary psychologists have proposed that this may be the case. If Ms Judson is trying to suggest that any behavior we can find in another species deserves our tolerance, she really ought to have made a sustained argument, rather than, in effect, just saying that this stuff happens therefore it's natural, therefore it should be tolerated. If she's not suggesting any such thing, then one wonders what the purpose of the book is.
If it's just a titillating entertainment that's fine, because it is very entertaining. But if we are supposed to be able to draw any conclusions from the book, the simple fact that neither survival nor reproduction appear to offer much challenge for modern humans would seem to mitigate against the idea that aberrant behaviors are anything more than mere preferences. Factor in the unique human soul and our free will and it seems fair to ask why the exercise of personal preferences should not be subject to moral judgment.
Ultimately, Ms Judson overreaches her material, but not before she's made reading the book worth our while.
See also:Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology
-ESSAY: A Bug's Death: With current technology, we could swat the malaria-carrying mosquito for good. But is it worth the risks? (OLIVIA JUDSON, 9/25/03, NY Times)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: Sex is war! (Dr. Tatiana, Dec 18th 1997, The Economist)
-BOOKSITE : Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation
-BOOKSITE: Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation, by Olivia Judson (Henry Holt)
-ARCHIVES: Prospect magazine articles written by Olivia Judson
-ARCHIVES: "olivia judson" (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of Dr. Tatiana Sex Advice (Nicholas Bagnall, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW : of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice (New Statesman)
-REVIEW : of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice (Valerie MacEwan, PopMatters)
-REVIEW : of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice (WILLIAM HATHAWAY, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice (Bruce Barcott, Outside)
-REVIEW : of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice (Joanna Gajewski, WorldLink: The magazine of the World Economic Forum)