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Example research essay topic: Learn About Sex Dolphins And Whales Zuk - 1,267 words

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Doing what comes naturally Sexual Selections: What We Can and Cant Learn About Sex from Animals Marlene Zuk 252 pp, California Stud: Adventures in Breeding by Kevin Conley 219 pp, Bloomsbury It is often claimed that their pantheon of deities allows Hindus the freedom to explore all manner of lifestyles, each with the blessing of one of the gods. If you are faithful, then thats fine because Sita was faithful. If you are an adulterer then thats also OK, because Indra was a terrible fornicator. In Sexual Selections Marlene Zuk explores how western culture has similarly exploited the sexual habits of animals to claim the moral high ground for our own behaviour. Her book is a sharp, fascinating and often hilarious account of both the sex life of animals and our own attitudes to the beast with two backs. Zuk is a biologist and expert on bird behaviour.

She is also a feminist, and her writing is a double-edged sword that alternately exposes the sexist cultural stereotypes penned by male naturalists (who for instance claim that testy female birds suffer the avian equivalent of PMT) and the sentimental twaddle espoused by many eco feminists in search of the feminist Eden. Nothing is sacred. Zuk questions whether even the maternal instinct is natural in primates including humans, pointing to the example of monkeys deprived of maternal care who are later incapable of looking after their own offspring and seem to lack any instinctive maternal feelings. She explores DNA evidence for widespread extra-pair couplings (a scientific euphemism for cheating) in birds and other animals who were previously thought to be paragons of fidelity. The situation has become so fluid that scientists now deal with social mating systems (who you live with) as distinct from genetic mating systems (who you mate with), a dualism that would play havoc with the birth-register system.

A chapter is devoted to the ins and outs of sperm competition, allowing us to wonder at the prodigious giant sperm of the fruit fly (on a human scale, as long as a football pitch) or the bottle-brush genitalia of the dragonfly that deftly removes sperm deposited by any earlier beau. She introduces the marvellous term sperm management, which leaves you with the irresistible urge to explore that cornucopia of management-speak, and ask whether females practise crisis management or conflict management (or perhaps whether theyve considered packing all their visiting sperm off on an outward-bound course to improve their team working skills). Sexual Selections challenges every stereotype or prejudice. To those who consider aggression, promiscuity or lack of parental care to be particularly male attributes, Zuk offers us seahorses, or long-legged shorebirds, whose gentle and monogamous males are the main childcare providers. To those who hanker after a utopia populated by peace-loving females, she reminds us that pecking order was first discovered in hens, and describes how dominant female marmosets maintain their reproductive monopoly by preventing ovulation in subordinate sisters.

And to those anthropologists who look towards the male-dominated primate family groups as the inevitable model of human society, Zuk argues that sex role-reversals have repeatedly occurred among closely related bird species and may be just as likely in apes. Zuk never flinches from the darker side of nature as she describes infanticide, murder, enforced sex or deception. But mostly what she reveals is the charming, fascinating and downright funny things that animals get up to. Throughout her writing Zuk maintains a detached fascination from the subjects of her study. Any criticism is reserved for those who see animals not as model systems to study their behaviour, but as role models for our own. Whether its the faddish adulation of dolphins as aquatic hobbits, or the new-age fascination with the sexual proclivities of bonobos (the dolphins of the new millennium), Zuk has the same answer: I have nothing against dolphins and whales teaching us about being human.

But I am much more interested in having them teach us about them being dolphins and whales. What we can and cant learn about sex in thoroughbred racehorses is explored in Kevin Conley's Stud. Conley spent a season travelling from Kentucky to California to provide us with an account of what the dustjacket boasts is the most expensive 30 seconds in sport. Sex and money have always been close bedfellows, but the figures that change hands for the favours of a champion stallion are truly jaw-dropping. Storm Cat, the current star of the breeding shed, earns a staggering $ 500, 000 for each successful cover. And with mares being led across the yard twice a day, seven days a week, for four-and-a-half months of the year, you can understand the interest in Storm Cats performance.

Conley describes it all in a direct journalistic style that never flinches from all the buttock-clenching details, with trainers on hand (literally) to guide the participants through the proceedings, equine sex aids, hormonal boosting, video recordings, even the presence of a teaser stallion to warm up the mare in readiness for his more expensive stablemate. Between accounts of equine copulation, Conley trots us through the history of horse racing and breeding, from the sport of kings at the court of Charles II, through to the establishment of the Jockey Club in 1752 and its commissioning of the first General Stud Book in 1791. Its publication preceded the human stud book Burkes Peerage by 35 years, and Conley sees parallels between Burkes attempts to legitimate the nobility of the declining aristocracy and the endeavours of stud owners on behalf of their horses. Indeed, according to Conley, it was this national obsession with breeding (of both the noble and barnyard varieties) that led to Darwin (though of course it was the breeding of pigeons, rather than racehorses, that occupied much of The Origin of Species).

But the real subject of Conley's book is not so much the stallions and mares as the humans who surround all the horse-trading. Theres Suzi Shoemaker, the mare-breeder who compares the wheeling and dealing to a debutante ball from a Jane Austen novel, with parents on both sides trying to ensure the most advantageous match. Parents is the giveaway here, a word that Im sure would alert Zuk to the extent that breeders identify with their animals. When stud-farm owner Pope McLean boasts that his more restrained mating policies ensure that my ejaculate is going to have more volume than yours, you wonder whether even he is sure who is being measured here. But money is the real king of the breeding sheds, and with all the numbers flying around in Stud, it is tempting to make forays into mental arithmetic: how much could Storm Cat earn through stud fees in a year? How much could his foals make at sale?

Should I sell the house and buy a thoroughbred? But, as Conley warns, provenance might be guaranteed but success isnt. Storm Cat himself had a poor racing career, and only made the big money as a stud when his colts and fillies began to win. Its all a bit of a gamble.

Conley has written an engaging book that provides a window into a bizarre world of sex, drugs and money. In the final pages he visits a semi-feral herd in Pennsylvania. After all the intensive activity in the breeding sheds, its something of a relief to discover that, despite observing for several days, he fails to spot a single mating: Weve seen enough by now, and I can appreciate their discretion. &# 183; Johnson McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey and author of Quantum Evolution (HarperCollins)

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