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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I also purchased this book after a review in 'Scientific American.' It includes very entertaining discussions considering unsolved human mysteries, from menstruation and hidden ovulation to religion. If chapter 1 gets you down, I recommend continuing on to chapter 2 and beyond, which will not disappoint. Now this is only my opinion, of course -- but I almost put the book down never to pick it up again when trying to read the first chapter, which reads like an Introduction instead of a chapter. Chapter 1 discusses reasons for the title and what the author hopes to accomplish in the text. Why? Maybe in the interest of brevity and fewer pages, editors no longer allow Introductions, forcing the poor authors to include introductory material in chapter 1. However, after skimming/skipping the few pages of introductory material, my expectations for a good read were met beginning with chapter 2. I'll pass the book on to my husband and recommend it to my friends.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Essentially this is a fascinating book on some proposed evolutionary psychology explanations of human behaviors and characteristics, i.e. the ways these behaviors might have conferred survival and reproductive benefits. Four areas are explored: sex, art, religion and intelligence. The first is most satisfactorily explained. So successful that I don't think there is any mystery left (although the author poses a more modest claim). It attempts to explain for instance, quoting Dr Sarah Hrdy, "a disconcerting mismatch between a female capable of multiple sequential orgasms and a male partner typically capable of one climax per copulatory bout" (page 58). Likewise, with five pages of 83 references, it attempts to explain how natural selection allows the persistence of homosexuality, when this should ostensibly reduce reproductive success by definition. Another interesting topic covered is the uniqueness of human females having prominent breasts even when not lactating - this is not observed in other mammals or primates.

The chapters on art and religion, however, are less rewarding. Readers can decide themselves how convincing they are. E.g. if art is a by-product of sexual selection (Chapter 6), then should we not expect more female connoisseur when/if there is a preponderance of male artists? And shouldn't artists in general have disproportionately more progeny?

There are two chapters on religion. Although interesting, there is something missing or even amiss here. The two definitions of religion used in the book, one by Daniel Dennntt (p. 210) and the other by Emil Durkheim (p. 239), restricts the discussion primarily to the social aspects of religion. The book does not discuss religious experience at all. Arguably this is of utmost importance to a religious believer. This remains unexplored and still very mysterious indeed. Saying that, it offers some enlightening remarks. E.g. whilst religion may be a form of memes (but what isn't?), the author does emphasize that "it is also possible for memes to be neutral or even beneficial; indeed, the great majority of them probably are" (p. 209). Also, he opines "it might be claimed that a neuronal or genetic substrate for religious belief makes such belief more legitimate, implying that God implanted the appropriate genes or orchestrated the neuronal connections" (p. 203). Theists need not to worry here.

The penultimate chapter on intelligence is stimulating. The question of "if human intelligence skyrocketed because our ancestors lived in social groups surrounded by other ... ... why didn't the same thing happen to other species?" (p. 292). I will leave it to you to read about his answer. It is quite inspiring.

Overall very informative. Fully worth the while.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
At the outset of this work David Barash distinguishes between religious 'mystery' and scientific 'mysterious' His approach is one in which he is seeking to understand by scientific means elements in human development which are 'mysterious' By 'mysterious' he means that they may not be known now but are 'knowable' He also makes clear that his focus is on nuts- and- bolts explanations of certain behaviors but rather on the 'why' behind them. He, a long - time teacher of Science, wishes too to stimulate the reader into understanding that while Science is often taught as if he we know and understand completely the subject matter in question in fact in most areas of scientific work unanswered questions abound. For Barash it is clear that these answers will eventually be found by Science. In this work he is taking what he regards as some of the most interesting questions related to human development and exploring them. At the outset he will study pecularities of female human sexuality including 'concealed ovulation' 'prominent breast size and 'women's orgasm'. He will also study same- sex sexuality, the question of why women live longer than men, the development of art and culture, and religion. The explanations he will give will be in terms of what adds to 'reproductive advantage' of those involved. And this though he makes it clear that the answers he gives our not definitive and are subject to further investigation. Still he seems to opt for the hypothesis that none of these behaviors might have simply emerged and remained as part of the human without their having some evolutionary advantage. The one underlying grand principle behind every explanation he suggests is 'reproductive advantage'. However central the concept to explaining the overall development of Life it may well be mistaken to automatically assume it provides the answer for all human developments, including language, bipedalism, our three times larger than any other primate brains.
It is clear that he is at best when he deals with elements more closely connected to the biological and physical. On the broader human cultural subjects it seems that speculation has the upper hand.
The work is nonetheless full of interesting ideas and hypotheses which which may enhance our understanding of various aspects of human development.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Highly engaging yet rigorous review of the evolutionary history of our species, with special emphasis on energy trade-offs, which effectively sets the stage for the second part, which discusses the health impacts of the resulting evolutionary miss-matches in our modern over-abundant lifestyle.
This book had sufficient "substance" to give the conclusions credibility, without being dry or overlay accademic. It also explained many aspects of our species that had previously appeared odd to me - such as why we, the naked ape, still hair on our heads.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Dr Barash asks some fascinating questions . . . Why has natural selection not only tolerated homosexuality but, seemingly, selected for it in all sorts of species? Why do some people seem to have a biologically implanted need to be religious? Why art? Or dance? Or song? There are answers to these questions. The problem is, nobody has found them yet. This is not Dr Barash's fault. If somebody knew the answer, then the question would not be in the book.

To me, HOMO MYSTERIOUS was not satisfying because the lines of reasoning people are working along in trying to find the answers seem speculative and academic and detached from the way the world really works. This is, of course, not Dr Barash's fault except, perhaps, in choosing to write about unanswered questions in the first place. I just couldn't help thinking that if questions like this were investigated by blue-collar types instead of college proffesors, the speculations might be a lot more down-to-earth and satisfying.

As a practicing atheist myself . . . one might even say an atheist fundamentalist . . . I admired Dr Barash's stating upfront that he, too, is a non-believer and, then, having the intellectual honesty to treat fairly the need many people feel for religion.
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on December 24, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
You get a lot of answers on questions you did not expect you were interested in ;o))) Thanks a lot!
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on October 6, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The theories went on and on with too much speculation. I felt as if I was in a lecture room without any interaction.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I looked up interpretations of a modern song. The variety of interpretations showed wonderful and entertaining imagination. Each person viewed the song differently, each presented supporting arguments, and each made rational objections to competing views. David Barash’s book is the same exercise. The book is enormously fun, though entirely lacking in scientific merit, as are all of this ilk.

He tries to explain the oddities of human biology. Why does homosexuality persist? Why is there religion? Why do women have breasts? Of course, each explanation begins with the premise that such things aided our survival: these mysteries must provide a survival advantage to the species. Unfortunately, he, like so many others, misses the negative aspect of natural selection.

Some features of species survive simply because they don’t kill the species. Some things developed with no purpose, providing no advantage. Those things last because they don’t inhibit survival. In short, not everything is teleological.

Other mammals didn’t produce breasts. Fear not, socio-biologists are on the job, assuming breasts must have a purpose in our survival. But suppose there isn’t. Women developed breasts that have no purpose. It turns out that they (the breasts) don’t hinder survival either. That is, women have breasts because they don’t kill us. This negative aspect of natural selection is quite a problem.

Biologists must consider that any quest for purpose is useless. Even if there is a purpose, there’s no way for us to know it. We cannot go back in time to learn that breasts are essential tools for survival. We cannot witness the extinction of breastless hominids lacking that crucial feature.

Man’s search for biological meaning is fraught with the possibility that some things developed without any purpose. Science depends on the assumption that everything has an efficient cause. We know that something caused that rash on her arm; something had to make that bridge fail at exactly that moment and in precisely that place; airplanes don’t drop from the air for no reason (no cause). Biology does well limiting itself to searching for those efficient causes, but fails miserably looking for final causes or purposes of things. If it’s possible that some things have no purpose or their purpose is forever lost to us, then how can we expect to know any of them beyond fun guesswork without answer?

In literature, anyone can make up any interpretation. The arguments are interesting and often dazzling; sadly, in the end there is no answer. It’s a fun game, but it’s still a game. Barash’s work is entertaining and wonderfully inventive in places, but he’s just making up interpretations absent any ability to know the truth of any claim. The difference between socio-biology and interpreting songs is the latter admits it’s not a science. Still, it might do so, since we can get an answer by asking the songwriter about the work. Too bad those explaining the purpose of things in biology can never offer this level of knowledge.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
After an intriguing short review in 'Scientific American' I was intrigued by the questions posed by this work. Not all are answered definitively, but many diverse views are expressed. As a retired health-care professional I was greatly impressed by the wide knowledge on the part of the author, both of biology as well as of religious and historical subjects. I have not set down to read the work through and through from start to finish, and have read so far about 65%. I have recommended this book to a number of family members as well as to some friends; not necessarily an easy read, but a work that was able to stimulate my brain to an enjoyable degree. The description of the book and the scope of its themes are described better in the Amazon description, better than anything I can offer, which would be a shallow duplication anyway. BUY!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Interesting and scholarly/erudite.

He outlines multiple possible hypothesis for many things that seems illogical from an evolutionary perspective.

All with a great good review of multiple lines of evidence for every theory
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