“Sex on Six legs” by Marlene Zuk | Book Review

This weekend I completed Marlene Zuk’s “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on life, love, and language from the insect world”. The book is a short, entertaining, and sciencey non-fiction read in a world where many science books can be overwhelming.

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I picked up the book this past summer and when I saw the cover I knew I had to get it. Sex, bugs, and Marlene Zuk’s insights? Sounds good! To be honest, I was also attracted by the length. At only 225 pages, this book is much less intimidating than other tomes of science non-fiction out there.

The first thing I gotta say is that this book is NOT all about sex. I was a bit disappointed when I figured that out because insect sex is quite fascinating and an entire book devoted to it would be great! However, for those non-scientists out there, it may be less intimidating to feature a variety of insect vignettes instead of hammering on sex for so long. Instead, the book focuses on a variety of behaviours making the connection that we can learn a lot about human (and other vertebrates) behaviour by insights from the bug world.

Each chapter provides a highlight of a new topic ranging from insect genomics, personalities, parental care, language, and even homosexuality. Within each section, there are highlights from various researchers and their findings in those fields of animal behaviour. For example, she talks in depth about the work of Tom Seeley and colleagues on group intelligence in bees including how the bees find suitable new homes and decide to move together to get there. The fact that Zuk took time to call out by name each researcher was one of my favourite parts of the book. If you are into entomology or behavioural ecology as more than a past time, you’ll find it enjoyable to recognize and look up some of the names later on. She also sets up the how and why of all the researcher’s experiments, sometimes even including a comparison of the results to the predictions. This task can be difficulty when writing for the general public and I think there are some hits and some misses among the book’s stories. Even as a scientist, I sometimes found the descriptions confusing or found that I was skimming over parts. However, there are so many vignettes in this book that missing a few may be okay.

Speaking of the book’s vignettes, this brings up my biggest complaint about the book. Despite being split into various topics, the stories of the insects and research discussed within each chapter are quite choppy. The chapter may start with water bugs, then switch to bees, then ants, then crickets without adequate transitions. I saw another book review on GoodReads (a website you should check out) that described the style as like a series of blog posts put together. I’d certainly agree with that. There is definitely a theme of the book and chapters, but sometimes it gets lost.

Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Honeypot ant: Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Okay, back to another thing I really liked about this book: I learned a lot. There were some parts that I knew about already, but many of the insects and topics I hadn’t heard much about at all. It made me feel like I was a kid again: thinking everything in animal behaviour was just amazing. I found myself stopping frequently to look up pictures of the insects or read even more online. Oh, yeah, there are no pictures in the book, which is a bit of a hamper when you’re describing the bulging abdomens of honeypot ants or bumpy backs of male toe biter bugs carrying eggs. Definitely be prepared to dog-ear some pages and look up pictures or videos later on. However, even without the necessary visuals, the book certain hits the “cool factor” button dead on.

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

My last thought is on the general writing of the book. When I first started reading it, many of the author’s comments and jokes felt really forced. They just didn’t seem to flow well with the tone of the book. However, as I read on, it didn’t seem to bother me as much. I’m not sure if this is because it got better or if I started to ignore it. Anyways, be prepared for some discomfort with it.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the content and the connection to real research and scientists. However, there were some stylistic and organizational things that really brought it down. The content of the books is good for anyone with a little bit of science and/or bug background. For example, she doesn’t discuss the intricacies of natural selection or evolution, so if it has been awhile, you may want to brush up before delving into the book. It’s a definitely a short read so it is worth picking up if you’ve got a bit of time to learn!


 

Thanks for reading! Do you like book reviews? Are they useful? Let me know! I have a stack of non-fiction science books that I have been meaning to read. Now that I am not in graduate school, it seems more fun to pick them up over my fiction books. I am now reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey. I plan to review that book too if people seem interested. Maybe we can start a virtual book club?

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