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May 23, 2012 / tobiasgrey

The Sexy Side of Science

The animal kingdom is filled with more variation and uniqueness than anything else on earth. This variation allows both the heights of beauty as well as the bizarre and absurd. It is this absurdity that the article ‘World’s most bizarre mating rituals’ celebrates. Written by Mara Flannery for Cosmos Online, it is about exactly what the title entails – the lewd and uncanny sexual behaviour of various members of the animal kingdom. The article outlines seven general behaviours that are repeated in different species worldwide and give a few examples of species in which they occur. It’s all there, too, from female angler fish dissolving and assimilating the, dozens of male spoon worms living inside the womb of the female, and something terrifyingly referred to as ‘traumatic penetration’ in the bedbug boudoirs.

The first thing that struck me about this article was the surprising dryness with which it was written. I had assumed, given the absurd and juicy nature of the topic matter, some humour would be injected, but little to none can be found. What I had anticipated to be a riotous journey full of double-entendre, hilarious puns and tacky sex jokes turned out to be simply a reeling off of a list of the crazy things animals do. It wasn’t that it wasn’t enjoyable by virtue of that alone; I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would. This article could’ve made so much more of an impact if it had used humour – as it was, reciting a list is not involving nor is it really enjoyable. This article will pull your through more by content than style, and while the content is very interesting – who doesn’t like reading about ‘sexual cannibalism? – it just lacked the punch and pizzazz that I wanted this article to have.

One benefit of this style, though, is that it communicates the science, and this article has done that very well. The behaviours are explained well through the individual examples that are given. The descriptions of these are short and sweet – they tell you everything you need to know in as short a time as possible. It even includes quotes from two experts – Zuk and Johnson, both behavioural ecologists – which serve to illustrate the context of these behaviours and how they came about through natural selection. The prescriptive style, for its lack in effect, made up for this with its simplicity, descriptiveness and ease of understanding.

Had I written this article, I would definitely have tried to interject some comedy; anything! A tacky pun here and a cheeky, Benny Hill-esque double-entendre there, just to add some more fun and draw the reader in more. Something to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter. It’s like I always say, the day you start taking sex too seriously is the day that you die. And, come on, who doesn’t find the idea of a female fish with dozens of testicles funny?

Nobody. That’s who.

The article can be found here, at Cosmos Online.

Up for discussion: do you think comedy can be an aspect which can improve and embellish science writing in particular subject areas? Or it dryness and humourlessness the way to go?

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7 Comments

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  1. annagardiner / May 24 2012 2:25 am

    I could not agree with you more, this topic had so much potential for hilarity but sidestepped it all to present it in a factual, dry tone. Female fish with multiple testicles are indeed funny, it would have been nice for the writer to indulge in that, however I think it all comes down to the style and type of publication it’s placed in. I looked through some of Cosmos’s other articles and that direct and factual tone is pretty unanimous (even on an article about poo transplants).
    I really enjoyed your post though, you write so conversationally which made it a really easy and engaging read.
    I’ve no doubt you’d of done a much more entertaining job had you wrote the article!

    • tobiasgrey / Jun 3 2012 4:49 pm

      Thanks!
      I guess it all comes down to the tone of the journal/magazine? If the other publications are dry and boring, then it’s fine, but don’t choose a topic with such comedic potential and stick to topics which deserve a drier tone.
      And they have an article about poo transplants with no jokes?! That’s heresy to the gods of comedy!

  2. noelynn / May 27 2012 8:56 pm

    The topic, rightfully chosen! Upon reading through the post and browsing the Cosmo online version, it truly reflect the sexy side of science. The fact that female fish has multiple testacles, simply makes her a male. So it is infact an hermaphrodite, both male and female.

    Thus, the comedy style entertained in this article gives a good humor to the subject, “sex in animals is hilarious and a bizarre. There are a lot of amazing behavior in the countless living creatures on earth that are undiscovered or if discovered yet to comprehend. So I believe in my opinion that humor and comedy approaches can be some useful manners for us to try and start understanding the sexy side of science.

    All in all, great post!

  3. mmaideni / May 29 2012 4:09 pm

    I agree with you as you tried to sift mara Flannery’s piece of writing. You have rightly said that the tone in this story is not as you would have done it yourself given the same opportunity. But let you be reminded that this is just not the sexual patterns exhibited by different animal species but rather the strategies so craftly worked out inoder to avoid the extinction of their kind. I take it that the strategies are also meant to cull the unwanted traits that may manifest later in life. The tone used in this story kind of distils the most complicated science of survival which otherwise could have been boring to follow through. Infact I was kept glued to the story just to learn what other strategies are there until I realised it was the last paragraph.
    I enjoyed it all.

  4. bonnyp / May 30 2012 3:55 am

    I agree that the Cosmos article doesn’t live up to expectations. The article explains the evolutionary mechanisms behind these bizarre behaviour well, but it doesn’t exploit the full humour potential of the topic, and for this reason it falls a bit flat. Even if the dry, factual style of writing is suited to the house style of the publication, to me it doesn’t seem suited to the subject matter in this piece. Good post!

  5. lachlanpetersen / May 31 2012 8:20 am

    I agree that the article is boring. I would go so far as to say it was painfully so. But don’t be quick to jump the gun and say that humour would be the answer. I have read a couple of articles on very similar topics (I’m doing a Zoology major, I don’t just google “cuttlefish sex” in my spare time) and the dry, matter-of-fact style of writing can be very entertaining if done right. The style requires very succinct and well structured sentences and paragraphs, and this article is a great example of terrible writing. I even read some of her other articles on COSMOS and they too, were woefully boring. Not to say humour isn’t a great way to entertain a reader, but just know that it too, can be done wrong. There is nothing worse than reading an article written by someone who thinks they are funny but are in fact, awful. I think that the problem with this article is the quality of the work, not the style.
    In fact, the only reason I could read it, was because of the topic (and even then, it missed out on some sex strategies that make even these ones look prudish. Search “Strepsiptera” flies. I dare you).

    • tobiasgrey / Jun 3 2012 3:32 pm

      I agree that comedy can be taken too far, and can be dreadful if someone thinks they’re funny and really aren’t. But an understated, cheeky humour could have made this article more than what it is – a glorified list of things animals do to ‘reproduce’. And that’s the word I’d use. It’s about reproduction, not sex. The difference is small, but one word is dry and uninteresting, the other describes the exact same thing but sounds, frankly, more interesting. And therein, for me, lies the difference.
      This article is like the word ‘reproduction’ – boring – and it could have the pizzazz and emphasis of a word like ‘sex’.
      Also, Strepsiptera are terrifying. So is the terminology the biologists use to describe them. I mean ‘hemocelous vivaparity’? Wow. The mating habits of Cordyceps fungi are pretty terrifying – give them a Google.

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