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BOOK CIRCUIT
Catching Nature in the Act
A Lasker Award-winning science writer tackles the topic her own sources warned her about.


Sex: A Natural History (Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, $32.50) is available at major book stores and Amazon.com.
When you first hear that the deputy director of Hopkins Medicine's Office of Communications and Public Affairs has written a 500-page book on sex, the idea seems, well, a bit out there. For nearly two decades, after all, Joann Rodgers' forte has been pitching stories about Hopkins scientists and their discoveries to other journalists. But five years ago, when New York editor John Michel pitched his idea for a big book on the natural history of sex to Rodgers, the born reporter in her returned to the fore.

"I like learning all the stories about a subject and putting them together," says Rodgers, who was a seasoned national science correspondent for the Hearst newspapers before signing on with Hopkins and has written six other books. "I've always wanted to make people say, Gee, I didn't know that."

And in Sex: A Natural History, she proves that there's plenty left to discover about the birds and the bees (not to mention the beetles, the bunnies and the bonobos).

What had initially intrigued Michel-and how he convinced Rodgers to take on what he calls the ultimate topic ("Yes," he acknowledges, "it causes people to smirk")-was the explosion during the last decade or so of studies in disciplines ranging from anthropology and evolutionary biology to brain imaging and genetic engineering. "I'd seen some articles on things like sperm wars," says Michel, "but no one had put it all together. I thought, Joann is perfect for this. Of course, actually doing the book was an example of the classic human ability to go into things blindly. It turned out to be like researching a dictionary."

As if the sheer volume of data Rodgers dug out wasn't enough, virtually every one of the 70 or so scientists she interviewed cautioned her to be careful. "They expressed fear and concern," says Rodgers, "because they took great pains to keep a low profile. But that was another reason I wanted to do the book. Western culture has problems confronting sexuality. People are uncomfortable with the subject. I am too. But what I came out understanding is that sexual behavior informs everything we are as humans. A lot of our culture has been devised to support our biology."

Aimed at an audience Rodgers characterizes as "the science-interested, people who watch the Discovery Channel, Scientific American subscribers," the book, she says, is the story of how more than why. "One of the things that fascinates me is the incredible creativity of scientists in asking complicated questions, like what is it about the feminine form and figure that is universally appealing to males, or why do people flirt, or why sex rather than cloning for reproduction. We are all observers of this vast array of behaviors, but this is not popular science. It's stories of what scientists think about how we get to yes, to reproduce our DNA, to stick around to take care of the offspring.

"I think what surprised me the most is the redundancy nature has built into this Rube Goldbergian system of getting it on. No engineer could come up with the system we have, so fraught with the potential for mis-steps, so clumsy in a way. But contrary to the notion of a battle of the sexes, our minds and bodies have evolved to cooperate. The subject of our sexual behavior is so much of what defines us as human beings-including our parenting-that to not want to know about it is to say, I don't want to know about myself."

-MAA

 

 

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