Book review: 'Electrified Sheep' and 'Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?' reflect on being human

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Alex Boese's "Electrified Sheep" hit bookstores last month and, like his widely acclaimed "Elephants on Acid" in 2007, it also delves into the extremes some will reach for the sake of science. This month, based upon a series of articles written for Scientific American, research psychologist Jesse Bering pushes even more buttons with his newly released "Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?" by inviting us to explore the science of sex. With scientists ingesting parasitic worms on the one hand and the anti-depressant virtues of semen on the other, I'd say these books make a splendid pair for a provocative dinner party.


"ELECTRIFIED SHEEP: GRASS-EATING SCIENTISTS, NUKING THE MOON, AND MORE BIZARRE EXPERIMENTS"
By Alex Boese
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's ($25.99).

"WHY IS THE PENIS SHAPED LIKE THAT? ... AND OTHER REFLECTIONS ON BEING HUMAN"
By Jesse Bering
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($16). [See book trailer on YouTube here.]

It requires a great deal of determination to ask questions that few will seriously entertain. Mr. Boese himself sums up the kinds of men and women that fill up these respective works when he says: "science needs its madmen because it takes a kind of madness to stick to your ideas in the face of difficulty and opposition." Together, Mr. Boese and Mr. Bering imply that these ideas may be more applicable to how we understand "being human" than previously imagined.

In "Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?", Mr. Bering invites us into titillating discussions about genitals, sexual preference and, of course, the act itself. From pedo and podofilia to pubic hair, he approaches sex through the lens of evolutionary psychology -- the idea that humans develop certain tendencies as a product of evolution. That "the penis is shaped like that" has a Darwinian explanation; similarly, the testes hang the way they do for the sake of healthy sperm. Continuously, he encourages us to step outside our sheltered minds and to get thinking about the boundaries of human sexuality.

In "Electrified Sheep," Mr. Boese takes us on a slightly different, but quite electrifying journey, about the experiences of scientists, researchers and the occasional daring layman, who pushed the limits of experimentation. He first draws readers into the history of electricity, offering us unconventional characters like John Ritter, who performed numerous voltaic self-experiments all over his body -- another way of saying that he enjoyed the pleasure of regularly electrocuting himself. Later, we meet fearless eaters like Frederick Hoelzel, the "Human Billy Goat," whose diet ranged from corn cobs and sawdust to glass, gravel and gold pellets. Mr. Boese reveals just how far some will go to appease their empirical curiosities.

Each writer has his own style -- Mr. Bering as the self-described "godless, gay, psychological scientist" and Mr. Boese as a bit more of an intellectual historian. But both instigate discussions about how the body has been exploited as a personal source for scientific research. Whether used to ingest toxins or dangerous narcotics, to inflict auto-surgeries or to understand alternative sexual practices, in order to understand ourselves we must understand our parts. For that reason, reproductive organs and sex remain at the heart of many topics. I was most impressed with the authenticity -- the utter freshness -- of the ways in which they both discuss practices and experiments relating to the body.

However sex is but one element of the conversation. The two writers channel discussions of sexuality and the body back into the history of science. They both draw attention to research conducted about the role of female orgasms, for example. They beg us to consider these hypotheses in light of evolutionary change: to imagine a time -- perhaps centuries from now -- when humans could be born without appendixes, men may not have nipples and women may not have a clitoris.

"Why Is the Penis Shaped That Way?" explores the psychology behind extreme human tendencies such as zoophilia (the desire to have sex with animals) as well as other equally challenging discussions about what brings one to contemplate -- or even accept -- suicide as a viable exit from life. Mr. Bering's willingness to confront the folds of what it is to be a sexualized being allows us to consider the biological functions of our bodies as they relate to our self-conceptions.

"Electrified Sheep" takes us through history, recounting the rise of 20th-century scientific experiments exploring the psychology of the human mind. From Henry T. Moore's 1922 eavesdropping investigations to Operation Cue at Yucca Flat in 1955, Mr. Boese makes us aware that weird science has also helped us to better understand the human response to social encounters, whether in conversation or in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Yet these authors would not dream of withholding other gems of what I would refer to as "fringy science." Mr. Bering could not let us forget about the laughing rats and, likewise, Mr. Boese had to mention Peter, the chimpanzee who was trained to smoke cigarettes, all the while sipping tea and roller-skating. Then there were the men who rolled around in the soiled linens of yellow fever victims in order to better understand disease.

Still, one may ask, aside from sheer entertainment value, why does any of this really matter? We are no more or less curious than we were before about porn and masturbation. We do not need to electrocute a goose to determine the strength of an electric current. True, these discussions make no difference in the day-to-day banality of human existence. But at the very least, these books are worth reading for their new way of approaching sensitive subject matter, theories that too often are only considered by eclectic groups of curious researchers.

Upfront and assertive, Alex Boese and Jesse Bering succeed by giving us just enough of a "fringy science" to be willing to think about it a little more deeply. As 18th-century electricians could be heard saying, these works are "strong enough to kill a sparrow, but not a goose."

bookreviews

Evi Heilbrunn, a graduate of Shady Side Academy and University of Pennsylvania, lives in Philadelphia. She is continuing her post-graduate research on the history of medicine and sexuality during the 19th century (eviheilbrunn@gmail.com).


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