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Nonfiction in Brief

January 17, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

THE DANCE OF LIFE Courtship in the Animal Kingdom by Mark Jerome Walters (Arbor House/Morrow: $17.95) While the female praying mantas, who often bites off the head of the male during mating, is a dramatic exception, most animals become more endearing when we look closely at their courtship. Mark Walters' stories about male spiders serenading females by strumming their webs and male crocodiles creating waterfalls with ultrasonic waves to impress the female are enough to convince us that these creatures might feel love. Sensitively, Walters, formerly an editor at the Reader's Digest, puts the colder, evolutionary reasons for courtship on hold for a while so we can anthropomorphize and enjoy the story. Most poignant is the tale of Tex, a female whooping crane who grew up among humans and would ignore male cranes. Ornithologist George Archibald decided to flirt with her as part of an experiment in artificial insemination. For months he lived next to Tex, courting her by flapping his arms and learning her language (a low purring sound, for instance, means, "You're here, I'm here, everything's OK").

Some scientists might quarrel with Walters' decision to emphasize a relatively new, unproven hypothesis about the origins of two-parent sex (it began, this theory goes, when one-celled creatures began cannibalizing each other as food became scarce) instead of the more widely accepted view that two-parent sex emerged to produce highly diverse offspring capable of adapting to new and difficult environments. On the whole, however, Walters is an excellent popularizer, writing in clear, engaging prose that stresses the social implications of science. Courtship itself, for instance, was a female invention, a way of getting transient males to stay in one place long enough to demonstrate their potential as parents. Arguably, courtship led to civilization, for as Darwin speculated, human communications, in its earliest form, served not primarily to facilitate abstract reasoning, but to bring male and female closer together.

A GENERATION DIVIDED German Children and the Berlin Wall by Thomas Davey (Duke University Press: $29.95) One way of taming the cynicism that comes from reflecting back on the warring and feuding of the 20th Century is to place hope in the younger, "purer" generation. Tom Davey, a Boston psychologist, realizes that the children he interviews on both sides of the Berlin Wall--aged 10 to 12--are too young to effect change. But in a series of visits to the area around the "anti-fascist defense barrier," as the East Germans still call it, he was encouraged by the way in which the children made sense of a world torn by guilt over the past and confusion over present rivalry between capitalism and socialism. While the children's feelings about the Holocaust are explored only briefly in the introduction, Davey reports a series of revealing encounters that shows the children coping in a novel way: by cultivating a type of skepticism that is not (as in many adults) tied to cynicism. One 12-year-old boy in East Berlin, for instance, recognizes his country's problems and yet retains a sense of pride: "Sometimes I do want to leave, look around . . . (But) this is my home and I'm tired of everyone in the West insulting my home." Similarly, the children of West Berlin acknowledge the oppression in the East but remain skeptical about the image their leaders wish to project. "There are really two West Berlins," says one 11-year-old girl, "The rich Berlin that everyone wants to see, and then us."

Davey has great respect for these children and so he gives them center stage, minimizing analysis and interpretation. But "A Generation Divided," while often elegant in its reporting, could have benefitted from more structure and interpretation. A self-conscious chapter on method could have been replaced by a chapter discussing one of the fascinating issues Davey raises: The way East German leaders use Orwellian words like "anti-fascist defense barrier," for instance, to socialize the children.

ROBERT HEINLEIN by Leon Stover (G. K. Hall & Co: $17.95) The new generation of socially mature, liberal and (often) feminist critics of science fiction has branded Robert Heinlein everything from racist and sexist to reactionary and bigoted. It is thus a testament to his beguiling power as a storyteller that many radical '60s activists virtually revered Valentine Smith, the protagonist of Heinlein's 1961 novel, "Stranger in a Strange Land." The activists had been inspired by the possibility of universal amity symbolized by the name and life of Smith, a Martian who teaches humans to "grok" (literally, to drink; figuratively, to savor a person's individuality). Heinlein himself deeply distrusts cults and privately thought Smith would become either a failure or a fascist.

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