The keeper of the penguin
enclosure at the Baltimore Zoo cautions us to walk softly: African
penguins tend to spook when strangers appear and streak off for a
swim in the surrounding moat.
When Olivia Judson, PhD, emerges onto their island,
however, the thigh-high little critters crowd around, looking up at
her eagerly, as if for instruction.
Who can blame them?
Judson, 33, is the Dear Abby of evolutionary biology.
Her book "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation" manages
the improbable feat of uniting in one volume the cosmic perspective
of Charles Darwin with the titillating curiosity of Dr. Ruth.
She is also disturbingly gorgeous, apparently even
to the penguin eye. They want to snuggle up with her and be read to.
Don't they know that biologists dissect things? She was on the varsity
fencing team at Oxford, for God's sake: Think of Catherine Zeta-Jones
in "The Mark of Zorro."
Worse, she takes a lip-smacking and often hilarious
delight in detailing the odd, often deadly extravagance of nature's
reproductive processes, from the exploding genitalia of the male honeybee
to the female green spoon worm, whose idea of foreplay is inhaling
"Success at seduction," she writes with
morbid relish, "is often at odds with survival."
As Dr. Tatiana, the lovelorn columnist (or, in British,
"agony aunt," or in this case maybe "ant"), she
fields inquiries in her book from neurotic fairy wrens in Australia
and homosexual manatees in Florida and from "Anxious in Amboseli,"
an African elephant afraid to shower with the other guys because his
member has turned green.
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a European praying mantis, and I've noticed
I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first. . . .Do you
find this too?
I Like 'Em Headless in London
"Some of my best friends are man-eaters,"
the good doctor replies, "but between you and me, cannibalism
isn't my bag. I can see why you like it, though. . . . Whereas a headless
chicken rushes wildly about, a headless mantis thrashes in a sexual
frenzy. Why can't he be that way when he's whole? Well, it's hard
to have wild sex if you're trying to keep your head. . . . Females
in more than 80 other species have been caught eating their lovers
before, during or after."
Clearly there is no such thing as safe sex -- which,
Judson says, is sort of the point.
"All creatures are literally dying to pass
on their genes," she says at lunch, munching heartily, gray eyes
flashing, on a post-penguin portobello. "From an evolutionary
standpoint, that's the whole purpose of life. Sex is almost always
the way we do it, but it is a great deal of trouble."
Easy for her to say. Consider the ghastly mating
of tiny midges. The female, Judson writes, "plunges her proboscis
into his head" during sex. "Her spittle turns his innards
to soup, which she slurps up, drinking until she's sucked him dry."
What can possibly be the evolutionary point of that?
That's what Judson wants us to ponder. She doesn't
always have definite answers to her correspondents' questions, despite
an intimidating 38-page bibliography ("The gin trap as a device
facilitating coercive mating in sagebrush crickets, Proceedings of
the Royal Society of London") and 24 mind-boggling pages of notes
("For outbreeding depression in pink salmon, see Gharrett et
The answers she does have constitute a sort of salad
bar of evolutionary facts and theories to which the reader ends up
bellying up, wide-eyed, with an increasing appetite. Garden slugs
who mate hanging upside down on a string of mucus! Lions who copulate
157 times in 55 hours with two different females!
"I wanted to give people not only a sense of
the incredible richness of natural history, but also a sense of how
much we have still to discover," she says in the plummiest of
British accents. "There is just so much out there that's fascinating,
much of it still a dark, unexplored realm."
Since the book's publication in August, she has
taken her first real time off, alternating promotional appearances
with play. She has spent several weeks sailing and diving with friends
in New Zealand and dodging SARS on trips to the Far East. She has
also given a number of mischievous lectures on her favorite topic,
the evolution of female promiscuity.
"Ha HA!" she says.
Homo sapiens aside, it seems females are hardly
ever faithful. Female grasshoppers will exchange nourishment for sex
with as many as 25 different males. Lions, rats, rabbits and prairie
dogs conceive more readily if they mate with several partners.
And who doesn't know about female chimpanzees, one
of whom, Dr. Tatiana tells us, was caught masturbating to a male centerfold
In the animal kingdom, she declares, "Natural
selection often smiles on strumpets. Sorry, boys."
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
My name's Twiggy, and I'm a stick insect. . . .My
mate and I have been copulating for 10 weeks already. I'm bored out
of my skull, yet he shows no sign of flagging. . . .How can I get
him to quit?
Sick of Sex in India
Judson didn't set out to become the sexologist of
all creation. She didn't even set out to write a book.
Her father, science writer Horace Judson, wrote
a history of molecular biology during her childhood, and she grew
up well aware of the agonies of creation in the literary life. "But
my father had a little tube of DNA he showed me as a child and there
were always biologists about. I did have an idea of doing something
in science." She was born in Britain, where her maternal grandparents
lived, but at 10 she migrated with her father's work to America, where
he eventually joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.
At Stanford she had planned to major in physics,
but less than halfway through her freshman year, she found herself
"in a three-hour, open-book exam where I couldn't begin to do
any of the problems. Two years later, during the Loma Prieta earthquake,
my physics book landed in the trash can," which may have been
some sort of sign. By then, she had switched to biology, which she
discovered was nothing like the biology she'd had in high school.
"In school we'd had the traditional 19th-century
biology," she remembers: "a lot of anatomy, the function
of the heart and dissecting the odd fetal pig. There was almost nothing
about evolution . . . no sense of the great and wonderful mystery,
the why of it all."
Even in college she found herself wading through
swamps of pre-med-type chemistry courses before she got to the stuff
that really put wind in her sails. "But I had a lot of summer
jobs in science" from Arizona to Berlin. "One of the people
I worked with became an interplanetary weather forecaster."
"Oh, I don't know. Sun storms and things. But
then in 1990 I decided to take spring quarter off in my junior year
and work as a biological field assistant in Oxford. We were studying
Sturnus vulgaris, the European starling. . . . We tried to do an experiment
to see how they measured time."
Judson and her team would secrete themselves at
a shelter, and when a starling arrived would immediately provide it
with four mealworms. The next time the birds arrived, they would have
to wait five seconds for the mealworms. The interval doubled each
"The idea was that they should be prepared
to wait 10 minutes for four mealworms because that's the time it would
have taken them to find food scratching about by themselves. But in
fact they wouldn't wait more than about a minute and a half. I think
they were doing a very successful experiment on us. Because when they
stopped waiting, we would go off and have a coffee break and start
the experiment again," which meant mealworms once again on arrival.
The sex life of the starling was not deeply explored.
That would wait until grad school.
Judson had such a good time at Oxford, she decided
to pursue her doctorate there with the aid of a Fulbright scholarship
and a three-year National Science Foundation graduate fellowship.
But her first year she would sit for days in her room wondering how
"That's actually fairly typical for doctoral
students at Oxford. I was just lost." So she began freelancing
science articles to publications like Nature and the Economist, which
gave her the confidence to start writing her dissertation.
The subject: How to live a million years without
sex. The subtext: Why is sex necessary?
Asexual reproduction, Judson says, "is easy
and evolves often in many organisms. There are many ways to do it:
You can break off a piece of yourself, split down the middle, lay
an asexual egg and so forth." But asexuals usually go extinct
eventually, she says, suggesting that the genetic variation they get
through asexual mutation doesn't propel evolution as well as the gene-swapping
that comes via sex.
"Still, a few organisms have lived thousands
of years without sex. So I built a computer model to explore the kinds
of lifestyles you can have and be a successful long-term asexual."
She finished the dissertation in 1995 and soon joined
the science staff of the Economist for two years. "Dr. Tatiana"
grew out of a piece she was asked to write for a Christmas issue on
the biology of sex.
"I wrote the piece," she remembers, "but
it was kind of boring. I couldn't get it really going somehow."
Then one evening she was talking about the piece with two colleagues
in the kitchen of one of them during a party. "We were talking
in particular about the queen bee and how she flies off trailing thousands
of drones. The odds are 25,000 to 1 against any one of them having
sex with her. But those who do go out with a bang. Their penises explode,
leaving their genitalia in place in her body.
"Then someone said, 'What if Ann Landers got
a letter saying, "My lover has just exploded! What do I do?"
' And suddenly, hey! The light went on."
The resulting article "turned out very well
. . . better than I expected. I wrote it to entertain people, but
it seemed to me an effective way to make natural history vivid and
at the same time to open the way for a real scientific discussion.
The questions the organisms ask are real questions -- questions that
help show the enormous diversity of biological puzzles and hint at
the data we need to find the answers."
When the article won the British Association of
Science Writer's Award, "I started thinking it might make a book."
Quitting her job with neither an agent nor a publisher
in hand, she embarked on the task she expected to take six months.
It consumed four years, including a pivotal point when she fled a
rainy London winter to shed writer's block in southern France. There
she was thrilled to discover she could live far cheaper -- not to
mention better -- in a sunny hotel room larger than her London flat.
Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a marine iguana and . . .I keep encountering
groups of youths masturbating at me.. . . How can I make them stop?
Disgusted in the Galapagos
Judson was recently invited to give her promiscuity
lecture in Singapore, but "because Singapore is such a conservative
place, it was suggested I not bring up human promiscuity. . . . I
could answer questions on it, however."
She has also talked about the evolution of female
promiscuity in Las Vegas "before the 28th annual meeting of the
Desert Tortoise Council" and in Kansas City, where "a woman
had me autograph a copy of the book to her rabbit, Ludwig von Blitzkrieg."
Meanwhile, Dr. Tatiana is prospering. The book has
been generally well reviewed ("A racy guide to evolution,"
said the New York Times; "Wonderfully entertaining and authoritative,"
said Nature). "It's doing particularly well in San Francisco,"
she says with knowing smile and raised eyebrow. "I think the
Chronicle has reviewed it three times."
It's also being translated into 16 languages, including
Czech, Estonian and Japanese, and has been short-listed for Britain's
prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction.
And of course there's the de rigueur Web site (drtatiana.com)
featuring the book's cover illustration of humping bedbugs, which
Judson has digitally enhanced so their antennae quiver. What does
Dr. Tatiana wish she'd had more room for in her book?
"I'd like to have written more about sexually
transmitted diseases in animals. We don't know very much about them
. . . but there's a particularly nasty one among ladybugs. In fact,
it only thrives in London, where people live packed together enough
to provide garden warmth.
"I have it on good authority," she says
with a malicious chortle, "that there is a direct territorial
correlation between the incidence of sexually transmitted disease
in ladybugs and precincts that voted for Tony Blair."