Why We Have Sex
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John A. Long wasn’t particularly interested in ancient animal sex. A successful paleontologist, he was more concerned with bones than the history of boning — but then he stumbled on “the mother fish”: a 380-million-year-old fossil of a jawed placoderm carrying an embryo. It was, and is, the earliest proof of internal fertilization (or sex, as we know it). Before long he was directing his very own “paleo porn,” as he calls it: An animated video of this ancient creature getting it on.
That’s how Long ended up writing his new book about the evolution of copulation, which is cheekily titled, “The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex.” From sharks that mate while doing a headstand on the ocean floor to ducks with enormous corkscrew penises, he humorously details the how and why of that funny little act we call sex. At times, the book is a bit heavy on autobiography of his paleontological finds, but that’s more than made up for by copious entertaining anecdotes about things like fruit bat fellatio and necrophilic snakes. Also, two words: T-rex sex.
Long talked to Salon by phone about why the human penis doesn’t have spikes, what it’s like directing ancient fish porn and why fundamentalist homophobes need to read his book.
In the book, you have all sorts of freaky factoids about sexual behavior in the animal kingdom — from sperm-drinking catfish to penis-fencing bonobos. What’s your favorite tidbit?
Well, you actually hit the nail on the head. I think the sperm-drinking catfish was one that really opened my eyes. That was published in a scientific journal with the bizarre title of “Sperm Drinking by Female Catfishes: A Novel Form of Insemination.”I thought that it was quite amazing how the whole system worked. These little catfish live in really fast-moving currents, and shedding sperm in such water is not a good thing, so they’ve developed this incredible way of instantly fertilizing the female through very subtle canals that go from the mouth and gill chambers down to the ovaries.
Unbelievable. Do you ever break out these factoids at cocktail parties?
All the time! Bear in mind that my cocktail parties are often with other paleontologists and biologists. People ask me about the book, and I just love telling them about how diverse animal sexuality really is.
There have been many books published about animal sexual behavior, and I’ve read quite a few of those, but the thing is, I looked and scoured the scientific literature for current examples of new things that have only really been discovered in the last five years. And that’s why these examples are fresh and different from most other things that have been published.
Why was your discovery of the oldest vertebrate embryo so important to evolutionary history?
There’s been a lot published lately in leading journals about the origin of jawed vertebrates. The thing is that most of vertebrate evolution is pretty well known and understood, but there’s this big gap where we know very little about the beginning of the tree where animals first acquired jaws and teeth, and at the same time they coincidentally acquired advanced copulatory sexual behavior. So when we made this discovery, it was the first evidence that this whole class of extinct animals, the placoderms, at the base of the jawed vertebrate tree, was far more advanced than we ever could have imagined. We would have imagined a primitive fish being something that just spawned in water like most modern fish, but instead they had this really advanced reproductive behavior that sort of also reinforced that a lot of the other structures that they have, their jaws and teeth, were more advanced and more well developed than just a primitive condition one would imagine. So it tells us a lot about the formation of the human body plan at its very beginning.