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.