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Marlene Zuk – Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn About Sex from Animals

May 30, 2008

71. Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals by Marlene Zuk (2002)

Length: 239 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Pop-Sci

Started: 16 May 2008
Finished: 30 May 2008, although that’s a lot of piece-meal reading.

Summary: Studies of animal behavior turn up quite frequently in the popular media: a report on a study of mouth-brooding fish proudly proclaims the discovery of an “oral sex gene”; a study on forced copulation in mallard ducks leads to the eventual headline “Rape is Natural”. But just because in many species, males have more to gain from mating with multiple partners than do females, doesn’t mean that we should shake our heads and excuse human male infidelity as “natural” (with the implication of predestined and inescapable). Zuk explores the territory where animal behavior and feminism intersect, looking both at how our gender biases limit and influence how we perceive and study behavior in animals, as well as how our studies of animal behavior have been used and mis-used as models for constructing and justifying those biases in humans.

Review: I had one main problem with this book: This is what I do all day. The topics Zuk covers in this book are so closely related to my own research that not only did I have a hard time finding the motivation to spend my leisure time reading it, but I also had a hard time refraining from being hyper-critical and looking at this book from an outsider’s point of view. Quite frankly, she’s preaching to the choir: I’ve gotten in multiple heated debates with friends over whether doctors should be prescribing continuous cycles of birth control pills, because they claim it’s not “natural” for women not to have their period. I nearly had to be hustled out of March of the Penguins, because my annoyed mutterings of “Their little penguin hearts CANNOT LOVE!” got a little loud for the movie-going public. Heck, I’ve chosen to devote my life (or at least my graduate career) to studying the female perspective of some reproductive behavior that in the past has been overwhelmingly assumed to be male-dominated. I had the luxury of coming into the science of behavior with my feminist viewpoints already firmly intact; I don’t need Zuk to convince me of her thesis; I believe her from page one.

Unfortunately, the fact that I agree with all of Zuk’s main points, and am extremely familiar with most of the evidence she brings out, means that I can deconstruct and find flaws in her arguments the way I never would be able to if this were a book on economics or art history. For instance, she is (rightfully) critical of the scala naturae view of biology, the “ladder of life”, in which humans occupy the top rung, with primates below them, mammals below them, etc., all the way down through the “lower” animals to bacteria in their slime at the bottom. Because this viewpoint gives an a misleading picture of the process of evolution, she argues, studies about shrews, fish, and mockingbirds should tell us just as much about human behavior as studies of baboons, macaques, and bonobos. I think this logic is fallacious – while I agree that neither the behavior of fish or of bonobos should be prescriptive for human behavior, that the ladder view is an incorrect and misleading way to look at the community of life, and that diversity in behavior is worth studying for its own sake, if we want to learn about the evolutionary origins of human behavior, where else should we look but our closest evolutionary relatives?

Although I can’t exactly tell how persuasive Zuk’s arguments would be to the unconvinced, nor how understandable her science would be to the layperson, her writing is clear, intelligent, and often quite funny. For example, when discussing the issue of multiple mating and sperm competition, and how the female perspective has largely been ignored: “Females do more than simply provide a pool with the medal at one end of the swim lanes.” (p. 76) She includes a “further reading” section for each chapter, as well as a full bibliography, but doesn’t have citations or footnotes in the text itself, which I think is a shame, since it makes it harder to check her conclusions against the primary literature. Still, for a book that is unashamedly written with an agenda, she marshals her arguments and uses the science appropriately to effectively make her points. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Well-written and probably worth reading, although I think I’m the wrong audience for what this book has to offer. Feminists interested in biology, and biologists of a slightly older generation interested in re-examining their own biases would probably be more inclined to appreciate this book.

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First Line: Shortly after I entered graduate school at the University of Michigan, a fellow student came into my office and flung himself into the chair opposite mine.

Vocab:

  • p. 139: “If our human bodies evolved, with their opposable thumb and atavistic appendix, what about our behavior, especially our sex roles?” – of, pertaining to, or characterized by atavism; reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type.
    .
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2008 12:02 pm

    Ah, so you’re one of those who can’t keep quiet about inaccuracies too. I knew I liked you.

  2. May 30, 2008 12:11 pm

    Heh, it’s true. My friends have learned (the hard way) to be very careful about taking me to see anything that involves animals as main characters. :)

  3. May 30, 2008 1:20 pm

    Yah, my fiance is afraid of letting me see anything that is history/historical fiction.

  4. May 30, 2008 2:01 pm

    Sadly, most of what I know about history comes from reading historical fiction in the first place, so it’s easier to suspend my disbelief.

  5. May 30, 2008 3:01 pm

    Well, if you read a variety of historical fiction around a topic, you generally end up getting about as much truth as if you read a single history book, so that’s not a terrible thing. Plus, if you only read one historical fiction book, you’re probably still better educated about that given topic than the general populace.

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