October 20, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Something about animals having sex is inherently hilarious. Having done a biology degree, I know quite a lot about the sex lives of various animals – their courting rituals, how often they do it, and how many partners they do it with. That kind of knowledge is pretty important when studying the evolutionary origins of an animal and understanding their behaviour. It’s also pretty damn funny.

At least that is what I have learnt over the last few weeks, attending both the sexual nature exhibition at the natural history museum and the Ignobel prizes last night.

At the Ignobels, researcher Gareth Jones gave a talk about bat fellatio. Yes, that’s right, female bats that give blow jobs during sex. I’ll leave you to work out the logistics of that one. Gareth was one of my lecturers at Bristol Uni back in my pre-Imperial days, and I’m fairly sure that if he had included this kind of subject matter, we would have paid a lot more attention to him. As it was, he taught us about fox speciation. Not nearly as funny. And impossible to demonstrate with glove puppets.

A few weeks before that, I and a group of friends went to see the Sexual Nature exhibition at the Natural History Museum. If you can go, I really do recommend it. I swear, this is not just a flippant look at something scientists are really serious about. This is actually what the animal behaviour modules I took were like. Much of the information could have been lifted directly from my lecture notes. Like the red-capped manakin, a bird who does the moonwalk to attract mates. Or lions, who copulate 20 to 40 times a day for the few days when a female is in oestrus. Or animals which mate in ‘leks’ – where a group of males get together and show off their dance moves, as the ladies walk around and choose which bloke they want to get with, much like an animal nightclub.

So there is, if you’ll forgive the expression, hard science being done on animal sex, but why is it that we laugh at it so much?

1. We get so overheated at the idea of human sex, whether that be from excitement or nervousness, it’s strange to see the look of complacency that animals wear when they go at it. The females, look bored senseless half the time, although that is something plenty of women can probably sympathise with. The males look pretty serene much of the time too, but monkey sex can feature some pretty joyous expressions from the guys.

2. The theories of humour’s evolutionary origins tend to be formed around the idea that laughing at something is a way of taking something threatening, and signalling to others that it is ok. Seeing something that is normally taboo, like sex, stripped of any kind of titillation whatsoever, makes it safe, and therefore, funny.

But, as Max Eastman said, “nothing kills the laughter quicker than to explain a joke”. So it may be best for all of us to stop analysing this, and maybe just watch some hilarious praying mantis sex.