‘The Dawn Of The Deed’ looks at the ancient act of getting ass
By Benjamin Smith
Photo: The provocative prehistoric cover art for John A. Long’s look at the evolution of sex, “The Dawn of the Deed”
The life of a writer can be bizarre. To produce content for this fine paper, I have had to do strange things. Questionable things. Shameful things.
The other day I had to check out a book from a local library in order to write this very review. The tome’s title? “Dawn Of The Deed: The Prehistoric Origins Of Sex.” The cover features a “censored” image of two dinosaurs getting their hump on. The reaction of the librarian at the checkout desk was amazing; I have never before seen someone try so hard to look so normal, so casual. The long line of children behind me made the situation infinitely more awkward. The kids’ eyes stared at the cover. I felt like an accidental Larry Flynt. To top the whole experience off, I didn’t even have a library card, so I had to check the book out with my 11-year-old son’s card. I rationalized this terribly poor parenting decision by reminding myself that, “Yes, my son does like dinosaurs.”
No doubt, I’m going to hell. But at least “The Dawn Of The Deed” (The University of Chicago Press, 2012) is a fascinating read.
Author and paleontologist John A. Long perpetually reminds the reader that while sex may be good and necessary, it is also, well, weird – especially when you consider its origins: “If you think about it, the idea that a male of some primitive archaic creature one day decided to put a part of his anatomy inside a rather delicate region of the female, then decided it felt funky enough to ejaculate his sperm, is pretty odd.” Indeed.
The book’s narrative spine is the true account of how Long and other scientists discovered and researched a fossilized placoderm – an extinct armored fish, somewhat similar to a shark – in Western Australia that contained an embryo. Significantly, this embryo is the oldest known embryo of a vertebrate, and was found connected to its parent by a mineralized umbilical cord. “Now we had the only fossil ever found anywhere showing a maternal feed structure preserved. […] For an embryo to be raised inside the mother, it generally means that the female fishes were not simply laying their eggs in water with the males ejecting sperm over them. They were copulating. They were having intimate and complex sex somewhere near the limey sea floor, around 380 million years ago.”
Thus begins the author’s journey through “paleoporn” in an attempt to understand this surprisingly complex sex. At one point, Long and his peers even make a computer-animated video to show how placoderms (perhaps) consummated their brief relationships, based on the evidence at hand:
“The final clip showing the actual mating of the fishes involved the female lying on her back on the sea-floor; we figured placoderms would have a hard enough time of it trying to insert the clasper (schlong) in mid-water. As in typical porn films (or so I’m told), the male in our production doesn’t go in for elaborate courtship rituals. […] The video shows the male descending lustily upon the readied female lying on her back with pelvic fins spread widely. The male backs up and inserts the clasper rearwards into her waiting cloaca, depositing his sperm and then hastily wriggling out and swimming off. The female is seen lingering after him, eyes glistening longingly as he skedaddles away, possibly wondering to herself, ‘Will he ever call?’”
That’s right. The schlong of this ancient fish faced backwards – “away from the head.” And you thought you had problems.
Long segues from early sexual activity to the epic evolution of sex itself. Subsequent chapter titles aptly summarize his scope and approach: At the Dawn of Archaic Sex; Dinosaur Sex and Other Earthshaking Discoveries; We Ain’t Nothing but Mammals; From Clasper to Penis: We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. By the end, the reader leaves with a greater knowledge of – and appreciation for – biology, evolution, fertilization and reproduction. You may never look at intercourse, or frankly a menu, the same way ever again.
Still, as much as the book’s trajectory informs and entertains, the real worth of “Dawn” lies in its tangents. Did you know, for example, that there is a type of duck that has a penis as long its body? That some fruit bats give oral pleasure? That seahorses appear to have far better sex than humans? Personally, your writer finds these tidbits to be just as interesting as – and maybe more memorable than – the fact that ancient placoderms found intercourse to be compelling/fun. And then there are the pictures, which really add some spice to the enterprise. Highlights include images of mating sharks, terrifyingly violent bedbug sex, a praying mantis devouring her lover, a fossilized walrus penis bone and an orgy of garter snakes performing serpent necrophilia. The stuff of nightmares for children and the squeamish; a unique treat for the curious.
Reach DCP freelance writer Benjamin Smith at BenjaminSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com.