Dear Dr. Tatiana: I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal? Perplexed in Cloverhill.
So writes a lonely apine monarch in Olivia Judson’s 1998 science book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. The 320 pages teem with dejected creatures: a green spoon worm who inhales her lover, an African elephant whose penis turns green, an Idaho ground squirrel whose suitor stalks her into every burrow. The book’s format is an imaginative hybrid of Aesop’s Fables and Penthouse Forum, but Judson is an evolutionary biologist, not a sex therapist, and all of her tales point to the same sobering moral: relationships in the wild are driven by ruthless self-interest. Far from pleasing one another, creatures are concerned only with passing on their genes. In their single-minded fervor, they are willing to maim, kill, or leave their phalli behind.
It is unexpected, then, to read Judson’s latest piece in The Atlantic and find tales of what can only be called animal generosity. She describes curious platonic friendships between male and female baboons:
If a female is attacked or harassed, her friends will come bounding to the rescue; they will also protect her children, play with them, groom them, carry them, and sometimes share food with them. If the mother dies, they may even look after an infant in her place.
From a biological point of view, Judson points out, such altruistic acts are akin to suicide: they do nothing to ensure one’s own longevity or the survival of one’s genetic code. Yet examples of selflessness can be found throughout the animal kingdom, from the servile labor of the worker bee to the heroics of firemen charging into the crumbling World Trade Center.