Nature’s Nether Regions – book review

Recently, a new book came out about genitalia. Authored by Menno Schilthuizen of the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden, the book is about the sex lives of all sorts of animals and for that reason is called: “Nature’s Nether Regions”.  Although I had no part whatsoever in this book, I do immediately admit that my views are a bit biased due to the fact that I know Menno Schilthuizen (he was the one who made this movie about my research possible). However, I did really enjoy reading this book!

Nature's Nether Regions

When amongst friends, men tend to boast about how much they know about sex. So too have I boasted about my knowledge concerning sex, by sharing the story about the possible origin of the female orgasm which was proposed by Desmond Morris in his book, the Naked Ape. This basically boils down to the hypothesis that the female orgasm exists to emotionally bind her to one men. This would keep her from cheating on him while he is off chasing mammoths. Although it is a very tantalizing idea, the reality is very different! While reading through “Nature’s Nether Regions”, it became painfully obvious how little I actually knew about sex. One of the things I learned is that the female clitoris is a lot larger than the average person realizes, and that females can still reject males after they had sex! Yes, some British scientists actually related the amount of sperm a human female keeps to the timing of their orgasms! By removing sperm, a women can still prevent getting pregnant even after she had sex (for details see the book). Although I could go on and on about all the exciting examples from the book from sex peptides to self-castrating spiders, it would be better just to read it yourself. One thing I would like to share here from the book is about cantharidin, which I wrote about here. In chapter 7 we read:

“The semen of the American fire beetle Neopyrochroa flabellata, for example, is spiked with the poisonous compound cantharidin. Although in the human world this substance is known as the infamous aphrodisiac “Spanish fly,” the benefit gained by the male fire beetle is not his mate’s increased ardour, but rather the fact that the stuff ends up in the eggs fertilized by his sperm, which protects them against being eaten by ladybird beetles.”

This is very exciting to learn. One because I am very interested in insect eggs and two because we humans for some reason choose to take a poisonous compound which occurs in beetle sperm as an aphrodisiac. This book provides many very interesting and amusing examples which I can use to impress my friends. The in my opinion most important part of the book however, is in the afterplay and is about the importance of genitalia research:

“Some arguments can in fact be brought to bear against the notion that genitalia research has no application. At several places in this book, we have seen cases of human and livestock fertility problem that can be understood-and sometimes solved-only with a good command of the evolution of the genitalia involved. In Chapter 4, for example, we saw that artificial insemination in domestic animals is improved if the shape of the syringe used resembles that of the penis of the respective species; Eberhard wrote a paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses arguing that the same might be true for humans. The fact that that paper has been completely ignored by the medical literature (it has been cited exactly zero times since it was published in 1991) is symptomatic of the medical tradition of viewing human reproduction as a mundane bodily function, where both sexes are cooperating “for the good of the species,” and fertility problems are seen simply as defects in that function. It should now be clear that reproduction in any species is the outcome of a never-ending evolutionary tango, a dance marathon that conserves elements of both battle and ballet. And, as we have seen, gynaecological and urological problems in humans, such as preeclampsia (Chapter 7), spontaneous abortion (Chapter 4), seminal allergy (Chapter 7), and pregnancy in noncommunicating uterine horns (Chapter 6), which physicians often tend to take for granted as unavoidable “errors,” can all be understood, and possibly better addressed, if we know the forces involved in genital evolution.”

These are all very important points! I firmly believe in the usefulness of fundamental science, not all research should be oriented on solving a current human problem. So in my opinion there should be room for scientists that do not aim their research on a particular application, but perform research to obtain a better understanding of the world we live in. However, ignoring the evidence that is already there and could potentially be useful for humans, is shocking. This book by Menno Schilthuizen is a great tool to educate people about the world of genital research and its importance. I warmheartedly recommend everyone to read this great book!

I would like to thank Menno Schilthuizen for letting me copy parts of his book and providing me the Dutch versions of the parts I copied.