Book Review: Sex on Earth
Sex on Earth: A Journey through Nature’s Most Intimate Moments
“Ducks are often mocked, characterized as comedic somehow, but we have much to take from them. They remind us that sex is a two-way thing. That every penis and every vagina has its own story to tell, each wedded to the other, with both equal in their grandeur.” (90)
It starts with a panda’s bottom, specifically Tian Tian’s, one of the pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo. It is here that our author, Jules Howard, begins the book. Frustrated at the relentless mocking of pandas’ sexual habits, he sets on a yearlong journey to understand the how’s and why’s of animal sex. Presented largely in chronological order, each chapter investigates a specific topic or question concerning sex – its role in species conservation, why have sex in the first place, etc. – often centered around a single animal species (sorry botanists and mycologists). By writing this book, the author hopes to give a rich account of sex in the natural world. Or at least something more than a lurid, titillating, sensationalist list of biggest penis in the world.
Not only does he succeed, but he does so in a relentlessly hilarious way. His proficiency in seeking unusual situations (the time he and his family went to a holiday cottage on a farm and were confronted with the scene of a dog furiously humping a rampaging pig) combined with his wit (describing the artificial manipulation of a ram’s circadian rhythm as having its scrotum played like a stop-motion bagpipe) makes this a massively entertaining read and gives you no desire to put this book down. This is enhanced by his fluid writing style, an almost stream-of-conscious which takes you on his journey rather than hammering you with a rote recitation of information.
But what’s most striking about this book is the philosophical exploration, the poignancy with which each topic is dealt. It’s initially difficult to see how glowworms can make one contemplate humanity’s effect on the nature or jackdaws about consciousness and love. But the author is deft at making such connections, connections which often leads to intense reflection. As a student of ecology and evolution, I didn’t necessarily learn much by way of facts and theory. Perhaps those less knowledgeable on the topic may gain more in that regard. What I did gain though, and what I suspect all people who read this book will gain, was an appreciation for sex in the natural world: its study and the quirky humans who devote endless amounts of their time to know its intricacies, the variety of tools and mechanisms by which animals do it, and its fundamental role of sex in shaping an incredible amount of the life around us today.