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Nature's Nether Regions Hardcover – 22 May 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Press USA (22 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670785911
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670785919
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 2.5 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 209,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Nature's Nether Regions has been shortlisted for 2014's Diagram Prize for the oddest book title.The book is described as "a fascinating history of the evolution of genitals." - --BBC

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By C. HUET on 17 Mar. 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A great exploration of the slightly awkward side of species evolution. Though I must say one of the more fascinating and humorously awkward things I've ever read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 16 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I thought that this was a great book for a number of reasons 6 July 2014
By S. Nemati - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is about the evolution of genitals and the unanswered questions of sexual selection in general.

I thought that this was a great book for a number of reasons:
~The author's writing style is really entertaining. He makes a lot of references and uses colloquial terms that are familiar to the reader and even sticks in some funny turn of phrases.

~The book has a lot of novel information. The co-evolution of genitalia in the fight for dominance over reproduction is quite entertaining and the 'tricks' and strategies animals use to get the upper hand is surprising at times. I certainly learned a lot.

~Schilthuizen has a lot of drawings to elucidate his writing on specific mating strategies and the odd array of shapes of various genitalia and reproductive tracts of organisms.

I hope for the author's sake that the title of the book doesn't keep the more modest readers from learning about this fascinating topic which is broader than just sex organs. (I do love the cover photo).

I have no real complaints about the book. I suppose sometimes it was difficult to read about the crueler or grosser aspects of nature and the creepy crawlies that dominate our biosphere in many ways. But despite the occasional discomfort in reading the material, if you have an interest in evolution, biology, or ecology it would be a mistake to pass up this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Humans find genitals endlessly fascinating." 25 May 2014
By Amelia Gremelspacher - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I cannot say the author is wrong, after all I read the book. The language can be a little condescending at times, but it conveys the information in a readable format. The data is well referenced and includes the history of this fascinating field. Most compelling to me is the finding that once again, much less is known about the function and form of female genitalia than of male. The sections on rates of "sperm dumping" alone is well worth reading for some well researched and satisfying information!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Genitals and Other Previously Unappreciated Accomplishments of Evolution 25 May 2014
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Sex is one of the things we humans find really worth doing, and we will spend money, or throw away marriages, or hazard careers in its pursuit. For all its delights, complicated emotional implications, and astonishing anatomical and physiological details, though, human sex is pretty simple, compared to the examples given in _Nature’s Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us about Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves_ (Viking) by evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen. The author describes his own work with snails that not only have their shells spiraled either clockwise or counterclockwise, but have their penises spiraled in the same direction. That is, however, only a few pages within this diverting book, which intends to popularize genitalia research. We know what _Ulysses_ calls the “energetic piston and cylinder movement” involved in sex for us, but it turns out that that is just our branch of the evolutionary tree. Evolution has been at work on our genitals and those of every other animal, and it has produced some of its finest and most bizarre creations in the very organs that bring forth progeny.

It is only in the past few decades that evolutionary biologists have been looking at genitalia. Darwin, like other Victorian gentlemen, averted curiosity from the region, concentrating on the less naughty “secondary sex characteristics,” like plumage, antlers, and prongs on insects’ heads. Genitals, Darwin thought, were simply functional, accomplishing the job of inserting or accepting sperm for fertilization. It is now known that the wild varieties of genitalia have purposes far more refined than just keeping the wrong species from hooking up. Males, like the damselfly, may have penises that are shaped to expel the sperm of predecessors. One of the interesting concepts here is humping; we humans do it all the time, but animals have all sorts of ways of ejecting and injecting liquids into other animals. Indeed there are animals like the spider _Harpactea sadistica_, with male genitals that literally pierce the belly of the female to inject sperm. But coition does involve genitals moving rhythmically for sperm transfer in around three-quarters of creatures, and in some insects, even if there is no thrusting, there is throbbing of the penis. Schilthuizen says that such movements do more than just make sperm release possible; they let the male use the penis not just as a delivery nozzle but as an “internal courtship device,” whereby the knobs and grooves of his equipment best stimulate the female and influence her choice to accept him as suitor and his sperm as the ones she wants to use. Female genitalia and behavior indeed also play a role. Darwin knew how females partook of sexual selection, but they do so, too, at the tiniest anatomical levels. Some female nematodes will take on the sperm of some suitors, and then will dump it with hopes for some better guy to come along. Storing sperm from previous males is done in many species. Some crickets eventually decide that the best way to use sperm from previous encounters is to dine on it, which not only provides nutrition but also clears a space for the sperm from the next male.

Schilthuizen has just the right sense of humor in introducing us to “the animal world’s multipage sex-aid catalog.” It isn’t just anatomy; there are lots of strange behaviors, and plugs inserted by males to keep their sperm from being dumped, and hijacked hormones, and much more. The odd behaviors and anatomies are all designed to play their role in getting genes into the next generation, and we can be sure (at least in lower creatures) that it is all invigoratingly amoral. One researcher exclaimed with glee over the mating behavior of his subject sea slug, “Everything the church forbids is present in this species!” Schilthuizen has a few direct lessons for our own species as well, though he is not sure he agrees with the research that shows that human penises, like those of so many insects, have a shape to drive out previously-inserted semen from someone else. We have evolved to have sex but there are plenty of ways we have our sexual fun, and anyone who uses the internet can see how strange some of those ways of humans are. It is refreshing to see just how vanilla our activities are compared to the ducks, snails, and spiders here. This is a grand book for page after page of the “Oh, wow!” experience.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Good popular read on animal behavior 16 Sept. 2014
By C. M. Stahl - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Schilthuizen is a researcher and scientist in the field that he wrote about but the book is more of like science journalism. While he mentions his own work in the area of animal mating he more often addresses the many other field workers and their endeavors in non-human mating. This appears to be a fairly large arena for research given the examples and stories that he provides. Included are the intricacies of sexual organs, their role in evolution, mating habits and what we would probably think of as anomalies. There is homosexuality in the animal kingdom. There is rape as well. Some animals have orgasms.

The author depicts a wide variety of animal behavior vis a vis mating in all its wonder (sometimes horror) and he does it with gusto both in language and visuals. I think he had a lot of fun writing a good solid book of popular science. As an adult human male I often read about practices in the non-human world that I would be more than loath to endure but alas I am not a Mallard for instance. Likewise I am not a female of any species and am especially glad to not be one from some of the species that Schilthuizen describes. As the reader finishes the book and maybe glimpses at the photograph of the author on the rear flap they might speculate about the grin on his face.

He begins the book by clarifying the distinction between the primary natural selection benefits of sexual organs. How they work on the practical level to help all species propagate. He is less concerned about how they survive-only how they got here. Secondary variables in maintaining gene flow through heredity of course are the aspects of mate selection. Sexual selection is an important variable in the ability to procreate but it is only marginal to the author’s topic.

He counters Tinbergen’s four questions with four of his own when contemplating how species proliferate and survive generation after generation. They are 1. Variation-does the species gene pool vary enough to keep it healthy? 2. Heritable-is the influence of any change one that can be given to the next generation? 3. Given the hardships of life in the wild it is a given that more offspring are born than can survive 4. Death is not random-(of course most of the time it is) and in the case of many species, the act of procreation is the final act.

Much of the book is about sexual competition. Creating eggs is at a high cost physically. Lots of energy goes into making relatively few eggs. In many cases it also means that the female has to ensure some assistance in rearing offspring. She needs to make a lot of decisions about the best way to have the offspring thrive and the decisions are based on many criteria.

On the other hand sperm is pretty easy to produce. Males simply have to spread it around as much as they can in order to further their genetic production. They have to either prove or imply that they will be the parent of a survivable offspring. This is where the secondary sexual selection enters. They sing better, ram horns better or simply intimidate other males away from possible mating opportunities.

Sexual competition has the Red Queen affect both in primary genitalia competition and in the secondary aspects. The female needs to bear healthy offspring that will generate her genes sometimes at a cost to males and likewise so does he. As one defense of offense changes so does the opposite sex’s so that the “faster you run the faster they catch up with you”. Sexual competition is one game that is being tracked for its evolution by many researchers.

So the author presents concepts such as “flowback” where the female ejects the unwanted sperm of her most recent encounter. There are vaginal plugs inserted by males to prevent the next guy from inserting his sperm. Oh it is a tumultuous world and we humans have soap operas (and real life) to remind us. The author describes how the non-human world have their soap operas as well. And it changes all the time. Females will develop the ability to “pop” the plug and males will develop methods to prevent flowback. That is the nature of sexual competition and evolution.

The author tells the story with something of a wink of his eye. He presents it well and the reader can learn a lot as well as store much reference information for further research. A glossary would have sharpened his message and those are found in a great many popular science books. I had to look up many words that he either failed to define or did so too briefly. That is a pretty minor criticism as the book was written to inform those eager to read current science about animal behavior.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The same fatal flaw as all books on the subject 19 July 2014
By Some Guy - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There's a problem for me that knocks this book back a couple of stars, and I'll mention it soon, but first the good part.

There is no doubt that many of us have a morbid curiosity about the sex of other creatures great and small, and there's nothing wrong with a healthy interest in furthering human knowledge. In that sense this is a great book for the everyday person who'd like to know more about the various ways sex happens in nature and how the moving parts, so to speak, have evolved to their present form.

The writing style is breezy while still being intelligent and (as far as I can tell not being a biologist myself) accurate. In other words, the author doesn't let the subject get in the way of a lighthearted approach, nor do they let humor overcome the subject.

There is also a lot of interesting material that is just plain, well, interesting, simply because it fascinates or explains how sexual hardware and behavior can affect who gets to pass on their genes.

But here is the big problem I have with this book, and others like it that I've found and ultimately discarded - too much attention is paid to bugs and snails, and not enough to the critters we interact with or can at least see without squinting.

Are you just simply curious about:

Why do dogs get stuck together like that?

Other than size, that stallion looks surprisingly "normal," in a human anatomy sense, down there. Is that really so?

Why do female felines yowl desperately for a mate and then seem to hate the actual act, and why would nature choose to evolve to that state?

Although many mammals follow the same basic reproductive pattern (mount, hump to various extents, dismount), what are the ones with an interesting twist and why would nature go that way?

Do male animals orgasm or merely ejaculate?

Do female animals orgasm?

If there is orgasm in animals, or at least a great sense of pleasure for them: For those that ejaculate for an extended period (canines, pigs), how much of that time is "pleasure" and how much is "just waiting to finish?"

This book mentions a part of the human brain (or missing part, I can't remember which) that is associated with the penile spines and bones. It's given as possibly the reason why we have neither, when pretty much all other mammals do including our closest relatives (chimps). But it doesn't offer any explanation or exploration of *why*.

These are a few example of those morbidly curious questions you won't find answers to in this book. It's like every TV documentary ever on the subject - all beetles and damselflies and snails and spiders, but not much about the creatures we actively share our lives with (in a strictly platonic sense!) or can at least observe without a microscope at the zoo or on a farm/ranch.

Maybe my curiosity is tilted a little too far in the "morbid" direction of "morbid curiosity." That the author is a good one, and could have done a great job covering these and other "closer to home" examples, make the whole book a disappointment.

It definitely deserves full stars for the birds and the bees, but enough about bugs already.
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