Tag Archives: biology

Richard Dawkins interview

24 Sep

It’s not every day you get to meet Richard Dawkins. In August, I visited the great man at his Oxford home to interview him for BBC Focus magazine. Topics of conversation included his 40-year run of books (beginning with The Selfish Gene in 1976), the evidence for evolution, the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and the public reaction to The God Delusion (anyone who’s not seen this video of Dawkins reading out some of his hate mail should remedy that now).

You can read my interview in the October 2015 issue of BBC Focus:

dawkinsinterview

Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

An Exceedingly Curious Bestiary

13 Feb

Somewhere in deepest, darkest Australia lurks a most terrifying assortment of animals. Shark-helicopter hybrids patrol the skies. Mechanically-enhanced rats wage war against robotic beetles. The bones of long-dead animals are reanimated into hideous configurations. And that faint sound of trickling water? That’s the sound of David Attenborough wetting his pants.

A Pilot Fish, guided by its fishy co-pilots (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

For the past five years, Kaitlin Beckett has been bringing this nightmarish ecosystem to life. Based in Melbourne, Kaitlin makes artwork that is inspired by anatomy and the natural world, but with a distinctly dark and surreal twist. I couldn’t resist posting up some of her work, so scroll down for a selection of these weird and wonderful beasties, as well as an interview with Kaitlin herself.

Say hello to the Beetle Walker (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Kaitlin, when did you begin your magnificent bestiary?

I started painting seriously about 5 years ago, though I’ve been drawing and sketching all my life. I’ve always loved watching nature documentaries and sci-fi films so my bestiary started to develop from these. I’ve also been collecting gas masks and goggles for a while now so these pop up on my creatures all the time.

What’s your usual process for creating the artworks?

I normally turn an idea around in my head for a while before I sketch it out. Sometimes once it’s sketched I’ll work on it straight away. I create larger sketches, test colours and composition, and once I’m happy I’ll transfer it to canvas and ink in the outline. I add the colour next with my airbrush and some hand painting, then there are several layers of ink splats, pastel and ink linework before it’s finished.

A wise old Samurai Tubfish (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Do you have any favourite artists? Terry Gilliam sprang to mind when I first saw your work…

I am a fan of Terry Gilliam! A few of my all time favourite artists are HR Giger, Beksinski, Escher, Mucha, Lempicka, Kahlo, Bacon and of course Dali…too many to name!

Although the creatures are quite fantastical, their anatomy is often very detailed and intricate. What is it that appeals to you about mixing the real and the imaginary?

I think it’s an artist’s job to share a bit of their imagination and to look deeper into things, to reimagine and reinterpret. While I appreciate the technical skill behind photorealistic art, I can’t get excited about paintings that look like photographs, unless there’s a twist or a surprise, or some element of fantasy or surrealism. My creatures have an almost cartoon-like look, though I adore fine detail and texture so I’m trying to combine these elements in my work.

The Longhorn Octopus…possibly quite friendly (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

If you were a mad scientist for the day, which of your creatures would you bring to life?

Perhaps not the fell beasts – they would eat me! I’d perhaps like to hitch a ride in my Pilot Fish shark helicopter, and my Longhorn Octopus could possibly be friendly.

Finally, what are your plans for 2012?

I had a crazy year last year with a solo show plus a few big group shows so in 2012 I’m taking it easy and focusing on getting better at airbrushing and sculpture. I’m taking part in a joint show in September with a very talented artist (my beasts meet vigilantes!), so I’m looking forward to that.

Frigate Bird – one of Kaitlin’s first sculptures

Now that Kaitlin’s beginning to work on sculptures, maybe it won’t be too long before the Curious Bestiary gets its own zoo. Let’s just hope the cages are securely locked…

Visit Kaitlin Beckett’s Curious Bestiary here!

On Men and How They Should Dance

14 Sep

It’s a common scenario. You’re at a wedding reception, the speeches are over, and a DJ starts doing his thing in the corner of the room, obscured behind a wall of tacky disco lights.

Before long, the complimentary champagne begins to work its magic on the revellers. A mildly inebriated Auntie Valerie is the first to wander onto the dancefloor, deciding that a slightly dented reputation is a small price to pay for having a good time. Uncle Bob is next to follow, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves as soon as he hears the opening strains of “Y.M.C.A.”.

Meanwhile, the best man – let’s call him Dave – has his eye on one of the bridesmaids, Emily. Hugging his warm pint of Carlsberg, Dave watches Emily as she glides across the dancefloor like a swan on roller skates. Feeling ever more tipsy, he puts down his beer and shuffles towards her.

Suddenly, “Y.M.C.A.” gives way to the drum/bass intro of “Billie Jean”. Dave spots his chance. Moving deftly through the throng of exhausted dancers, he positions himself opposite Emily and begins to engage in a mating ritual worthy of any bird of paradise. Completely oblivious to the onlooking crowd, Dave bends his torso from side to side like a man possessed, simultaneously shaking his head to the beat whilst performing an elaborate twisting routine with his right knee.

Dave's dance moves delighted and shocked in equal measure (credit: dpphotography)

The ritual seems to have worked: 30 minutes later both he and Emily are locked in a romantic embrace, gently swaying to “Lady in Red” amidst a sea of teary-eyed couples.

Dave’s secret? He’s familiar with a recent article in Biology Letters which shows that certain dance moves are more likely to ignite the passions of a woman.

Nick Neave and colleagues at Northumbria University used motion-capture technology to record the movements of 19 men dancing to a basic drum beat. Each dancer was then mapped onto a computer-generated avatar, and 37 heterosexual women were asked to rate the avatars on their dancing prowess.

Examples of the motion-capture avatars, showing (a) a static pose and (b) a dance move (credit: N. Neave et al.)

By correlating the women’s ratings with the avatars’ movements, the scientists were able to come up with a recipe for successful boogieing. The three factors that most contributed to high dance scores were ‘neck internal/external rotation variability’ (head shaking), ‘trunk adduction/abduction variability’ (sideways bending) and ‘right knee internal/external rotation speed’ (twisting speed).

These movements, claims the study, may provide signals of a man’s suitability as a sexual partner by indicating his physical strength, health or genetic quality.

According to Neave et al., dance in humans “…is a set of intentional, rhythmic, culturally influenced, non-verbal body movements that are considered to be an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction”.

This links us to, amongst other animals, Pronghorn mammals, hummingbirds, and fiddler crabs, all of whom perform courtship displays in order to entice prospective partners.

So, guys, if you want to woo on the dancefloor, try dancing like this instead of like this!

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.org Neave N, McCarty K, Freynik J, Caplan N, Hönekopp J, & Fink B (2011). Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. Biology letters, 7 (2), 221-4 PMID: 20826469

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