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Meredith F. Small – What’s Love Got to Do With It?

March 22, 2011

DNF. What’s Love Got to Do With It?: The Evolution of Human Mating by Meredith F. Small (1995)

Length: 250 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Pop-Sci

Started: 12 March 2011
Stopped: 14 March 2011 (on page 76)

Where did it come from? Given to me by a former co-worker who was clearing her shelves.
Why do I have it? I’m always interested in pop-sci books, especially when they relate to my own field.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 July 2010.

Summary: Although sex is intimately (heh, sorry) wrapped up with matters societal and cultural, it is at its heart a biological act. In What’s Love Got to Do With It?, anthropologist Meredith Small looks at this basic human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, attempting to dissect what human mating behavior has to say about the human animal.

Review and Recommendation: Although I didn’t finish this book – in fact, I gave it up about 1/3 of the way through – it’s not because it was bad. It’s because it’s outdated, and consequently I wasn’t learning anything I didn’t already know. As an evolutionary biologist, I’m already familiar with most if not all of the topics that Small covers, and what’s more, I know about the scads of new studies that have been published in the 16 years since What’s Love Got to Do With It? was written. She’d frequently end a section with something like “But the reasons behind ________ remain a mystery.” and my immediate response was always “No they don’t!” It’s incredible how far the state of the science has progressed in such a relatively short time span.

But while the book can’t be faulted for not seeing into the future, there were some inaccuracies that stuck out. Small is a highly respected evolutionary anthropologist, and her research in her own field is just brilliant. However, she’s not necessarily an expert in endocrinology or genetics, and consequently there were a number of small errors that slipped through the cracks. For example, in a section where she’s talking about how there’s not a one-to-one gene-to-behavior correspondence (i.e. there’s not a gene for “laughter”), she states “It’s relatively easy to come up with the genetic recipe for something like insulin or the hormone Human Growth Factor because they’re straightforward chemical combinations of DNA.” (p. 36) And, while I see what she was going for, that statement as written is incorrect. (For the record, insulin and HGF are proteins, which are more-or-less directly coded for by DNA, but they are not made up of DNA itself.) It’s rarely something that would be noticeable to a non-specialist, and I’m sure that if I tried to write an anthropology book, there’d be just as many mistakes, but I still found it distracting.

But, then again, I’m not the target audience. Small’s writing for the layperson, and she does present the science in a clear, accessible way. Even the fact that it’s out-of-date might not be a deterrent to someone interested in just getting a general overview of the topic. However, I can’t help feeling that there are other, newer books on similar, if not exactly the same, topics. For the general evolution of mating behavior, I’d recommend Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation; for a feminist perspective on the evolution of mating behavior, Marlene Zuk’s Sexual Selections is a bit more recent; and for a highly readable and informative book on human mating behavior, I have to give the nod to Mary Roach’s Bonk. 3 out of 5 stars.

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First Line: Last Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 10:50 am

    I didn’t know you were an evolutionary biologist I’m a zoologist with primary interests in evolution, though lately I haven’t been able to utilize my degree.

    I’m going to have to check out some of the other books you recommended. One book I’ve read, but not in quite some time that I really enjoyed was The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. If you haven’t read it you may enjoy it. It may be a bit outdated now, though.

    • March 24, 2011 10:06 am

      Dragonfly – Hooray biologists! Definitely check out Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice! It’s my go-to recommendation for a pop-sci book, and it’s absolutely great. I haven’t read The Red Queen, although I’ve certainly heard of it… I’ll keep an eye out!

  2. March 22, 2011 12:12 pm

    I think I’ll skip this one since it’s outdated.

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