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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book Review: Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex

Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex. Léo Grasset (scripter) and Colas Grasset (artist), translated from French by Kendra Boileau. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021. 192 pp. $24.95.

reviewed by Laura Sayre

Of zizis and zézettes: Teaching evolutionary biology through sex

Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex, by Léo and Colas Grasset (originally published as DirtyBiology: La grande aventure du sexe, Éditions Delcourt, 2017), is a full-length graphic novel that offers a detailed account, not just of the evolutionary history of animal copulation -- as might appear at first glance -- but rather of the various means by which genetic exchange and reproduction are accomplished by biological organisms, from bacteria to fish to elephants. The authors’ gamble is that the topic’s potential for crude humor, particularly in the graphic format, will contribute to, rather than detract from, its objective of delivering serious ideas about the workings of evolutionary biology. The extent to which that gamble pays off will depend on your sense of humor. Nevertheless, this is a smart book that successfully conveys its creators’ wide-ranging, iconoclastic appreciation for the unimaginable variety of life on earth. 

It’s useful to know at the outset that the “Dirty Biology” moniker is intended to convey something broader than “the science of sex.” Léo Grasset, the book’s scripter, is a type of French Stephen Jay Gould for the YouTube era: with degrees in evolutionary biology and journalism, he is what the French call a vulgarisateur scientifique, a popularizer of scientific information, and he has been posting videos (in French) on YouTube under the “DirtyBiology” rubric since 2014. With 77 episodes (from 15 to 30 minutes in length) and 1.17 million subscribers to date, Grasset’s topics range from the psychology of fear to the role of fermentation in primate evolution to (inevitably) the characteristics of epidemic disease outbreaks. “Dirty,” in other words, means not just relating to sex, but any and all scientific phenomena that are in some way disturbing, weird, surprising, or inexplicable. Grasset has the evolutionary biologist’s trick of turning familiar concepts on their head by effecting a leap in scale (millions of years, millions of species) and recurring to the hard law of natural selection. How did these strange things come to be? Why is there sex?

One question that presents itself to the reviewer, then, is what Grasset gains and loses in moving from YouTube to the graphic novel as a medium of expression. (This is Léo Grasset’s first graphic novel but his second book; his first, translated into English by Barbara Mellor as How the Zebra Got Its Stripes: Darwinian Stories Told Through Evolutionary Biology [Pegasus, 2017], tells some of the same stories but without the comics.) Young, conventionally good-looking, and articulate, Grasset has clear strengths as a YouTuber that count for less in the comics format. But he also knows his material and is a skilled writer, structuring the story in a way that offers good pacing, variety, even suspense, and that makes use of graphic novel conventions to engage in an imagined dialogue with the reader. The book’s illustrations, by his brother Colas Grasset, appear to be pen-and-ink drawings, tinted in pastel hues and populated for the most part by gentle-looking, stylized creatures. The narrative is delivered by an androgynous humanoid with a large round head and simplified features, who addresses the reader directly, punctuating its scientific instruction with humorous or ironic asides (such as the recurring line, “I love animals!” delivered after the description of a particularly “dirty” biological tidbit, like the fact that one-fourth of baby lion deaths are caused by infanticide by rival male lions [p. 148].)

As a creative team, the Grasset brothers convey biological concepts in a way that is both engaging and original, if not always pleasant (there is a scene, for example, where the humanoid narrator suffers from pollen allergies, its features melting and pustulating). The lessons move from, what is sex? (the exchange of genetic material by two individuals to create a third, different individual, p. 7); to, why have sex? (when bacterial reproduction, by replication and division, is so much more efficient, p. 20); to, why these particular forms for animal genital organs? (the movement of life onto dry land required a new method for fertilization: the female womb as a kind of internal sea, p. 28). Two sexes vs. multiple sexes; isogamy vs. anisogamy; sequential hermaphroditism; the “gangbang” engaged in by the slipper shell mollusk Crepidula fornicata; it’s all here. One advantage of the graphic novel over YouTube is that its special effects, while in many ways analogous (the montage, the self-conscious digression, the “explosion” to emphasize a key point, the visual gags), move more slowly, allowing the reader to absorb at their leisure what can otherwise become a blur of successive ideas.

Kendra Boileau does an impressive job of walking this fine line between science and slapstick in her translation. Translating profanity poses special challenges of tone, for obvious reasons, including the fact that such words are used more often in speech than in written language, with connotations that may vary considerably over time and space. Boileau navigates these treacherous waters with panache. Imagine the number of possible translations for the French term bites (Boileau chooses peckers, doinkers, and dicks). For les zizis et les zézettes, in case you were wondering, Boileau goes with weenies and muffs. Other terms appear in the original as imports from English and thus come back unchanged: glory hole, badass. Meanwhile, Boileau renders the more strictly scientific content in a manner that is clear, concise, and in keeping with the tone of the original.

At the same time, this mixture of science and profanity raised questions for me as to the book’s intended audience. Much of the humor comes across as juvenile, and yet the content is sophisticated -- not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t want to let this book get into the hands of anyone under the age of 14. Presumably, the intended audience for the book includes current and future prospective viewers of Léo Grasset’s YouTube channel, and yet his videos are targeted exclusively at a French-speaking audience (automatically generated English subtitles are available for some of them, but don’t work very well). Given this double paradox, the best achievement of this book may be in pointing readers toward the richness and diversity of the contemporary non-fiction graphic novel, in France and elsewhere, as well as toward the multitudinous, creative, wacky, yet serious content available on YouTube that (at least in this case) is co-evolving with it.

We should note, finally, that Graphic Mundi is an imprint of Pennsylvania State University Press, where Boileau is also an editor. Comics scholars may know that PSU Press is likewise home to an important series on graphic medicine, a term coined by Ian Williams in 2007 to describe “the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” The Graphic Mundi list as a whole treads into adjacent territory, including an exploration of the history of prostheses told from the perspective of a young man who has lost an arm in a road accident, an autobiographical account of a young woman’s struggle with anorexia and bulimia, and an anthology of comics about life under COVID-19. Taken together, this work pushes the boundaries of the comic in new and provocative directions, and is proudly international in scope.

Laura Sayre is an independent translator from French to English. A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:1.


“DirtyBiology” on YouTube


Graphic medicine, a term coined by Ian Williams

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