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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 23, 1992|ALEX RAKSIN

WILD SEX: All you want to know about the birds and the bees by Susan Windybank (St. Martin's: $10.95; 288 pp.). Lest you thought it romantic when your sweetheart surprised you with a candlelight dinner, consider the graceful seduction practiced by the male spider, who gains the female's attention by plucking the strands of her web, or the elegant dance of the marine bristle worms of the West Indies: The female flashes a steady light to attract the male, who then swims around her blinking his lights to signal his desire. At the moment of consummation, both click off their lights.

Such gentle coupling is, of course, the exception in the animal kingdom: More typical approaches, the author points out, range from bondage and sadomasochism to rape, polyandry and group sex (the illustration of three frogs absorbed in a heated menage a trois is not for the weak of heart). Having never read "The Feminine Mystique," these creatures don't see anything oppressive in their domination, of course, and herein lies the central danger in this kind of popular science writing: In order to win our attention, it needs to strike a delicate balance between anthropomorphizing (e.g., hitting on such familiar concepts as love and lust), but in order to keep our attention it must faithfully represent nature's true complexity, as the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, for instance, does in his writing. Though the author, an Australian journalist, should be applauded for letting us marvel with her at nature's sheer ingenuity, too often she exploits the former while undervaluing the latter.

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