Animal Crackers

Michael Neve

  • Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia by William Eberhard
    Harvard, 244 pp, £21.25, January 1986, ISBN 0 674 80283 7
  • Females of the Species by Bettyann Kevles
    Harvard, 270 pp, £16.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 674 29865 9
  • A Concise History of the Sex Manual by Alan Rusbridger and Posy Simmonds
    Faber, 204 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13519 6

Along the beautiful coastline of California live the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). When the females are ready, they emerge from the waters of the Pacific to nurse their newly-born youngsters, on land. They are then surveyed by several enormous bulls, one of whom comes to dominate during subsequent copulation-time, which starts about a month after the birth of their young. During copulation, the females utter a kind of snarl: this is thought to be a way of encouraging other males to intervene and compete among each other. How do we know this? Because on hand, in California, watching the struggle for ‘viable sperm’ is a mammalogist. Name? Burney Le Boeuf.

Elsewhere, on the battered planet, there are elephants. Elephants take things slowly. Once a fertilised ovum has been successfully planted in the uterus of the female, she will carry the fetus for a year and a half, and then nurse it for five years or more after birth. Elephants, in their sad wisdom, can as a result only face the cumbersome task of sexual intercourse once every four years. Watching this Schopenhauerian scene of massive resignation is an ethologist. Name? Holly Dublin.

Then there are these books. They are all, in their different ways, products of the time. Two of them re-examine the received views of female behaviour and female sexual choice in the history of animal life, and one of them attempts to recount the history of sexual advice-giving, in recent times, to humans. Each of them, in that sense, is concerned with the issue of sexual science, or at least the systematic study of sexuality as a feature of the natural history of men and animals. And each of them seems imprisoned in a clapped-out language of description, a variety of flat American academic prose or, in Alan Rusbridger’s case, of tedious schoolboy prurience. This makes Rusbridger’s non-event of a book easily forgotten. In the case of William Eberhard and Bettyann Kevles, the sense of linguistic imprisonment is more important, raises much more interesting questions. For what their books are about, as against how they talk about it, matters. And particularly in Eberhard’s case, entombed in the sunless world of academic ‘scientific’ description lies a detailed study of foreplay, copulation, fighting, surviving and screaming with pleasure that is (almost) worthy of Erasmus Darwin.

Eberhard and Kevles are both studying the ways in which females, in the animal kingdoms, perpetuate their own species, and the criteria by which they choose to proceed. In that sense their books display the influence of feminist and sexual-political thinking within biology, and within the biological discussion of reproduction, genitalic form and function, and domestic life. The interest of both books is related to the deep question of how far we are still eager to have news from the animals and how it’s meant to affect us. To put it another way, sociobiology may now take on a modish garb: homosexual lizards are suddenly ‘discovered’ in the South-Western United States; some females in nature turn out to be, rather briefly, nice to each other. Do we care?

This is of course unfair, since both writers might argue that they are simply looking at animals and are not speaking of human capacities, let alone sociobiology. But we’ve been through that one, and every ethological text carries implications for humans, because it’s us reading and writing them. Think Burney Le Boeuf. With a surname like that, who wouldn’t check out the seal sex situation? Think Holly Dublin. And Bettyann Kevles, anxious to be up to date and write without humour, who also dedicates a book about females, sex and the family to her husband Dan, a distinguished historian of genetics. To Dan, whose help at ‘every stage in every way was immeasurable’. Jesus, Bettyann, that big?

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