Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?
And Other Reflections on Being Human
Jesse Bering
(Scientific American /
Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Acne is peculiar to humans and, according to two clinicians, "there is no single disease that causes more psychic trauma ... more general insecurity and feelings of inferiority and greater sums of psychic suffering than does acne vulgaris."
  • Pubic hair, apparently, serves no useful purpose for the human body rather than being --- like the tail-feathers of the male peacock --- useful (at least to our primitive ancestors) as a visual come-on.
  • One per-cent of the population describe themselves as being "asexual" --- that is "never having a sexual attraction to anyone." One woman stated, "I love the human form and can regard individuals as works of art ... but I don't want to come into sexual contact with even the most beautiful of people."
  • Chinese women who had wealthy male partners reported "having orgasms more frequently than women whose partners made less money."
  • Love lost is dangerous. Its "depression is linked to heart attacks or strokes, so people can, quite literally, die of a broken heart."
  • Semen can make you happy, for it contains many happy-making compounds. There are chemicals like cortisol (increases affection), estrone (elevates mood), oxytocin (another mood-enhancer), prolactin (a natural antidepressant) and melatonin (a sleep-inducing agent). And, as a conduit, the vagina is perfect "for drug delivery."
  • And the penis has a "coronal ridge" which can serve as a plunger. If someone knows a woman after her usual partner has appeared on the scene, and if they make love, his coronal ridge can dislodge any stray lazybones left-over sperm that happen to be lying around, now forgotten by the previous tenant.

§   §   §

This book is jam-packed full of matters on all things sexual. It is as if Bering can't stop asking questions about why we do or think or live in certain ways in our world. He's a teacher and a student of "evolutionary psychology," a field in which one investigates those unsolvable human traits: why do we love, why do we want sex, why are some of us gay, why is there violence, what brings on suicide.

What some might find especially compelling about Penis --- and I guess, for convenience's sake, I will call it that during the course of this review --- is the author's personal involvement in his study. For he makes no bones about it (I choose to use the puns like his that he sprinkles about the book): he loves life, he loves his work, he is gay, he has no doubts about that ... and when he comes to talk about powerful subjects (anti-gay sentiment, loneliness, isolation, depression), he not only has studied them, he has been there, done that.

He is your involved scientist, he knows how to write about it, he lets you know exactly how he feels about it. Science, for instance: "The great thing about good science is that it's amoral and objective and doesn't cater in the court of public opinion."

    Data don't cringe; people do.

Sexual preferences? Freud was right: we are probably formed by our early childhood experiences. But, unfortunately, there is no way to test these theories. Boys may show themselves to be effeminate, but there is no easy way for scientists to explore what this means for the future development of the child: parents just won't permit that kind of investigation.

Suicide? There are 20,000,000 attempted suicides in the world every year. Ten percent of those succeed. And Bering can reveal: "When I was a suicidal adolescent, I remember reading voraciously ... since it was the only way to replace my own thoughts with those of the writer's.

    For the suicidal, other people's words can be pulled over one's exhausting ruminations like a seamless glove being stretched over a distractingly scarred hand.

This is a writer who can take a fraught subject, weave it into no-nonsense prose, and thus leave it free of sentiment. This is also a funny and extremely well-researched book on a subject which Bering says might have a very high "snicker factor."

Yet the author will often leave the comedy behind to write on, for example, the death of his mother (she went through three bouts of cancer before she died at age fifty-four). Her story is told with grace and gentleness, and Bering being Bering, we know he will look for meaning in such a tragedy.

In this case, it leads him to mull on the crassness of the funeral business which, he says, "felt much too cold for me." He mulls the advantage of "green burials," pitting them against the "staggering environmental impact of traditional burial" which includes, for America, in one year,

    827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 90,272 tons of steel (caskets), 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets), 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults), 14,000 tons of steel (vaults), and more than 30 million board feet of hardwoods (much of it tropical; caskets).

Scientific American collaborated on Penis with FS&G, and I never in my life dreamed I would get to write something like that ... at least from my perspective of fifty years ago when Scientific American was careful, rigorous, cautious, staid and extremely dull.

That they would put their name on this delightful book --- and, more surprisingly, that they have taken on Bering as one of their regular columnists --- tells us how far the august world of general science has moved in the last generation. At last, that august institution has learned to laugh at itself.

--- Lolita Lark
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