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Olivia Judson

Olivia Judson, author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation, wants to spread her enthusiasm for the incalculable richness of reproductive strategies brought about by the combined forces of sexual reproduction and evolution.

Dr. Tatiana, sex therapist to the animal kingdom, to speak at U

Event is highlight of Evolution 2008 conference June 20-24

By Deane Morrison

June 17, 2008

There's been a frightful accident. I was happily sitting in my usual spot at the bottom of the sea when I felt an itch on my nose. Being a green spoon worm, I don't have arms and I couldn't scratch. So I sniffed. And I inhaled my husband. ... Is there anything I can do to get him back? And the tabloids think they're sensational. But the above SOS accurately describes boy-meets-girl in the world of the green spoon worm. It's one of numerous animals whose lovelorn letters to advice columnist "Dr. Tatiana," aka evolutionary biologist Olivia Hudson, reveal the mind-boggling diversity of animal mating habits in Judson's bestseller, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation. Judson will discuss "The Art of Seduction: Evolution, Sex, and the Public" at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 22, in the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 4th St. S., Minneapolis. Her appearance, which is free and open to the public, will be a highlight of the international Evolution 2008 conference, which the U is hosting this year. Held every four years, the conference draws more than 1,200 biologists who share research on all topics related to evolution. "Dr. Tatiana" was an instant hit in Britain for Judson, a research fellow at Imperial College London and frequent blogger for the New York Times. The book sparked a popular TV series that has run in Britain, Canada, France, and Australia. The book demolished the notion of universal rules for seduction, showing how, for example, various species woo their lady love in a dung ball, bite their rivals in half, or kill their twin at birth. In her talk, she'll also sneak in a few juicy bits about how to seduce humans--into the excitement of science.

Anything goes

At its core, sex is really just the mixing of genes from different individuals. In species that reproduce by means of separate male and female individuals, the sexes are simply a pair of hands that shuffle the genetic cards every generation. As far as Nature is concerned, as long as that gets done, anything goes.

"Evolution makes the world come alive. It means you can approach the world and ask questions about it to which the answer is not simply 'because.'"

The sexual imperative is responsible for a lot of the beauty, grandeur, and, of course, trouble in the world. "Sex drives processes like mating rituals and what males and females will be like," says Judson. "The evolution of sex [for a given species] is the evolution of a genetic system." It's hard to imagine a more different genetic system from the human variety than the green spoon worm's, where the female is 200,000 times bigger than the male. A larval worm starts life with indeterminate sex and becomes male only after landing on a female and soaking up a substance she secretes to turn him into the opposite sex. Then she grants him permanent residence. In fact, a female can easily support a suite of lovers inside her reproductive tract, where it's easy for them to fertilize her eggs. Why ought a larva to turn male just because it has encountered a female? The advantages, says Judson, appear to be that the young worm is thereby guaranteed a mate, and he can start reproducing as soon as he settles inside her. It's the type of question that evolutionary biologists love to tackle. "Evolution makes the world come alive," says Judson. "It means you can approach the world and ask questions about it to which the answer is not simply 'because.'" I'm a European praying mantis, and I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first. It's because when I decapitate them they go into the most thrilling spasms. Somehow they seem less inhibited, more urgent--it's fabulous. Do you find this too? Why this reverse Henry VIII behavior in insects like the praying mantis, not to mention plenty of spiders? In praying mantises, explains Dr. Tatiana, the brain of an intact male keeps him coolly focused on the task of getting into position with the female. Then, after he loses his head, "the messages that inhibit sexual behavior cease--and he turns into a sex fiend. The result is that he can copulate when there's almost nothing of him left." It all points up what Dr. Tatiana calls rule number one for males mating with a cannibal: Never get eaten during foreplay. A male who gets eaten before he has delivered his sperm will not pass on his genes; only those who can put off their demise until after mating will influence the next generation. Becoming lunch for his mate can actually benefit a male; it delivers a supply of nourishment to help the eggs he fertilizes develop, thereby increasing the chances of leaving healthy offspring. Questions like these aren't so hard. What continues to stymie Judson is figuring out why there is so much opposition to evolution in the United States, her home country. The way around it, she says, is to proclaim the wonders of the world, and how evolution allows us to understand and appreciate them even more. "I don't like evolutionary biologists to sound defensive," she says. "I'm going to talk [at the University] about different techniques for making biology interesting."