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Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People Paperback – April 1, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This brilliant and accessible work of biological criticism has the potential to revolutionize the way readers conceive of gender and sexuality in the natural world. Roughgarden, a professor of biology at Stanford University and a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, argues that the diversity of gender and sexuality one finds in many species suggests that evolutionary biologists of a strictly Darwinian bent are often misguided, since, according to Roughgarden, they erroneously assume a universally applicable gender binary in all species. The first half of the book brings that sexual diversity to light through innumerable examples among birds, reptiles, fish and mammals provided in highly readable anecdotes. The significance of this first section lies not only in this startlingly original portrait of nature, but also in how it suggests that contemporary Darwinian sexual selection theory is in part a result of cultural bias, since it "predicts that the baseline outcome of social evolution is horny, handsome, healthy warriors paired with discreetly discerning damsels." Roughgarden critiques this theory through an expansive study of biological scholarship, highlighting the frequent contradictions between such claims and the data used (and, she argues, manipulated) to prove them. The second and undoubtedly more controversial section discusses sexual diversity in humans. Taking as a given the presence in our own species of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual and intersex persons, she reads current scientific writing-on a supposed "gay gene," on gender reassignment and other issues-through a perspective that sees diversity as an advantage, not a handicap. Readers more accustomed to traditional categories of gender and sexuality in humans will undoubtedly be surprised at how different a portrait emerges from Roughgarden's deeply personal and insistently ethical point of view.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“A fascinating discussion about diversity in gender and sexuality in [the] living world.”
(Evelyne Bremond-Hoslet Mammalia 2011-01-01)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 474 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition, With a New Preface edition (April 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520260120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520260122
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #168,412 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Even though this book was over my head scientifically, I still found most of it very interesting.
Donna Delaune
The second message in the book is really preaching acceptance of gay, lesbian and other forms of non-traditional sexual behavior.
John Matlock
It's hugely broadening to read, and I'd recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in human beings.
Avid Reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Peter McCluskey on September 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book provides some good descriptions of sexual and gender diversity in nature and in a variety of human cultures, and makes a number of valid criticisms of biases against diversity in the scientific community and in society at large.

Many of her attempts to criticize sexual selection theory are plausible criticisms of beliefs that don't have much connection to sexual selection theory (e.g. the belief that all sexually reproducing organisms fall into one of two gender stereotypes).

Her more direct attacks on the theory amount to claiming that "almost all diversity is good" and ignoring the arguments of sexual selection theorists who describe traits that appear to indicate reduced evolutionary fitness (see Geoffrey Miller's book The Mating Mind). She practically defines genetic defects out of existence. She tries to imply that biologists agree on her criteria for a "genetic defect", but her criteria require that a "trait be deleterious under all conditions" (I suspect most biologists would say "average" instead of "all"), and that it reduce fitness by at least 5 percent.

Her "alternative" theory, social selection, may have some value as a supplement to sexual selection theory, but I see no sign that it explains enough to replace sexual selection theory.

She sometimes talks as if she were trying to explain the evolution of homosexuality, but when doing so she is referring to bisexuality, and doesn't attempt to explain why an animal would be exclusively homosexual.

Her obsession with discrediting sexual selection comes from an exaggerated fear that the theory implies that most diversity is bad. This misrepresents sexual selection theory (which only says that some diversity represents a mix of traits with different fitnesses).
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on June 22, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an exhilarating and yet strange book, written by a passionate and highly talented scientist. The book is exhilarating because it weaves personal experience and academic research into a highly politicized plea for tolerance of, indeed affection for, diversity of sexual expression. The book is strange because the object of attack, Darwinian sexual selection theory, is not a real political enemy at all. I dare say that a huge majority of evolutionary biologists both accept Darwin's theory in some form, yet also accept homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and sex change (Roughgarden reports elsewhere that when she went to Condoleezza Rice, Provost at her home institution, Stanford University, to ask if she could keep her job as tenured professor after she had a sex change operation, Rice was totally supportive). Conversely, those who are intolerant of sexual diversity are most likely to be Creationists for whom Darwinism is as close to the Devil as homosexuality. Roughgarden, it is clear, chooses her battles emotionally, not strategically.

Roughgarden rejects Darwin's theory of sexual selection because (a) it is incorrect, and (b) it perpetrates intolerance of human sexual diversity. It is wrong because it portrays sex in animals as highly uniform, with females investing heavily in each gamete (eggs are very large) and being coy and conservative concerning mating, and males being promiscuous and investing very little in gametes (sperm being exceedingly tiny). It is perpetrates intolerance because it promotes the myth that divergence from the sexual stereotype is abnormal and pathological.

Roughgarden has been accused of committing the "naturalistic fallacy," which says that "was is, is good.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Akira Touya on June 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
a very interesting and mindful book. interesting in that it shows how the gender dichotomy of western societies is ever so rigid and needs to loosen up. mindful in that it exudes tolerance and simply makes you appreciate diversity. i enjoyed reading it.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Ashtar Command on June 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Joan Roughgarden's book "Evolution's Rainbow" is something of a disappointment.

It's badly edited, written in colloquial language, and covers a lot of topics not really relevant to the subject (such as Bible interpretation). There are other problems as well. The author protests strongly against expressions such as "transvestite snake", but has no problem calling male bighorn sheep "gay"! Of course, snakes are no more into transvestism than sheep are into the California gay subculture... (I think - I admit that the world would have been a more interesting place, had they been so.) On a somewhat stranger note, I noticed the author's strong aversion to asexually reproducing organisms. Aren't they a legitimate part of the rainbow?

This is all very unfortunate, since Roughgarden does mention many salient facts and makes interesting criticisms of the current paradigms.

One controversial point is her claim that "gender" is a biological category among humans. People who are transgendered really were "born that way". The usual position among anthropologists is, of course, that gender is a socially constructed category. Since Roughgarden believes otherwise, she can compare gender among humans with gender among animals and plants (a biological category).

In her polemic against androcentric sociobiology and its theory of "parental investment" (which supposedly makes Mother Nature patriarchal and sexist), the author points out that there are pipefish in the North Sea that reverse the sociobiological scenario. Among these fish, the *males* make the largest parental investment, while the females are aggressive, fight over the males and form dominance hierarchies. Ah, poor sociobiologists! Disconfirmed by Mother as usual.
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