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Biological Chemistry

Wild Diversions

by Rachel Sheremeta Pepling
June 7, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 23

ANIMAL TALK: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language , by Tim Friend, Free Press, 2004, 274 pages, $25 (ISBN 0-7432-0157-4)

WHY WE LOVE: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love , by Helen Fisher, Henry Holt, 2004, 301 pages, $25 (ISBN 0-8050-6913-5)

DR. TATIANA'S SEX ADVICE TO ALL CREATION: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex , by Olivia Judson, Holt/Metropolitan/Owl Books, 2003 (paperback), 320 pages, $14 (ISBN 0-8050-6332-3)


Foreign languages. Love stories. Scandals. What could make for more exciting reading? How about some critters and a dash of chemistry?

"No matter where you look, just about every creature is obsessed with sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner." This statement is the central theme of science writer Tim Friend's book, "Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language."

Although Friend can't tell you exactly what an animal is thinking, he does divulge his unsuccessful attempt to telepathically communicate with squirrels. But that's a story to discover in the book. With the help of field research and numerous experts, he does identify general topics of communication--mating, territory, dominance, and eating--and the ways these topics are "discussed" among animals.

Chemistry's role in communication gets fair play throughout "Animal Talk," including brief discussions of bacterial chemical signals and bioluminescence. One chapter, "Chemistry of Love," addresses mainly pheromones and genetics. But staying true to a general audience, it doesn't get very technical.

For the most part, Friend's writing style is clear and easy to comprehend. His anecdotes are enjoyable and insightful, but at times his train of thought seems disjointed with oddly placed facts and stories.

Although the book includes a few black and white photographs, color would have been more helpful. For instance, Friend discusses the use of color for communication, particularly in lazuli bunting finches. Adult males have a bright blue plumage--attractive to females--while young males are a dull brown. Friend includes photos of both adult and young males, but the color difference is lost in black and white.

While Friend devotes only one chapter of his book to the chemistry of love, anthropologist Helen Fisher devotes an entire book to the topic. "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love" delves into the neurochemistry and processes behind the drive to love in humans and other animals.

Fisher's first chapter pulls heavily from her studies of the brain in love and is supplemented with copious excerpts from poems, plays, and folk tales. Fisher recruited subjects for her study by placing an ad on a bulletin board for psychology students. Members of one group of subjects were asked to take a questionnaire on being in love, which is included in the book's appendix. The brains of a second group of "madly in love" students were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Fisher used the scans to determine which areas of the brain and their associated chemicals are active during love.

The rest of "Why We Love" continues with the references to poems and love stories and addresses different kinds of love, whom we love, lasting love, and loss of love. Based mainly on results from her studies, Fisher explains how certain chemicals work in different parts of the brain to influence different aspects of love. Her engaging writing helps the reader drift effortlessly through an exploration of dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin.

For interactions of another kind, try "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," by Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist. To explain the science behind evolutionary biology, Judson takes a "Dear Abby" approach through her alter ego, Dr. Tatiana. Various animals write in to Dr. Tatiana for answers to their perplexing sexual scenarios.

While not a recent release, this quick, tongue-in-cheek read includes everything you ever wanted to know about evolutionary biology but were afraid to ask. It provides some interesting fodder for discussion.

Impress lab mates with the cannibalistic mating rituals of the European praying mantis. Liven up water-cooler discussions with the story of the bdelloid rotifer, an animal that has been reproducing only by cloning for nearly 85 million years. This kind of reproduction--without sex or even males--is scandalous to organisms like us.

All three books have one little thing in common: voles. Each book relates the tale of the highly social prairie vole and its less social cousin, the montane vole. The voles share a nearly identical genetic makeup, but they react differently to vasopressin, a hormone released during copulation. Their tale is all the more interesting in light of recent research indicating the connection between gene mutations and drug efficacy.

Vasopressin triggers bonding and territoriality in male prairie voles. It makes a male attentive to and protective of his mate. The montane vole, however, remains a playboy when vasopressin is released. The behavioral difference is based on differences in the distribution of vasopressin-binding receptor proteins in the brains of these voles. Replace the montane vole's receptor gene with the prairie vole's version, and ... voilà, vasopressin will trigger the montane vole to drop his playboy ways and settle with his mate.

While these books admittedly fall in the chemistry-lite category, they certainly have the makings to appeal to the inner biologist in each of us.

Rachel Sheremeta Pepling is an associate editor for C&EN Online and coordinates the online feature "Critter Chemistry."



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