January 29, 2023
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Bestselling author discusses biological relationships

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, New York Times bestselling author and science journalist, has devoted her career to understanding human relationships and, more specifically, sex. In her book, “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation,” which was later made into a television show, Judson combines a sex advice column approach with the evolutionary biology of creatures. Olivia Judson

As part of Cornell Plantations’ 25th Annual Fall Lecture Series, Judson will speak tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Statler Hall Auditorium on Cornell University’s campus.

Contributing writer Jo Lou spoke with Judson about her novel and career in evolutionary biology.

Jo Lou: How did you become interested in evolutionary biology?

Olivia Judson: None of it was really planned. I did not get interested in evolutionary biology until I was in college, and I didn’t really get interested in the evolution of sex until I was in grad school. I was talking to some grad students about some research they were doing, and I started to get interested in the hypotheses about what sex was for and ended up doing my thesis on it. The original plan was to do my thesis on sexual ratio in birds, so the whole thing took an unexpected U-turn.

JL: Why did you choose sex as your main focus in biology?

OJ: Most evolutionary biologists are obsessed with sex, even more so than normal people. It’s such a central part of evolution, survival and reproduction. You can live to ten thousand years old, but if you don’t leave any progenies, you’re an evolutionary failure. It is the source of evolution for everything that is flamboyant and pretty much anything that is totally spectacular is about sex, whether it’s about flowers, feathers or fins.

JL: Why did you choose to write from a sex advice column point of view instead of writing a purely technical and scientific book?

OJ: The actual idea for the advice column happened at a party. I was joking about some stuff I was thinking about, and someone said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if you were Doctor Ruth, and you got a letter saying, “Dear Doctor Ruth, blah, blah, blah?” I thought it would be funny, and it was just one of those things that came as a conversation.

JL: How did you come up with your quirky alter ego, Doctor Tatiana?

OJ: She has some aspects of me, not necessarily some aspects that I access very regularly, but she just kind of seems to be there, so I channeled her both for the writing and for the television program. When it was first proposed that there would be a TV show, it was not obvious that it was going to be me being Doctor Tatiana. That happened sort of by accident really. The commissioning editor at Channel Four, unbeknownst to me, came to a speaking event I was doing and filmed me. On the basis of that film, it was decided that it was OK for me to be in the show. But when we were first discussing it, it could have been an actress. The white leather part was OK, but it was the shoes that killed me.

JL: When you wrote the book, did you ever think that it was going to be a television show?

OJ: I had no idea. My main concern with writing the book was finishing it. It took me four years during which I did nothing else. Self-delusions are quite an important part of this project. If you had any idea in the beginning of what you are getting yourself into, you would never start. I very much underestimated the difficulty of the project. It took me quite a long time to develop the tone of the character and to really be able to make progress with that.

JL: There aren’t a lot of female evolutionary biologists. Why do you think that is that there’s such a limited amount of female biologists, and do you think it affects you?

OJ: It’s changed a lot. It’s important for there to be diversity in science in general. The understanding of female mating behavior has improved a lot with the increase in the number of women in the field, and I can always hope that it will go on increasing.