David Byrne


talks with

Olivia Judson


David Byrne’s advice to all creation:
Eating fish as a child makes you a better business leader
Bach is too involving
A bristlecone pine is less evolved than most bacteria

David Byrne is an artist and musician and the author of several books, including Strange Ritual (1995), Your Action World (1999), The New Sins/Los Nuevos Pecados (2002), and Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (2003). His latest book, Arboretum, is a collection of faux-scientific diagrams in pencil—more information is available online here.

Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist whose best-selling book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex (2002) was recently made into a television series for the U.K.’s Channel 4. In her book and on the show, Judson takes on the persona of Dr. Tatiana to counsel frustrated animals such as the drone bee whose genitals have just exploded inside his queen, or the confused, hermaphroditic slug with a penis on his/her head.

This conversation was conducted by email shortly after the publication of Arboretum.


DAVID BYRNE: Am I imagining it or do you cite a large percentage of examples in which the female of a species either has multiple partners, selects the partner, or discards or kills the male when she’s had her way with him? Am I imagining that in some other books I’ve read, usually written by a man, the emphasis is often on the male picking and choosing, flitting about, as he often doesn’t have to care for the kids, and behaving, well, like the females you cite? Is there a bias amongst your peers? Amongst critters?

OLIVIA JUDSON: The original historical view was that female animals were passive: they didn’t choose males, they didn’t seek sex. Darwin suggested—and was ridiculed for it—that many female animals have a sense of beauty, and that they choose the males that they find the most handsome. In many species, this has now been shown to be correct.

Then everyone thought, “OK, well, females may choose their mates—but they don’t seek sex. After they’ve had sex they get on with laying eggs.” This turns out to be nonsense. DNA data has allowed paternity testing of everything from loggerhead turtles to harlequin beetle–riding pseudoscorpions (they’re pseudo because they look like miniature scorpions, but don’t have a sting; they’re harlequin beetle–riding because they travel around from rotting log to rotting log underneath the wings of the harlequin beetle)…. and in species after species, females have turned out to be engaging in—and seeking—far more sex than anyone imagined.

DB: I’m going to presume then that our previous male-oriented view was not just based on limited data but also on a fear of some of our own wives and girlfriends getting the “wrong” idea. That getting the “wrong” idea might upset the tidy notion that the world is naturally male-dominated. The fact that it was believed that almost all creatures followed this macho rule book proves that, well, that the social and religious codes handed down from the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago were maybe OK for desert tribespeople, but they weren’t based on fact, and might be irrelevant to most of us now.

OJ: I’m not sure. Until about 1970, all of the arrows pointed the same way: theory, experiment, and field data. It was only after DNA testing that everything got upset. And views of whether or not women are chaste have changed a great deal in recent historical times… remember that John Donne poem, “Go and catch a falling star,” which concludes that beautiful and faithful women do not exist?

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