Going from Richard Fortey’s account of the ménage à trois between geology, natural history, and human culture to Jonathan Margolis’s self-consciously naughty history of the orgasm is like chasing a steak dinner at Peter Luger with a Big Mac.
The joke of Fortey’s subtitle is that it’s hard to think of intimacy on the scale of planets, but his personal relationship with the material (“520 million years ago is my kind of time,” he enthuses) makes the story as enthralling as really good gossip. Fortey’s writing is lovely. There’s poetry in words like vog, chert, and gabbro or the names of the alpine plants (vetch, lungwort, saxifrage) that form “a special community of flowers in thrall both to altitude and geology.” Geology turns out to be full of demented Robert Ludlum titles: the Dunnage Mélange, the Campanian Ignimbrite, the Kaibab Formation. The rocks Fortey describes sound good enough to eat: Feldspars in granite are likened to “plums in a pudding,” Norway is “a club sandwich of tectonic slices,” and one geological stratum has the color of “mature Italian sausage.” Threadlike bacteria form sticky mats preserved in “finely layered, crimped, or cushion-like fossils called stromatolites, looking like piles of petrified flaky pastry”: mille-feuilles, judging by the photograph.
Like most geologists, Fortey believes that problems “often need to be anatomized first, before they can be tamed by explanation,” but his gift for description is both intellectual and imaginative, as when he projects the alternate history of an earth without continental crust (“no evolution of land animals, no trees, and assuredly no thinking bipeds”). Intelligence might in this case be the property of the squid, which communicates by changing its skin colors, in which case Fortey’s own book “might have been written in shimmering, swirling modifications of tens of thousands of chromatic cells.”
Compared to Fortey, Margolis is not so much gullible as indiscriminate, and his book is a fact checker’s nightmare. He states opinions with a flippancy that many readers will find offensive, suggesting that the click represented by the exclamation point in the name of the !Kung people “might equally be a commentary on the fact that the male !Kung, unusually, manage to be semi-erect at all times.” The sensibility is distinctly juvenile. “Nuns unsurprisingly seem to have been particularly unhinged by voluntary orgasmic deprivation,” Margolis observes, elsewhere referring to the death of Edward II’s male favorite as “the red-hot-poker-up-the-bottom story so beloved by generations of bloodthirsty British schoolboys.” Margolis also asserts that “we can be quite confident that the all-important link between sex and babies did not exist to any significant extent in the early human being’s mind” and believes that his own grandmother “will have died with only the fuzziest notion of what an orgasm was or where or how it was possible to acquire one.”
Here and there, Margolis provides an interesting fact, though his failure to show provenance casts doubt on their accuracy. The average man produces 14 gallons of ejaculate over his lifetime (“enough to fill the fuel-tank of the average-sized family car,” Margolis irrepressibly comments), and a standard ejaculation contains 60 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C. But the word copulation does not come from the Latin word for barmaids willing to exchange sex for money, and the book is a trove of false information and sloppy language. In what may be a misguided attempt at political correctness, Margolis credits the independence of the spinal cord for the fact that “disabled men can often have erections and father children, although normally cannot feel sexual sensation”—paraplegic would have been a clearer adjective. Modern-with-a-capital-M Orthodox Jews and Hasidim alike will not be pleased by Margolis’s speculations about why “modern Orthodox Jews, in their bizarre, wholly non-Hebraic medieval European garb,” should “be so confused about sex (large numbers of their men are aggressive prudes, yet major users of prostitutes).” No definition of terms, no citation of sources—you don’t even want to know what Margolis has to say about female genital mutilation.