In an existence full of lattes, bus fare, text messages, work meetings and rent, it’s possible to forget we are members of the animal kingdom. We are apes. And our bodies, hairless as they are, are strange, wondrous, disgusting and unpredictable. “Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That?” is research psychologist Jesse Bering’s latest book, an examination of what, biologically, makes us human. Bering is a regular contributor to Scientific American and Slate and anyone familiar with his columns knows the goofy, self-deprecatory way he has of digesting lofty concepts. This book, like its dubious title, is a prime specimen.
“Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That?” employs a “reverse engineering” mode, sounding the mysteries of human anatomy with what science now knows to educatedly guess what we don’t—the basis of evolutionary psychology. The intersection of modern life with ancient evolutionary prerogatives is, naturally, hilarious. Evolutionary psychology is a hotly contested field, and Bering knows it, asking that readers weigh the studies with discretion and their own further research, pairing joyful curiosity with scientific rigor. He offers full disclosure in the “Invitation to Impropriety,” revealing himself “a godless, gay, psychological scientist with a penchant for far-flung evolutionary theories.” And the irreverence only creeps in steadily from there.
While the subject matter is not for the faint of heart, Bering embroiders the cases of autofellatio, suicide, pedophilia and bestiality with pithy asides, shameless puns and self-deprecatory anecdotes taken from his own experience. By his own account, he is only the “merry messenger” of what are objectively “correlational” or “preliminary” findings. This is crucial given the huge implications of some of the case studies.
For instance, the famous “mushroom tip” of the penis serves as a suction device in the vagina, digging out the still-incubating sperm of competitors. It’s also why, research has shown, couples who have been separated will have sex more often. There’s no shortage of mockery on premature ejaculation but Bering cites evidence showing why “minute-men” are actually prime evolutionary candidates. Most dangerously, a close look at the chemical composition of sperm shows rich concentrations of dopamine and other mood-boosting agents, an adaptation meant to foster intimacy not attained through “safe sex.”
There are some shortcomings. By his own account, Bering tends to skim over the phenomena of the female form, at one point describing the female orgasm as “exotic and foreign… like decorative basket weaving in a small African village.” The lightheartedness notwithstanding, Bering is constantly appealing to empathy and understanding, even if it comes at the butt of the joke, often including verbatim excerpts from postmodern theorists and psychologists, before slamming the same emetic and overwrought passages.
Through the reading, one becomes aware, if you let it, of a greater law—not of man over man, deviancy over norm, but of nature itself instilling its fate. Bering manages to present sex not as a Mamet-esque power-struggle or a moralistic battleground but as the will of life itself to continue—however weird it may be. If it doesn’t shake your view of the human body, or radically disturb you, “Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?” will at least have you howling with ape laughter. (Taylor Cowan)
“Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? …And Other Reflections on Being Human”
By Jesse Bering
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $16