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Clio Cresswell – Mathematics and Sex

March 10, 2010

24. Mathematics and Sex by Clio Cresswell (2003)

Length: 178 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Science

Started: 28 February 2010
Finished: 01 March 2010

Where did it come from? Birthday present from a friend. (Last year. But I managed to get it read and reviewed before my birthday this year, so, ha!)
Why do I have it? See above, but it was on my wishlist because I am a giant nerd about a lot of things, but particularly biology, and particularly biology involving the evolution of sex and mate choice.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 March 2009.

Find out what happens
when you invite scientists
into the bedroom.

Summary: Mathematics and Sex is about exactly what it sounds like… wait, don’t run away yet! Many areas of research in human sexuality and mating behavior have turned to mathematics to help them understand patterns of human behavior. Equations can be used to predict behavior, and then empirical studies can help validate and refine the equations. But it’s not all dry academia – mathematics have some surprising predictions about how things like the optimal number of partners to have before settling down (correct answer: 12), the amount of compromise needed to sustain a marriage over the long term (very little!), how dating services determine your perfect match (lots of math, but also some guesswork), and why we find certain people attractive in the first place (symmetry and a sense of humor).

Review: First things first: This is not a math book. It is a pop-sci book about sex research that uses math as a framing device, rather than a focus. Cresswell presents math as a way of understanding patterns – patterns of numbers, patterns of celestial movements, patterns of human sexual behavior, whatever. She does occasionally give equations, but she also explains what they mean in plain language right below, so you can read right over the mathematical symbols without worrying about every summation and exponent. Basically, if you can read dR/dt = aJ as “the change in Romeo’s feelings over time is directly proportional to the way that Juliet feels about him at the moment,” you’re more than prepared enough to understand this book. And, even if you can’t get that text from the equation yourself, not to worry: Cresswell does it for you, every time.

Essentially, Mathematics and Sex is very similar to Mary Roach’s Bonk, although with an emphasis on more theoretical rather than practical avenues of sex research (i.e. no Doin’ It inside an MRI machine here.) Unfortunately, Cresswell is not as effortless a writer as Roach, so the prose is not as smooth, with some grammatical mistakes and phrasing choices that I found somewhat jarring. Similarly, while I think she was aiming for a light and humorous tone to her writing (again similar to Bonk), it occasionally came across as feeling forced, and didn’t always work for me. Some of the topics she selected seemed equally strange – most were on point, but some seemed totally off. For example, in the chapter about why we only have two sexes, she embarks on a long, in-depth explanation of cytoplasmic parasitic genes without even mentioning the math behind the evolution of anisogamy (having two types of gametes that differ in size), which I think is more straightforward, more understandable to the non-biologist, and should have been right up her alley.

Overall, while I was familiar with some of topics covered in this book, I did learn some things as well, and while Cresswell is not the best science writer I’ve come across, she does do an excellent job of making the science and mathematics of sex research accessible to the general public. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of Mary Roach’s Bonk are the obvious audience here, but both books would be of interest to general pop-sci readers with at least a minor prurient bent. :)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: For many people just seeing the words ‘mathematics’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence is odd enough, let alone discovering there is a deep relationship between the two.

Cover Thoughts: It’s cute, and I like that the equations continue in clear-but-shiny printing across the whole image. And don’t think for a second that I didn’t spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out whose feet were whose.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 8:52 am

    Twelve, really? Twelve is how many partners to have before settling down? Does it vary between men and women?

    • March 10, 2010 9:15 am

      Jenny – Hee, well, that’s an oversimplification, but according to optimal mate search theory, you want to sample enough to get a sense of the range of variation without sampling so many that you inadvertently pass the best one by. So, given some assumptions about how many potential partners a person will meet over the course of their lives and such, theory says that the sampling strategy with the highest rate of success is to have twelve partners, then the next one who comes along who’s better than the best out of the twelve, that one you keep.

  2. March 10, 2010 4:17 pm

    All I can think of to say is that those legs/feet had to be photoshopped into the cover picture!

    Also, I’m not sure I’d want to read something that reduces sex to cut-and-dried research — did this book give you that impression sometimes?

    • March 10, 2010 4:30 pm

      Valerie – No, not really… but at the same time, I’m a scientist, and I tend to think that finding out the whys and hows and patterns underlying something increases its wonder and magic instead of decreasing it.

  3. March 10, 2010 5:34 pm

    I’m curious about this, especially since Bonk has been on my TBR list for a while (I hadn’t read your review of it though!) Maybe if I see it at the library, I’ll give it a chance!

    • March 11, 2010 8:07 am

      kay – If you’re only going to read one, I’d say definitely read Bonk first.

  4. March 13, 2010 11:42 am

    Sounds funny! I didn’t love Bonk when I read it, but did find most of it pretty interesting. And I really love the Romeo and Juliet equation… so, maybe?

    • March 13, 2010 6:36 pm

      Kim – I think it’s probably the same level of interesting-ness as Bonk, although the focus is on some different topics. It might be worth flipping through at the library or bookstore before you buy, though, to see how you get along with the rest of it.

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