Interview With Olivia Judson

Olivia Judson An alumna of Stanford with a doctorate from Oxford, Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist and award-winning journalist who has published in The Economist, Nature, Science, and The Times Higher Education Supplement. She is presently a research fellow at Imperial College in London. Olivia Judson's first book, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, is a hilarious natural history in the form of letters to and answers from the preeminent sexpert in all creation. The book helps readers with subjects like when necrophilia is acceptable, the best time to have a sex change, how to have a virgin birth, when to eat your lover and who should commit bestiality with whom.

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Who is Dr. Tatiana? Why did you create her?

Dr. Tatiana is sex advisor to all creatures great and small. No organism is too microscopic for her attention; no problem is too bizarre. Her special brand of wisdom comes from her detailed knowledge of evolution and her formidable knowledge of natural history. And her personality? I like to think of her as witty but rigorous, compassionate but stern, racy but tasteful.

I created Dr. Tatiana because I was looking for a way to make the evolutionary biology of sex more vivid and more accessible, and it seemed to me that dispensing sex advice could be a good way to achieve this. So I tried it in an article that I was writing for The Economist. And I found that an advice-column format had several advantages over regular exposition.

What sort of advantages?

The questions posed by Dr. Tatiana's correspondents do two things at once. They describe an aspect of the correspondent's often peculiar natural history, and they present a problem to be explained (or at least speculated upon) in evolutionary terms. This means that all the questions are framed in ways that are both striking and immediately comprehensible.

In addition, I found that having to answer particular questions helped me to structure the answers -- and perhaps more importantly, helped me to keep the discussion of concepts from becoming too abstract. At the same time, by keeping all of her discussion in terms of evolutionary biology, Dr. Tatiana provides a framework for thinking about animal sex that prevents the book from being simply a catalogue of weird factoids.

The book rests on a device -- organisms writing letters to an agony aunt -- which is intrinsically anthropomorphic. Isn't anthropomorphism something that biologists try to avoid?

When I studied animal behavior in college, I was told anthropomorphism was a Big No-No. But as I read more widely, I concluded this stance is misguided. Two of the greatest evolutionary biologists -- Darwin and Bill Hamilton (my PhD supervisor, and my nomination for the 20th century biologist most like Darwin) -- regularly put themselves in the place of the organisms they were watching, and I think that doing so helped them to some of their most profound insights. As long as everyone understands that we don't know what is really going on inside an animal's head -- that anthropomorphism is a metaphor, not a description -- considering life from an organism's point of view can be a powerful aid to the imagination, and therefore, a powerful tool. Indeed, I think the real danger with anthromorphism is in treating it as an intellectual sin. A taboo on anthropomorphism has the effect of leading us to believe that humans are so different from other animals that we can't possibly relate to them. But that's wrong.

In Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, Dr. Tatiana advises organisms ranging from sagebrush crickets to marine iguanas, and even a slime mold. Why are humans not among the lovelorn organisms that write in?

Well, humans already have lots of agony aunts to write to, so it seemed unfair to deprive another organism of the chance to write to Dr. Tatiana.

More seriously, though, I wanted to make the point I just mentioned -- that humans are not nearly so different from other organisms as we sometimes pretend. And I thought the most effective way to do this was to have other organisms asking questions about subjects that humans tend to be preoccupied with.

Subjects such as?

Humans tend to ask me about one of two subjects: infidelity and homosexuality. Usually the questioner seems to be trying to find some biological justification for his or her moral position. For example, playboys like to argue that monogamy is "unnatural" -- "I couldn't help cheating on my wife, your honor, it's in my genes". And social conservatives like to argue that homosexuality is "unnatural" because homosexuals tend not to have children, which means (the social conservatives imagine -- wrongly, as it turns out) that homosexuality cannot have a genetic basis.

But such lines of thought betray a fundamental misunderstanding. Human ethics and morals have nothing to do with what is "natural" and what is not. A female praying mantis often eats her mate -- it is perfectly natural. But imagine the outrage if a human female were to do the same. And suppose we discovered that some men were genetically predisposed to be rapists. Would that somehow make rape socially acceptable? Of course not. As I say in my chapter about the evolution of sexual violence, evolutionary biology can potentially tell us a great deal about why we are the way we are. But it can tell us nothing about what we would like to become.

In the last chapter -- which addresses the subject of why sex exists at all -- you switch away from a sex-advice column. Instead, you parody the Jerry Springer TV show: Dr. Tatiana is the presenter of a show called Under the Microscope -- The Deviant Lifestyle Show! She has a guest with a problem, and a raucous audience of organisms that heckle and shout out questions and suggestions. Why did you decide to alter the format like this?

In the other chapters, I could easily break the subject matter into problems faced by many different organisms. In this chapter, I wanted to focus on one organism: a small animal, known as a bdelloid rotifer, that lives in patches of wet moss.

Bdelloid rotifers are notorious in evolutionary circles because they do something that evolutionary theorists thought was impossible. That is, they only reproduce asexually -- by laying eggs that don't need to be fertilized -- and have done so for at least 85 million years. In other words, they are "ancient asexuals".

Asexuality often evolves, but it rarely persists for long: asexual groups tend to go extinct almost immediately. This is one of the chief reasons that evolutionary biologists believe that sex is necessary. But if the bdelloid rotifers can live for millions of years without sex -- why can't the rest of us?

Having the bdelloid rotifer as a guest on a TV show seemed to me to be a good way of keeping the chapter focused on this question. Moreover, ancient asexuality is a contentious topic in evolutionary theory, and I thought that the best way to convey the debate would be to have a debate. Each member of the audience who speaks is advocating a real position held by real scientists. For example, a ram argues that most claims of ancient asexuality have turned out to be bogus, and so probably, the bdelloid rotifers' claim to ancient asexuality will turn out to be bogus too. Several people in the pages of scientific journals have made this argument. However, the rotifer is able to show (by referring to the very latest studies) that in fact, the bdelloid rotifers really are ancient asexuals. And so on.

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation covers all subjects related to the evolution of sex, as well as a large amount of natural history. The wide scope of your book as well as your endnotes show that your research was extensive. How did you go about finding your material?

In writing a fact-intensive book like Dr. Tatiana, acquiring the facts is perhaps the biggest challenge. And there's only one solution: brute force. I spent uncountable hours in libraries; I read hundreds of books, and thousands of papers in scientific journals; I trawled through online databases of scientific papers, searching for any reference to my organism of interest; and I talked and corresponded with scores of biologists. (Indeed, I was surprised and impressed with the generosity of the response I had from my colleagues. Most of those I approached were not known to me personally, yet around 98 percent of them replied to my queries, often at length, and many of them kindly read snippets of text.) Quite often, I would have to piece together the details of a system from several sources. For example, many recent scientific papers describe good experiments, but give only a cursory notion of the natural history of the organism concerned, so to find the natural history, I would frequently have to look elsewhere. It was a kind of detective work -- great fun, and richly rewarding.

What was your greatest obstacle in writing this book?

I had terrible writer's block when I first started this project -- it took me a long time to find Dr. Tatiana's voice -- and as a matter of fact, to break through the blockage, I took drastic action. Picture the scene: I was living and working in a tiny apartment in central London, it was winter, with all the rain and gloom that winter in London entails, and I was badly stuck. Worse, the lease on my apartment was about to come to an end. The whole situation was demoralising. Then, I discovered that it was cheaper to live in a hotel in southern France than it was to rent another apartment in London. So I loaded my books and papers, my computer, and a small suitcase into my car -- I put everything else in storage -- I drove off, and installed myself in a beautiful, tranquil, small hotel in a beautiful, tranquil, small town in southern France called Sommi´┐Żres. I intended to go for two months; I stayed for five. I snapped out of depression, and of writer's block, and I made enormous progress. I had a fabulous time: going there was the best decision I've made in about ten years.

What is Dr. Tatiana's species?

Human. Absolutely: that's why she anthropomorphizes.

If you could be any of the organisms you describe in your book, which would you be and, more importantly, why?

I'd be fascinated to try out all sorts of different lifeforms. I'd like to know what it's like to turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly (do butterflies remember anything about their previous life, or is it a true reincarnation?). I'd like to know what it's like to see colors the way birds do -- they have much more complex color vision than humans do, and I'd love to experience it. I'd like to know what it's like to sleep with half the brain at a time, the way dolphins do. But as far as sex goes -- well, frankly, I'm happy to be human.

What do you most hope that readers will take away from the book?

For me, writing this book has changed the way I look at nature; the more I learn the more amazed and absorbed I am by the diversity and complexity of life. If I've managed to impart even a fraction of my own enthusiasm for biology (and for sex), I'll consider myself to have succeeded.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.