Tai Shan the giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
Tai Shan the giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

Book in Brief: Sex on Earth

Panda sex may have no greater defender than Jules Howard. I mean, presumably the pandas themselves would be more invested in this topic, but as far as I’m aware the bears aren’t usually invited to contribute commentary to the Guardian. They have to rely on Howard, and thankfully he’s been an able defender of the Ailuropoda melanoleuca love life.

More often than not, pandas are cast as cuddly evolutionary mistakes. They seem so backward. On the brink of extinction, some of the captive members of their species haven’t had the good graces to appreciate that we are trying to save them and therefore breed out of gratitude. What a blinkered view of life. Yes, male and female giant pandas have to find each other on just the right day to start the biological process of making an adorable little fuzzball. Yet, Howard points out, pandas were managing to do this for over two million years before our species started destroying their habitat and pushing them to oblivion. We’re the problem, not them, and this goes for zoos, too.

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For a long time, Howard points out, zookeepers took a very human-centric view of what would turn on a panda. (Panda porn? Seriously?) Given that we’ve all but abandoned our sense of smell to glean information about the world and each other, it took a while for specialists to realize that scent plays an important role in getting pandas ready to mate. The panda baby boom started once researchers finally realized this simple secret. Pandas aren’t evolutionary mishaps. We failed by not only cutting into their numbers, but in thinking that what titillates us would work for a species we last shared a common ancestor with over 66 million years ago. So begins Howard’s new book, Sex on Earth.

I must admit that upon receiving my review copy, my first thought was “Another book about animal sex?” We seem to be awash in literature on the subject, with Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation still the pinnacle of procreation-focused popsci. Not to mention Isabella Rossellini’s Green PornoGreen PornoGreen Porno film series and live show.  But, as I quickly discovered, the crowded field is exactly what let Howard to write a book that stands out.

A great deal of writing – and film – on animal reproduction focuses on the superlative and hyperbolic. Who has the biggest penis? Who does the craziest mating dance? Are animals into BDSM? And on and on. But Howard argues that in focusing on the shocking and lewd, or what seems to be so through the humans lens, we’re actually missing what sex is all about. Worse still, we risk misunderstanding the very nature of sex by projecting our own desires and fears upon the staggering diversity of species that do it differently than we do.

Take the stickleback, for example. With bowerbirds and clownfish that change sex, the spiny little fish might seem a bland place to start. But through a visit to stickleback researcher Iain Barber’s lab, Howard explains how critical the fish has been to researchers wishing to parse the science of courtship and mating. For example, in a classic experiment, Niko Tinbergen showed that the red color of ready-to-mate males makes other males get all het up. Unfortunately, Howard points out, some male researchers were so taken with the vigorous, vibrant sticklebacks that they cast the female fish as dull, unimportant, and, as one zoologist wrote, “nothing but a roving gipsy.” It took until about 1990 for behaviorists to finally realize that females play an active role in choosing their mates and are not simply providers of eggs for stickleback seed. This historical perspective is what makes Sex on Earth different. As Howard weaves his tales of glow worms, hedgehogs, penguins, and more, he always keeps one eye on how humans have interpreted – and often misinterpreted – animals as reflections of ourselves.

Howard had hooked me with the sticklebacks and kept me reading on. Not only because of the clarity and humor in his prose, but for his careful consideration of how our species has warped the sex lives of other animals to reinforce our own preferences and taboos. Sex on Earth isn’t yet another catalog of what we might consider bizarre behavior. There are plenty of sticky details for those wishing to brush up their cocktail party chatter, sure, but Howard has done far better than that. Sex on Earth is a refreshingly self-aware exploration of the most intimate moments in nature and how the incredible variety of life has led us to frame our own thoughts about this near-ubiquitous biological drive. Not to mention that anyone who takes the time to set up a camera system by the side of a local pond to watch frogs make the next generation of little hoppers has not only my interest, but my admiration.

[Note: In an early chapter, Howard lists me along Darren Naish and David Hone as part of a gaggle of science writers who see dinosaur sex everywhere. Given that I’m due to give a talk on just that subject at London’s Natural History Museum next month, I can’t deny the charge.]