The Grim, Grimy, and Kinda Glorious Side of Science

Book review: Gory Details, by Erika Engelhaupt

Beyond satisfying my own weird inquisitiveness, the larger goal of Gory Details has always been to create a place where it’s OK to talk about gross, taboo, or morbid topics — and then to examine them, up close, through the lens of science.

Science writer and editor Erika Engelhaupt includes this kind of a justification for her interest in the aforementioned gross, taboo, or morbid topics, but honestly, I don’t think anyone who’s likely to pick up this book needs it. Still, she manages to be both thoughtful and eloquent in explaining why, especially as a woman, her interest since childhood in the messier, uglier, unpleasanter side of science has been valuable not only for her but for the readership of her titular popular web column with National Geographic.

I think with the massive popularity of science writers like Mary Roach, who regularly tackles topics of the squeamish and icky, we’re beginning to understand more about why it seems just to be simply human nature to be morbidly fascinated by the more unspeakable workings of both our bodies and the world at large. Engelhaupt makes a good case for it:

Why would I want to spend my days thinking about topics that, on a good day, are unpleasant? What it comes down to is this: I’m less fearful of the things I’ve written about. When I look more closely at whatever rattles me — death, disease, creepy clowns — scientific analysis makes it a little more manageable.”

In each chapter, she explores a different taboo topic, ranging from the gross-and-scary (your pets eating you after your death) to the gross-but-helpful (what we can learn from cockroaches’ amazing resilience and unusual motor skills) to the universally taboo (necrophilia: be prepared to learn some uncomfortable truths about penguins).

It’s beautifully written — witty and quickly paced, making it very fun to read and sometimes completely hilarious. Witness: “Sixty-seven years after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, another Italian named Columbus claimed the discovery of a territory far smaller, but no less wondrous. In 1559, Realdus Columbus proclaimed that he had discovered the clitoris.”

Yeah, this bold and brave explorer “discovered” it. Okay, actually this whole chapter is a scream: “With its long, curved arms and pendulous bulbs, the clitoris reminds me of […] maybe half an octopus. And, if I’m completely honest, it also reminds me of the alien spaceships in the 1953 War of the Worlds movie, which had a boomerang-shaped body topped by a curved neck and a glowing, hooded head concealing a deadly ray gun. […] I also rather like the idea of a clitoris with a ray gun. In any case, it was nothing like what I’d imagined.”

We need more books with entire chapters devoted to the clitoris. Bless her.

Taking a less sexy angle, Engelhaupt looks into necrophilia, including its existence in the animal kingdom. She writes that penguins “In 1911, Antarctic explorer George Murray Levick described male penguins engaging in necrophilia, rape, sodomy, and masturbation. Levick’s Edwardian sensibilities were deeply offended. “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,” he wrote. His report was considered so scandalous that London’s Natural History Museum wrote “Not for Publication” on it and shelved it for a century.” I’ll never be able to not think of all this when seeing adorable little penguins now, but at the same time, it’s so funny to envision the scandalized and horrified Victorians putting this information in the vault for a century. And I’d rather understand the world as it is, rather than what we’d like it to be, another point Engelhaupt underscores brilliantly.

Sometimes it’s not even so much gross and gory as weird, like around common fears and phobias that can be traced to their challenging of societal norms. Writing about the fear of clowns, she actually made me realize why some people even have this specific and widespread phobia: According to social psychologist Frank McAndrew, “what really makes clowns creepy is that they’re ambiguous characters in so many ways. “If a person is willing to flout the conventions of society by dressing and acting as they do,” McAndrew says, “what other rules might they be willing to break?”

That was a kind of lightbulb moment for me. I learned so much from this book.

I feel confident saying it’s similar to Mary Roach’s light, witty but info-packed style although I’ve only read one of hers. It’s reminiscent as well of another favorite, Mara Altman’s Gross Anatomy, which also does the good work of unpacking unsavory bodily bits and functions to teach you something about yourself. The sense of humor is never heavy-handed and makes reading about darker topics not feel that way at all, including some good-humored self-deprecation and the enlisting of highly specific experts to shed light on each of Engelhaupt’s areas of interest.

So let’s ask more gross questions. Let’s be open to discovering the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Let’s see the wonder of nature, even if it has six legs or eats its own young. Let’s be less afraid, and less ashamed of our bodies. Let’s talk about death more.

Lifting the stigma around discussing our darkest thoughts is an important first step toward making sense of them.

Gory Details: Adventures From the Dark Side of Science
by Erika Engelhaupt
published March 2, 2021 by National Geographic
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

25 thoughts on “The Grim, Grimy, and Kinda Glorious Side of Science

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  1. Sounds like a hoot — kind of and I’ll have to add to my list. I lol’d at “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.” Oh, and I’m one of the people that dislike clowns. Bozo was a part of my childhood, but even he’s pushing the limits of acceptance now that I’m an adult.

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    1. I loled at that too! Just the image of it, I could picture him furiously and disgustedly scribbling it in his field notes!

      Also Bozo “pushing the limits of acceptance” made me laugh too. I don’t like clowns just visually and I don’t think they’re entertaining but I never understood what’s at the heart of the phobia until reading this explanation. it makes sense that that would seem so scary for kids and adults alike, just the total uncertainty of what this person could or might do.

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  2. This is such an excellent review! I cannot wait to read this. I love Mary Roach and I adored “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs” by Caitlin Doughty. The only thing that gives me pause is the cockroach….bugs and I just don’t get along. I blame Wrath of Khan.

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    1. Yeah that chapter gave me pause too. I’ve had two past NYC apartments with roaches and it scars you, seriously. The focus is around how some researchers are trying to learn from them though, so in terms of the immediate changes in their mobility when they decide to run up a wall for instance, or how they can still run so fast with missing legs. It’s a horror for me even to think about this enough to write it, but they’re using all this for robotics technology under the idea that we’re never going to get rid of roaches so might as well see what we can learn from their incredible resilience. So at least putting these gruesome little devils to some good use?

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    1. The penguin one is a bummer! But the explanation was interesting – apparently because of the harsh environmental conditions and other factors they have a more limited mating window and opportunities so basically they’re going to try absolutely everything in hopes of making it work. At least it’s that and not just doing awful things for the sick joy of it?

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  3. I read this a few months ago and also loved it. A little disappointed that not *everything* was gory, but hey, you can’t always get everything you want. 😉 OK, so it was all fascinating and I definitely learned some new things, especially about the clit! Who knew?? Anyway, my favorite part was her explanation as to why we like to see things that can be pretty horrendous and the phrase “benign masochism” stuck with me. There are things I can see on video or the Internet but would absolutely be scarred for life if I saw them in person.

    Also loved Gross Anatomy and agree with poster this is good for Caitlin Doughty fans.

    If it’s not yet on your radar (and it may not since pub date is late September), Personal Effects by Robert Jensen sounds interesting but may not be up everyone’s alley — “The owner of the world’s leading disaster clean-up corporation chronicles the unseen world behind the yellow tape.” When I mentioned seeing things on the Internet, I follow a cleaning service on TikTok that does some really horrendous clean-ups.

    Anyway, highly recommended for those who like Mary Roach and I am also excited about Roach’s next book coming out this fall, Fuzz.

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    1. Benign masochism is such a great phrase, isn’t it? I love the commentary she provides on these topics, it was so smart but understandable and really helped me remember things I learned here when usually I feel like I start forgetting as soon as I close the book. I just loved this one, even if as you say, a lot of the topics surprised me!

      I’m so excited to hear about Mary roach’s new book!! Even more so because it’s a topic that sounds super interesting to me. I think I told you before that part of why I haven’t been so motivated to read her is because the topics just don’t massively appeal, despite the high praise she gets. (I did, however, buy used paperbacks of Stiff and Gulp in thrift shops recently, because they were so cheap and I have no control. So I’ll be reading those before too long.)

      I haven’t heard of Personal Effects yet but that does sound good! The disaster cleanups are really unbelievable sometimes. I’d give it a try even though I wasn’t that crazy about that other book that came out a couple years ago, about a trauma cleaner in Australia, I think it was. It is just a bit of a difficult topic too. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it and then I’ll decide!

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  4. I love the sound of this! I have never really understood why clowns are such a widespread fear – I know they are the bad guys in a lot of horror films (I avoid all horror with great skill and determination), and I wondered if maybe it was that having a knock-on effect on how people saw them. The explanation here makes much more sense!

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    1. I thought it made so much sense too! I get that a lot of fears are subjective and even if I don’t enjoy looking at clowns I just never quite got the fear aspect of it (also not a horror fan, so maybe we’re missing some imagery there!) But this just made so much sense to me, especially since it seemed like something that even kids would pick up on and continually associate with them as they grew up as well. If you think it sounds interesting I can’t recommend it enough, was such a fun and fascinating read!

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  5. “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins” – lol! I also love the “discovery” of the clitoris. The ego, wow. Tbh I wasn’t sure this book would be for me, going into this review- I don’t necessarily want to read about necrophilia and pets eating us after death, but it really does sound fascinating and appealingly weird. The clown tidbit you’ve included is very interesting, especially as someone who’s never really feared or understood the fear of clowns. Though I might not be quite as attracted to some parts of this book as others it definitely sounds like something I could learn a lot from and enjoy. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? I mean what kind of ego does that take. I know not all of the subjects sound appealing but they’re not at all sensationalized. I think even if there’s one section you do feel weird about it’s easy enough to just skip it. I learned so much from it though, and maybe even the bad parts don’t end up as bad as you might think!

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  6. Ha! Thinking about scandalized Victorians is almost enough to compensate for thinking about necrophiliac penguins. And I’m not sure I can pass on an author you’ve compared to Mary Roach. I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve read 🙂

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    1. I know, right! 😂 I couldn’t stop laughing at that anecdote about the Victorians scandalized by penguins. I think you’d like this one, it really did remind me of the only Mary Roach I’ve read, and I feel like a lot of books are marketed with that claim and don’t actually measure up. (I’ve really got to get to one of her others soon – I’ve grabbed thrift store copies of Stiff and Gulp!) would love to hear your thoughts on this one if you get to it!

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  7. I am absolutely thrilled by the bad behaviour of the penguins. We went to a wedding years ago with a penguin theme as the groom had proposed at the zoo near the penguin pool. Every table was named after a different type of penguin. I really feel they missed a trick by not naming the tables after these unsavoury penguin activities instead…just think, I could have been on the self-pleasuring penguin table, The Penguin Wankers…serves us humans right for treating animals like twee little dollies. I got my come uppance years ago when I bought a National Geographic dvd for my 5 year old all about dolphins – again, turned into no holds barred account of their rapey behaviour, cue startled mother leaping to turn the TV off..

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    1. This was so funny!! Omg I can’t stop laughing. Wait until you read this and hear of all their dirty deeds and then imagine those tables! Penguin Wankers would have nothing on the Penguin Necrophilia table. I can only imagine the dolphin video, egads. My husband and I text each other gifs of cuddling otters, but then learned that they also have horrible raping and murderous behavior and maybe this isn’t as cutesy as it once felt. Twee little dollies made me laugh too, but how can they look so adorable and then…!

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