Saturday book notes

28 07 2007

Just a few thoughts on the books I’ve been reading over the past few days;

Survival of the Sickest; I finished this one the other night and it did have some interesting thoughts. While I didn’t care much for the overall style of the book, it did bring the science of epigenics to my further attention, as well as highlight the important role that disease/parasites play in terms of evolution (both of the organisms themselves and their hosts). Indeed, if nutrtrition and environmental factors appear to play a bigger factor in the development of young than previously thought, ecology and availability of different kinds of nutrients could lead give evolution more variation to work with without requiring major mutations or other genetic changes. While the author refers to these views as being Neo-Lamarckian, I don’t consider them to be so; as far as I can tell epigenics only superficially resembles the hypothesis of “acquired characteristics” popularized by Lamarck, just as modern evolutionary theory is not “Darwinism” as outlined in On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Looks like I have a new line of evidence to investigate…

Demonic Males; I finished this book while by the side of the pool earlier today, and overall I can’t say I loved it or hated it. I think the authors are a bit too superficial in their analysis at times, and while they acknowledge that females have a role to play in evolution, sexual dimorphism, and the production of “demonic males,” the issue is not given as much details as their thesis of human and chimpanzee males as violent, “demonic” creatures. I have to give them credit in that they state many times that our past does not bind us to violent behavior, and looking at the “long view” of evolution may be liberating (we’re all related to a common ancestral population), yet they seem to somewhat cherry-pick their arguments. Much like in Franz de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, bonobos are singled out as a peaceful (even liberated) primate society, and thus a counterpoint to chimpanzees, chimpanzees (in the opinion of the authors) providing a more accurate model for demonic human behavior.

Speaking of bonobos, the authors start off the book describing a trek to see the apes in their natural habitat, but this story line is never fleshed out. Here and there more details of the journey are given, but actual observations of bonobos in the wild by the authors are not discussed; the discussion of bonobos is abstract, based upon the work of other researchers, and the observations of the authors in the field are not included for some reason that is known only to them. Spotted hyenas and lions are discussed for a while as well, but these other examples are not as fully integrated into the text and their significance is more inference than anything else.

Despite this, there is much to agree about in the text; human males are certainly aggressive in one way or another, and even though we may think of ourselves as removed from our ancestors many of our actions and motivations may have more ancient origins (it’s just a matter of recognizing this and rebelling against it, when necessary). Maybe it’s my own bias, being a male, but I didn’t particularly like being labeled a “demonic male.” Am I, just by nature of my sex, part of a brutal patriarchy? Even if I am, the authors don’t give as much thought to the role women play in such a group (outside of being abused/oppressed), and the reasons why female chimpanzees go with some males on raids or gang up on other females/young males in some instances is largely ignored. In a way, it’s almost as if the authors had their thesis in mind (males are inherently violent) and evidence was picked to support this to the detriment of the larger picture.

There are some good points to the book, and (much to my relief) the authors do not take a strong evolutionary psychological view of human origins/behaviors, but overall I almost felt like it was helping to enforce stereotypes rather than bring enlightenment, the role of culture (“nurture”) being almost entirely ignored. In fact this book seems to be a counterpoint to de Waal’s Our Inner Ape as it comes to a rather different conclusion about male ape habits from similar lines of evidence, although I think both books fall short of true understanding. Much like anything else, though, primatology is a field that I cannot say I am an expert in, and I have much to learn before I can come to a fuller and more knowledgeable conclusion about how we came to be in body and mind.



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