The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex
(University of Chicago Press)
US: Nov 2012
The title lured me in, and the subtitle, “The Prehistoric Origins of Sex”, seduced me. Alas, as with an an alluring dress that cloaks a bony body, when I received this title to review, I opened the package to find a surprise. Two dinosaurs, their offending parts with a black bar across their midsections, graced the cover. Opening the book, I learned that it dealt not with the pecadillos of our randy ancestors, nor the lurid rites gleaned from centuries of anthropological adventure, but that it detailed the genitals and mating mechanisms of arthopods, tetrapods, and most of all placoderms—extinct armored fishes.
John A. Long, an Australian paleontologist and naturalist, tells his data-rich tale with verve and aplomb. He integrates his scientific study of his team’s “2008 hunt for the world’s oldest vertebrate willy” with a diligent account of insect, reptile, amphibian, fish, dinosaur, mammal, primate and eventually, human stimulation, copulation, and fertilization. His discovery of the earliest evidence for an embryo placed within a female by copulation, rather than egg-laying or another method, shows that 380 million years ago, a bony cartilage tube extended from a male placoderm fish. This, inserted into the large cloacal cavity of the female, then grew more. After four to five minutes, the team calculates, the seminal transfer took place; up to three hundred embryos, Long reminds us, have been found in a later pregnant female equivalent. This safe womb enabled protection of the young from predators.
The ancient results, a fossilized umbilical cord wrapped around an embryonic fish, proved that seminal transfer had occurred successfully for the first time. Verifying internal fertilization, given the rarity of tissue and the predominance of calcified remains of such evidence, presented a challenge for Long and his colleagues. This documented leap to sexual intercourse began the pattern followed by 99.9 percent of creatures (larger than bacteria) today.
While sexual reproduction began between 1.78 and 1.68 million years ago, it took time to evolve into more sophisticated methods such as the placoderm demonstrates. Pleasure may be implied if not proven until studies of later animals, birds, and insects—which Long gleefully recounts. Two reasons favor sex. It allows a quicker adaptation to environmental changes, and it diminishes “accumulation of deleterious mutations” in an organism’s genes.
Chapters in this brief, well-illustrated book tend to begin with current creatures and then regress to their primitive forebears, discussing their sexual proclivities and apparatus. Long keeps the pace lively, but as in the “willy” phrase, such casual prose can be followed, two paragraphs later, by a few sentences embedding “elongated basysterygium”, “holocephalans”, “arthrodires”, “ptyctodontids”, and “phyllolepid placoderms”, in turn. So, this narrative, despite the publisher’s enticing promotion, may daunt those picking this up for a casual evening’s entertainment.
Well-chosen colophons and citations from Darwin, T.S. Eliot, and Shelley mingle alongside nods to Bukowski, Warhol, and Zappa. Even The Bloodhound Gang (lyric ranked #49 on the list of 100 worst, Long duly annotates) gets a shout-out. Long shows how his researchers also furthered pop culture by the first animated paleo-porn—to explain how the placoderms did it.
When it comes to us, however, I felt let down. Long summarizes in bite-size paragraphs intriguing findings on human sexuality near the conclusion of his presentation. We find out that the “clasper” anchoring a shark’s penis inside its mate led in the building blocks of “Hox” genes to our own bifurcated legs and equipment, but the casual way that this crowning moment of evolutionary solidarity, traceable down to us after millions of years, is transmitted, leaves it anticlimactic.
“Sperm competition” among what scholars diplomatically classify as “extra-pair” copulations (i.e., in which at least one of the partners report action on the side at the same time) presents another related issue that needed more elaboration. Similarly, in latter sections Long’s writing lacks transitions and connections to previous chapters, asserting what has been verified about primate sex, and why or why not these findings can help humans figure out our own sexual proclivities. For all its inherent interest, these portions purportedly tying us back to other, earlier creatures, just languish.
As a come-on, this may stuff the stocking of a scientifically minded loved one neatly. For the less paleologically or biologically obsessed, it may resemble a blind date. Long labors long in a lifetime of love with fossil fish to capture the appeal of his research, but despite the catchy cosmetics, the book cover covers up a more sober, less giddy romp among our soaring, cawing, grunting, and soggy ancestors, than we might have hoped for.