Spring 2005 - Volume 8 Number 2
Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality
New York: BasicBooks, 1997
Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene
New York: W. W. Norton, 2004
Although some faith-based belief systems may not choose to acknowledge it, the fact of evolution in general and human evolution in particular has been demonstrated with such firm and uncontroverted evidence that, as the late Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) pointed out, to deny it is either an exercise in willful ignorance or an act of intellectual perversion. Apart, perhaps, from apparently universal phenomena such as gravity, no other scientific datum is so well established. At least in biology, it is the single most important element in our understanding.
The same confidence cannot be maintained over the question of the theory of evolution. Facts, with due respect to epistemological skeptics, are plain enough; theorieswhich consist of testable hypotheses intended to explain factsare more controversial. Evolution antedated Charles Darwin as speculation and, eventually, as a scientific hypothesis. It was already a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry when, in 1809, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published his theory of evolution, which unfortunately contained the since discredited notion that acquired ("learned") characteristics could then be passed on to succeeding generations.
Darwin's accomplishment (shared with Alfred Russel Wallace) was not the "discovery" of evolution but the chief mechanismnatural selectionthrough which it works. That initial insight has subsequently been refined, principally through the application of the science of genetics which was unknown to Darwin in his lifetime.
Like other important ideas in science, evolution was and remains the subject of controversy. Again, it is not the fact of evolution that is in dispute but rather the means by which it happens.
An example is the contemporary controversy about time. Traditionally, there were two views about terrestrial developments in fields as diverse as geology and zoology. One view was that change happens gradually and almost imperceptibly over long periods of time. The other was that change is prompted by sudden and catastrophic events. The tussle between gradualism (the opinion of Darwin and the great geologist Charles Lyell) and catastrophism (normally associated with Biblical narratives, especially Noah's flood) seemed to pit science, which is uncomfortable with singularities of any sort, against religion which is more congenial to supernatural cataclysms.
As far as the implications for evolution are concerned, the battle raged for a little over a century. Then, in 1972, Gould and Niles Eldredge published their earth-shaking theory of punctuated equilibrium. Their basic point was that evolution proceeds in something of a "boom-and-bust" pattern. Catastrophic events do happen. The geological time scale is divided into periods that are separated by, among other things, vast extinctions of species and consequent explosions of speciationmost recently the elimination of the dinosaurs some sixty million years ago and the following sudden increase in mammals which would eventually lead to us. Eldredge and Gould suggested that, after these unusual events, evolution pretty much settled down and generally took the form of gradual change. Their critics are not much impressed and have nastily called their idea a "theory of evolution by jerks." Sometimes, science can be brutal.
Another controversy is equally heated. Among the allegedly pointless questions our large brains allow us to ask is this: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" For evolutionary biologists, this is not quite the arcane dilemma that it seems. A serious issue is at stake. When evolution happens, does it happen at the level of the species, the organism or the gene? To a group that includes influential sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who have been labeled "radical Darwinists," the plain answer is the gene. Taking off from Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene (1976), they promote the belief that evolution is exclusively a genetic phenomenon. Not species, not individuals, but specific genes are the irreducible stuff of life. A chicken, therefore, is just an egg's way of making another egg.
The implications of this idea are enormous. A typical example of scientific reductionism, it is possible to take this theory and apply it in such a way that all behavioral and cultural patterns in human life can be explained as a product of genetic competition. Everything from the spermatic struggle to impregnate an egg to capitalist competition and warfare (whether with sticks and stones of weapons of mass destruction) ultimately boils down to selfish genes trying to replicate themselves. Naturally, the major focus of competition is sex.
Jared Diamond's delightful volume, Why Is Sex Fun? introduces us to the uniqueness of human sexuality. In an entertaining introduction, he interprets sexual intercourse from the viewpoint of a dog and raises some fascinating questions. Why do humans (usually) have sex in private, away from the gaze of their fellows? Why do sexual unions (commonly called marriage) involve long-term relationships that are more or less monogamous? Why do males hang around long after children are born and sometimes even help out with raising them or at least taking out the garbage? Why do humans have sex when they have no idea when the female is ovulating? Why do humans have sex after menopause? Come to think of it, why do humans have menopause? All these things are considered normal in our species, but are absent or at least rare in other mammals, to say nothing of fish!
Diamond, a professor of physiology at the University of California at Los Angeles, takes us on a lovely ride through human evolution and offers up a set of coherent and highly plausible reasons why we differ so much from other species. He explains more or less successfully why men do not breast feed babies, why women do not advertise when they are in estrus, and how it is that the human family structure came to be. Diamond has earned a well-deserved reputation as a popularizer of science and this book is a fine example of why he has won such a large following among the intelligent laity. Though published almost a decade ago, it is widely available and well worth the read.
The second volume under review is quite a different matter. While Stephen Jay Gould went on from his original notoriety to become arguably the most popular popularizer of science in the final quarter century of the past millennium, his co-author Niles Eldredge was no slouch either. Curator of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, he has published relentlessly since his early success with Gould. Recent volumes include Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis (1998), The Pattern of Evolution (1999), The Triumph of Evolution … and the Failure of Creationism (2000), Life on Earth: An Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (2002) and the book here under review.
Why We Do It covers much the same material as Eldredge's book, but from a different angle and with a different purpose. Diamond is not as elegant a writer as Gould. He is not even as graceful as Diamond, but he has a mission and the intensity of his argument sometimes more than makes up for an occasional stylistic lapse. Eldredge is here to tell us what makes us tick, sexually speaking.
In terms reminiscent of the late anthropologist Marvin Harris whose book, Cultural Materialism (1979) is a classic in methodology, Eldredge carries on a presentation on two separate but related levels. On the one hand, he offers a sophisticated and nuanced explanation of the sorts of eccentricities that Diamond addresses. He affirms that genetics plays an important part in our evolution, but that it is unforgivably simplistic to assert that genes (selfish or not) are the only factors in our development. Simultaneously authoritative and argumentative, he takes pains to show, at each step in his narrative, where the radical Darwinists, in his view, betray Darwin and present a scientifically flawed account not only of human sexuality but of every other element in biological and social change. Eldredge is winning on at least one other level. He is just a little quirky. A talented amateur jazz trumpeter, he has a passion for 19th-century cornets roughly parallel to Gould's passion for baseball. He is, moreover, a very funny guy.
Whether you are interested in sex or in well-crafted polemics, Niles Eldredge has produced an informed analysis of a fascinating phenomenon and a persuasive debunking of ultra-Darwinism and what computer scientist/composer Jaron Lanier calls "the pretensions of the 'selfish-gene' fantasy."
Howard A. Doughty teaches Philosophy and Natural Science at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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