Sex on Six Legs is Focus of UC Riverside Biologist’s Book

Marlene Zuk covers variety of insect behavior – homosexuality, gender differences, personality, decision-making, mind-control – in book geared for general audience

Marlene Zuk is a professor of biology at UC Riverside. Photo credit: Will Prouty.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Insects have always held a special fascination for Marlene Zuk, world-class evolutionary biologist and author of several popular science books. They offer us, she says, a way to understand living things without having our own anthropomorphism get in the way.

“People have strong feelings about insects, and most of those feelings are negative,” says Zuk, a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside. “But insects let us see what life is like when things are stripped down to their bare essentials. They force you to think about interesting scientific questions rather than see them as tiny people in fur suits, as cute caricatures of humans.”

Zuk is now the author of a brand-new book on insect behavior that is written with a general audience in mind: “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language From the Insect World” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

The 272-page book is “a chance to look at the way genes behave, free from the wishful thinking, cultural assumption, and ideological prejudice we sometimes bring to the study of our own species,” writes author Zadie Smith in the July 2011 issue ofHarper’s Magazine.

Not just about sex

Book cover. Photo credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Laced with humor and wit, the book is a compendium of Zuk’s painstaking research and vast readings on the world of insects. She tackles topics in the book that most people would not readily associate with creepy crawlies.

For example, she discusses homosexuality in the chapter “So Two Fruit Flies Go into a Bar”; personality in “The Inner Life of Wasps”; gender differences in “Sperm and Eggs on Six Legs”; and ignorance about the sex of social insects in “Seinfeld and the Queen.”

“The book is not just about sex — although the book sure has a lot of it,” she says. “That’s really because mostly what insects do is, well, all about reproduction. They have short life spans and so they simply have to get on with it.”

Zuk did not want to write another “bugs-are-cool” book, and prefers that her latest work be tagged as a “thinking person’s bug book.” A celebration of a world that is alien and familiar at the same time, the book, she notes, is an invitation to the latest news about insect lives.

She discusses a variety of intriguing insect behavior in the book. For example, she explains how the emerald cockroach wasp directs the movements of a cockroach, giving insights into mind control. She writes about how honeybees — it turns out they can count — navigate using landmarks and use information from each other to find food. She describes how female ants coordinate their effort with military discipline when it comes to acquiring food. And she illustrates how a greater understanding can be had of decision-making from studying social insects like bees, wasps and ants.

“One reason researchers like me are drawn to studying insects is that they are convenient to keep in the lab,” she says. “Insects don’t notice you when you are around, so you can observe them easily. Further, you can raise them under controlled conditions. And you have lots of them so you can always find some for your purpose. Plus, their vast diversity and behavior — whether it’s honeybees’ genitals exploding after sex, or a female mantis eating her mate — can be used to answer just about any question you have.”

Marlene Zuk is the author of the book “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language From the Insect World” in which she covers a variety of insect behavior, including homosexuality, gender differences, personality, decision-making, and mind-control. This “thinking person’s bug book” is geared for a general audience. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

To call or not to call

Zuk also explores in the book what happens in evolution when you have two conflicting selecting pressures acting at the same time on an organism. She discusses male crickets in Hawai`i, which her lab has researched in detail. The insect, she explains, is subject to a parasitoid fly that is drawn to the cricket by the latter’s calling. The cricket calls because the more it does the more likely is he to mate with a female. But the same call also attracts the deadly parasitoid fly.

“The male cricket is, therefore, in a quandary,” Zuk explains. “Recently, in one or two of the Hawai`ian islands, males have exhibited a mutation that inhibits their calling. This protects them from the parasitoid fly, but they need to adapt to increase their chances of mating with females. What we’ve found is that females become less choosey about which males they mate with, and males are more likely to hang around a cricket that can still call — to improve their chances with females.

“What this teaches us is how behavior can interact with evolution, allowing for flexibility that then allows for the establishment of a permanent change such as genetic change,” she adds. “Insects make us question virtually every assumption we have about what makes humans human. They lay bare the workings of evolution. What they allow us to do is take down behaviors to their minimal essentials, which can help us understand what is going on in the brain and in the genes.”

Next project

Zuk is already at work on another book — working title “Paleofantasy: How the Pace of Evolution Affects Our Lives” — that focuses on how rapidly evolution can take place. While this work-in-progress does not focus heavily on insects, Zuk’s research on what we can learn from insects continues to forge ahead at UC Riverside.

“I am intrigued by what keeps us coming back to insects again and again to use them in our studies,” Zuk says. “What do we still find so fascinating hundreds of years after the early naturalists talked about and documented them?”

What’s being said about “Sex on Six Legs”

Incest, democracy, tyranny, sexual cannibalism: insects have them all, and more. In “Sex on Six Legs” Marlene Zuk gives insects, the animal kingdom’s unseen majority, their full, marvelous due. — author Carl Zimmer.

Smart, engaging … Zuk approaches her subject with such humor and enthusiasm for the intricacies of insect life, even bug-phobes will relish her account. — Publishers Weekly.

Biologist Zuk has penned one of the most readable books about insect behavior produced in the past several years … Quoting everyone from scientists to Milton Berle to Shakespeare, and showing how popular culture often portrays insects wrongly, Zuk has the uncanny ability to take what most of us consider just plain creepy and turn it into the fascinating and the revelatory. —Booklist.

About Marlene Zuk

Zuk obtained her Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Michigan, and did postdoctoral work at the University of New Mexico. She joined UCR’s Department of Biology in 1989. In 2009, she received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University, Sweden.

She is the recipient of the Quest Award for contributions to the field of animal behavior. She is a fellow of both the Animal Behavior Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a National Science Foundation Young Investigator.

Zuk is the author of two popular books, “Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are” (Harcourt, 2007); and “Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex From Animals” (University of California Press, 2002).

She also writes for the general public on topics related to evolution. Her essays and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesThe New York Times, the International Herald TribuneNatural History magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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