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Death & Sex Hardcover – October 13, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160358143X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1603581431
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #930,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this back-to-back double essay (flip it one way, it's Death by Volk, flip it the other way, it's Sex by Sagan), two curious scientist-philosophers ponder the relationship between mortality and the chain of being. Sagan (Notes from the Holocene), the co-director of Chelsea Green's science imprint, takes a romp through evolution beginning with a neatly detached definition of sexual reproduction: "the formation of new individuals from the genes of at least two different sources." Taking a playful run with a serious theory, Sagan doesn't skimp on trivia ("an estrous chimp may mate with sixty males in a day"; "the oldest ejaculation in the fossil record" is between 363 and 409 million years old, etc.) while pursuing vital ideas on the relationship between gene mixing and evolution. On the other end, biologist Volk (head of NYU's environmental studies track) presents a luminous essay on the way death is integral to life, the importance of each person's "cultural knot," and how "biogeochemical cycles" create "a personal form of immortality": "my chemicals will circulate in the biosphere and become clouds and oceans and many wondrous creatures." Though dissimilar, the essays share an off-center view of evolution that should be of special interest to those who enjoy pondering the alpha and omega of life.
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Review

Publishers Weekly-

In this back-to-back double essay (flip it one way, it’s Death by Volk, flip it the other way, it’s Sex by Sagan), two curious scientist-philosophers ponder the relationship between mortality and the chain of being. Sagan (Notes from the Holocene), the co-director of Chelsea Green’s science imprint, takes a romp through evolution beginning with a neatly detached definition of sexual reproduction: “the formation of new individuals from the genes of at least two different sources.” Taking a playful run with a serious theory, Sagan doesn’t skimp on trivia (“[an] estrous chimp may mate with sixty males in a day”; “the oldest ejaculation in the fossil record” is between 363 and 409 million years old, etc.) while pursuing vital ideas on the relationship between gene mixing and evolution. On the other end, biologist Volk (head of NYU’s environmental studies track) presents a luminous essay on the way death is integral to life, the importance of each person’s “cultural knot,” and how “biogeochemical cycles” create “a personal form of immortality”: “my chemicals will circulate in the biosphere and become clouds and oceans and many wondrous creatures.” Though dissimilar, the essays share an off-center view of evolution that should be of special interest to those who enjoy pondering the alpha and omega of life.

New Scientist-

WHAT could be more alluring than a book about sex? How about a book about sex that, when flipped over, is also a book about death? In this two-for-one, biologist Tyler Volk and writer Dorion Sagan tackle two of the most important processes in the human experience. They touch on their respective subjects' fundamental importance to human history, while the book's format shows how the two are interconnected.

In Death, Volk investigates the biology of death across species and revisits death rituals throughout human history. Surprisingly, Volk's presentation serves as a reassuring affirmation of life, painting death as just another stage in an ever-repeating evolutionary cycle. In Sex, Sagan revels in covering what is clearly his favourite subject in a series of digressions, with playful prose that slips effortlessly from the complications of fertilisation to the widespread misconceptions relating to Marquis de Sade's lascivious nature.

In this single compact volume, the two subjects are presented with many delightful touches and details that put our carnal desire and our mortality into surprising perspective.

"In a mere 90 pages, Tyler Volk’s book Death brilliantly depicts the biology and psychology of its subject, putting death in proper perspective as an integral component of the life cycle. I’ve read many insightful books about death, but if I were to recommend one book to help someone come to terms with death, this would be it."--Jeff Greenberg, Director of the Social Psychology Program, Unversity of Arizona



"Dorion Sagan muses ruthlessly on the topic of sex and the result is as twisted and tangled as a set of bed sheets. Hyena sex, cycad sex, lots of primate sex, and even a digression on why the Marquis de Sade was not such a bad guy: Sagan takes pleasure in revealing it all. He even makes bacterial sex sound fun. Tyler Volk succeeds in translating everything of the natural world with generous poetic details, from tree-filled landscapes to star systems, as one or another version of death. We humans are by-products of carbon dioxide from dead photosynthesizers, yet Volk manages to make even this a fact well worth celebrating." -Betsey Dyer, Professor of Biology, Wheaton College, author of A Field Guide to Bacteria

"In just 100 pages, everything you really need to know about sex: Why? When? Where? With whom? Dorion Sagan slides effortlessly from seductive prose to bringing the reader sharp up against one astonishing scientific discovery after another." -Denis Noble, Professor Emeritus of Physiology, Oxford University, Fellow of the Royal Society, and author of The Music of Life

"Dorion Sagan and Tyler Volk show us sex is optional and death is necessary, turning the tables on our lusts and fears, our origins and endings, in a surprisingly enticing way." -Adam Daniel Stulberg, Poetic Interconnections

"Sex is the koan we can't stop from coming. Sagan shows us just how deep the riddle of sex goes--pulsing through the world from the Marquis de Sade's plays right down to the bacteria that make up our cells. This slim book allows us to be voyeurs and exhibitionists: Read about the sex lives of others and the other lives of sex to examine yourself. Whether you end up resonating more readily with the puritanical tendencies of the orangutans or with the orgiastic culture of the bonobo chimps, Dorion Sagan's Sex will provide a hilarious, thoughtful, and unforgettable time. It's more fun than my day job." -Conner Habib, adult-film actor and writer

"A boisterous Siamese twin of a book which looks at the two sides of the same molecular process: that of sex, and that of death, within the framework of life almost eternal. Enjoy, and know you are part of it."--Crispin Tickell, Director of the Policy Foresight Programme, Oxford University, former Warden of Green College, Oxford University, and former British Ambassador to the United Nations

"What delicious writing and reading! I love this wise and funny big-little book." -Erica Jong, iconic author of numerous bestselling works of fiction, poetry and essays

"This champagne cocktail of exploration and insight, not to forget the murkier passions of lust, or the despondency that comes from unrequited love, abandonment, or loss--what an inspired confection of two immensities, sex and death. I genuinely can’t recall reading a more inspiring or entertaining book in years!"--Frank Ryan,MD, author of Virolution and Darwin's Blind Spot



"While New Orleans indeed boasts a streetcar named 'Desire,' returning in the other direction, as eventually it must, it runs, appropriately enough, to 'Cemetery,' circulating, like some great cosmic wheel of life and death, endlessly between the two. Eschewing the taboos that surround discussion of both Sex and Death, and transgressing the disciplinary boundaries between philosophical metaphysics and biochemistry, this volume manages to be, at once, both playfully iconoclastic, and technically informative. Indeed it exhibits the very rare capacity to popularize, without 'selling out' or oversimplifying an intellectually challenging analysis of various physiological, animal, social and metaphysical manifestations and implications of this cosmic wheel of life and death. Where else is one going to experience such from chance encounters with de Sade, Monty Python, Basho and Poincare?" --Simon Glynn, Professor of Philosophy, Florida Atlantic University



"In Sex, Dorion Sagan writes with a wit that no other science writer of our generation can equal. And Tyler Volk's Death is spark to the tinder of insight."--Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

"In Death & Sex two of my favorite thinkers and writers ruminate on two of my favorite subjects and turn up all manner of unexpected interconnections. The result is a splendidly entertaining, informative and original piece of science writing."--John Horgan, author of The End of Science and Rational Mysticism

"I happen to be a book buyer by profession. It is a rare instance when I open up a package of fresh publisher samples that a book brings my day to a halt due to its beauty, let alone its subject. Death and Sex is such a book. Its look and texture are as tempting and forbidding as its topics. This book begs to be given a design award."--Garth Kobal



"Dorion Sagan's Sex is truly fabulous. The flow of writing and joy in reading is not a surprise. Nor are the many fascinating sex factoids which demand an underline in this otherwise mostly 'feets-up' read. But the feets-up ease of Sagan's writing is, at first, misleading. Not unlike a Canterbury tale, we ease into a story only to be awakened--ah, to be enlightened about the cannibalistic origins of sex (nope, no Apple Tree) by the merging properties of Hannibal Lecter, raccoons, and quiet amoebas. Well known as a science writer, Dorion Sagan, shows, once again, that he is far more than that. Sagan is post- post-modern ... a new tack for deep thought, a funny philosopher. When you pick up Sex, you will meet a true fabulist."--Lois Brynes, President, Deep-Time Associates



"Death and Sex--really two books in one--is not a lurid tale of necrophilia. In it quotidian simplicities are dissolved in the acid of evolutionary theory. Death turns out to be more complicated than to be or not to be; and sex is seen to be far more complicated than a tale about a man, a woman and a garden snake. Together, they form a pair of insightful lessons in the application of Darwinian concepts."--Andrew Lionel Blais, author of On the Plurality of Actual Worlds


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Zack Davisson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Presenting people with a copy of "Sex and Death" might be a kind of interesting social experiment in and of itself. Which side do you read first?

"Death and Sex" is an innovative in both the concepts within and the physical design of the book. Both authors, Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan (yes, THAT Sagan, although he doesn't make a big deal out of it), have written longer, more scientific books on their respective subjects (What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life and What Is Sex?), and the proposal was to condense down some of the ideas into a single volume that was equal parts philosophical, scientific and entertaining. The book presents Death on one side, and Sex on the other, and it is the reader's choice on where to begin.

Volk's work, "Death" begins with the philosopher Epicurus (a great starting place for almost everything, in my opinion) and goes on to a deeper exploration of just what "death" is. Cellular-level death occurs all over out bodies on a constant basis, and so parts of us "die" in order for the greater organism to survive. However, the individual molecules that make up our bodies have their own lifecycles, and will be dispersed from our corpses only to be swept up in the assemblage of something else until their own lifespans expire. Something that seems to be so easily definable becomes less so when put under the proverbial microscope.

Sagan's work "Sex" is a little more free-flowing, and Sagan is clearly more of an author than a scientist.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Diane Kistner TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Know how you always want to have a generic gift or two on hand around the holidays, just in case you forgot somebody who has just shown up with one for you? I'm not suggesting DEATH & SEX would be appropriate for children, but for adults old and young, this would be an interesting gift to have on hand. (Well, use your judgment if you are giving it to somebody else's husband or wife, just in case they might misunderstand the intention behind your gift.)

This book has a quiet elegance about it, like a small box of very fine chocolates. The embossing of the book is a delight to the touch as well as the eye. And it's interesting, and telling, to see which half of the book a person is drawn to reading first. No matter which one it is, Death or Sex, the reader is in for a thought-provoking read. I can almost guarantee you that it's not going to be quite what you expect, no matter which topic you tackle first. I quite enjoyed both of them, for different reasons, and there is a synergy between the two essays that invites ever-deeper ponderings of the meaning of it all. On the whole, this book is quite satisfying, and a keeper.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By V. N. Alexander on January 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The excellent writing and original insights found in this book ought to be mentioned first in a review, but I can't help but start by noting how charming the book design is. Death & Sex is fittingly a naked hardcover book, without a dust jacket, finished in a lovely and tasteful black damask cloth. The single volume is actually two separate books. One side reads in two lines, "Death Tyler Volk" in silver type above a barely discernable embossed "Sex Dorion Sagan" as a mirror image below it. Turn this attractive little book over and around and it reads "Sex Dorion Sagan" in, of course, harlot red script, and Volk's title and name are its mirror image. This book will be a collector's item; there is no doubt about that. I usually mark up the books I read, but I treat this one like the valuable aesthetic object it is. It is also a book that will find its way into the conversations of all your friends. It covers our favorite subjects with humor and depth. We all wonder what makes us the sexual beings we are. Why these habits and tendencies and not others? How like are we to other members of the animal kingdom? Are the Marquis de Sade's sexual practices any worse than those of male bedbugs who pierce females through any part of their bodies to impregnate them? Sagan explores our cultural, philosophical and biological history of sex, along the way showing us facts and quotes that make us wonder and laugh at ourselves. Consider this gem: Lyndon B. Johnson's observation that "there is nothing so overrated as a lousy lay, and nothing so underrated as a good crap." Tyler Volk's contributions on the subject of death are equally amusing and revealing. Looking at death's life-enabling nature, he makes death beautiful. The two authors together have created a book that gives us new perspectives on life. Don't let this year go by without Death & Sex.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cecil Bothwell VINE VOICE on December 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This flipside tome earned a four star rating in a two-way split. Cleverly packaged with two fronts, the subjects of Death & Sex are a good match but the writers are not: Three for the first subject, five for the latter.

Both Dorion Sagan (Sex) and Tyler Volk (Death) offer elements of natural history, keen insight into cultural meanings, and thoughtful reflection, but Sagan's writing is lively, even poetic, and engaging, while Volk's feels strained. And, in his way, Sagan offers more insight into death than the writer whose subject it was, aptly quoting the character Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs [Blu-ray], "As a sexual being, Agent Starling, 'we' must die."

Sexual reproduction has been marvelously successful as a survival strategy precisely because organisms mate, create a new combination of genetic material that (with luck) outpaces the ever-morphing diseases and parasites that afflicted the parent generation, and then, gracefully, die and get out of the way.

In a fascinating detour, Sagan also explains why life is part of entropy rather than a violation of the laws of thermodynamics. (I, for one, had always interpreted life as an organizing model running against the wind of universal dissipation.) But, no, the writer explains that life speeds entropy, our function inextricably tangled with using everything up as quickly as possible, speeding the reduction of universe to its final heat death.

Whether the recent confirmation of the existence of dark matter (just announced last week as I write this) will change our understanding of the directionality of time remains to be seen. But Sagan's argument is compelling, and a worthy read.
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