For the few moments it takes to read this epistle, we can think about sex, desire, fetishes and the CBC without it getting all sordid and soul-destroying.
Let's start with the prairie vole. Your prairie vole is a cute critter. Oh yes. The male and the female get together, form a bond and stick together for ages and ages. Cute as two bugs in a rug they are.
Now, your meadow vole is different. Not so loyal to the partner, not so interested in domesticity and being together for ages, as cute as two bugs in a rug. No, siree. Speaking of bugs, you would not believe what's going on in the world of crickets.
Apparently, these days not all your guy-crickets are able to do the mating call. So the fellas who can't do the mating call hang around near some fellas who can, and then try to get some action with the ladies who turn up. It's like some awful basement nightclub in the suburbs. Or so one hears, anyway. Of course, if you want to go to some awful basement nightclub in the suburbs, far be it from me to thwart you. But I digress.
Decoding Desire (CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) is full of information about various voles, rats, insects and, eventually, the human animal. But brace yourselves. You will hear this: "A hen will choose to mate with a rooster who has the biggest, reddest coxcomb." Only David Suzuki could say that on TV without making you go, "Mother of God, stop with the filth! I'm scarlet with embarrassment."
The program promises that it "unravels the mysteries of sex and desire and explores how sexual diversity and the experience of pleasure itself may be the key to species survival." I cannot say it achieves that. Not entirely, anyway.
But it does set out to illustrate – in a very science-minded manner – that in the matter of desire, if men are animals, women are animals too.
We start with the peacock. The peacock's mating rituals puzzled Darwin, we're told. Or as Suzuki summarizes the Victorian approach to "sexual selection," "If guys with fancy tails got more mates, then fancy tails became the trendy thing."
The upshot is that female choice in mating was a mystery to Victorians. We're told that it took until the 1960s to acknowledge certain female traits. We're told that it turns out men are affected by a woman's smell. We're told, "Hormones and chemistry all play a role in attracting a mate." You don't say.
The program then moves on, thankfully, to insects. A professor tells us that new students are "shocked" by cricket sex. Next, it's elephant seals. It's best we draw a veil over that portion.
Then comes the fascinating bit about your prairie vole and your meadow vole. It seems that information can be extrapolated from your voles – the differences between men and women have been shrinking, and the reason is co-parenting. Then we get a word about oxytocin receptors and a science chap tells us a plausible biological explanation for love.
And then it's on to rats. This is where the fetish thing comes into it. A science chap at Concordia University studies the sex lives of rats and informs us that your female rat is into pleasure, big time. At this point, after some vivid illustration, we are informed that what rats learn about pleasure overrules the evolutionary impulse
At last we get to desire and to the human beast. Specifically, the female of the species. A grand conclusion is arrived at. We see a study on human sexuality under way at Queen's University. Without giving too much away I will convey that there are some surprising conclusions reached in the matter of arousal in the heterosexual female.
The Nature of Things and CBC, in general, does this kind of pop-science rather well. In this case, mind you, there is too much information. What with the voles, the rats, the elephant seals (and rhesus monkeys) and the insects, it all seems a rather tortured, roundabout way to approach new research into female sexuality. But it is good, clean fun, mostly, and for that we should be grateful. Near the end we're told, "In desire there are few certainties." Yeah, we know. Thanks. But thanks too for not being soul-destroying.
Also airing tonight
The Birthday Boys (TMN, Movie Central, 8:30 p.m.) is back. This all-male sketch comedy series, from executive producers Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) and Ben Stiller, is made for IFC in the U.S. and has a small cult following. Exactly why, is a mystery, but if you're part of the cult, it's back.