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Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex From Animals By Marlene Zuk University of California Press June 2002 $24.95

Imagine females ruled the world. it Would be a more peaceful place, right? Not necessarily, says biologist and feminist Marlene Zuk. Indeed, there is no precedent for such a utopia in nature. Female Eastern Bluebirds, for example, have been known to fight each other to the death. Some female wasps rip out the legs and antennae of their opponents. And female Great Reed Warblers secretly destroy the eggs of those rivals with greater access to a male. "It's a warbler-eat-warbler world out there," jokes Zuk.

In this witty and provocative survey of sex in the animal kingdom, Zuk critiques a number of long-held assumptions about male and female behavior. In the popular view, females of most species acquiesce to the overtures of more aggressive males, remain loyal to their mates, and carefully nurture their young. Males, on the other hand, are viewed as competitive, polygamous, and careless of their offspring. Zuk argues that the science that has given rise to this view is distorted. In nature, both female aggression and passivity are common among animals. Both males and females can be caregivers. And monogamy is rare in either sex.

Zuk believes male bias has skewed our view of sex in nature. She writes that some scientists have hunted doggedly for evidence of dominance in male birds while dismissing fights among females as "the avian equivalent of PMS," in the words of one researcher. A similar problem plagues assumptions about sperm competition. Scientists for many years have observed that males will take extreme measures to ensure that their sperm fertilizes the eggs of the females with which they mate. The genitalia of male damselflies and dragonflies, for example, are equipped with an array of spines, knobs, and scoops to remove the sperm of interlopers. Females are depicted as merely the arena for all the action—"a Tupperware container with an ovum at one end," writes Zuk. Yet female choice actually drives the competition; in many species females select or reject the sperm, or store it in special receptacles while mating with other males.

What especially disturbs Zuk is our tendency to look to the sexual activities of animals to affirm our own notions about how we ought to behave—by emulating the monogamy of snow geese, for instance, or exalting maternal instinct as natural even though paternal care is found in numerous species from frogs to marmosets. In reality, behavior within the animal world is much too diverse to serve as a reliable model for our own ethical behavior. "Using animals to inspire or support our ideas about social justice is bound to fail," concludes Zuk. "I like to think we are perfectly capable of choosing our own visions of an ideal society without the help of snow geese or gorillas."


Model Rockets Micro Maxx, $16.99 Estes Astrocam, $25 Estes Max Traxx, $25

Amateur rocketeers once spent hours building backyard missiles from scratch. But these days anyone with limited launch space and a hankering to reach for the sky can choose from an array of ready-to-fly model rockets that offer the authentic thrill of ignition, launch, and liftoff to impressive heights. Quest's new Micro Maxx is 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches long, easy to set up, and reaches an altitude of 100 feet powered by the smallest rocket engine on the market: On a scale that rates motors from size A to O—according to magnitude of power—the engine is rated 1/8 A. Launching the Micro Maxx is virtually foolproof. Just plug the cylindrical engine into the tail of the rocket, then hook up the igniter wire, which attaches to a battery-powered controller that's operated from a safe distance of about 15 feet. Once you press the launch button, electricity combusts a solid propellant, made mostly of potassium nitrate, generating a hot thrust of gas that shoots out from the bottom of the rocket. During flight, a second charge in the engine automatically blows off the nose cone to release a Mylar streamer (other models use parachutes). After the rocket floats down to earth, you can plug in one of the replacement engines supplied with the kit. Should you harbor loftier ambitions, try the Estes Astrocam (, which is 18 inches long, uses a C engine, and has a film camera in its nose cone that snaps an aerial picture at the rocket's apogee. Once launched, the Astrocam can reach an alititude of 500 feet, where it's barely visible. The Estes Max Traxx, also powered by a C engine, offers an alternative novelty: a built-in altimeter that allows you to record for posterity the rocket's peak altitude. — Fenella Saunders

Photograph courtesy of Jens Mortensen

Science Best-sellers


The Structure of Evolutionary Theory By Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard University Press


I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History By Stephen Jay Gould, Harmony


The Universe in a NutshellBy Stephen Hawking, Bantam


The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe By By Stephen Hawking, New Millennium Press


A New Kind of Science By Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Media


The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century Edited by John Brockman, Vintage


Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and The Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II By Jennet Conant, Simon & Schuster


The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living ThingBy Frank T. Vertosick Jr., Harcourt


The Future of Life By E. O. Wilson, Knopf


Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution By Francis Fukuyama, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

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