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Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex from Animals Paperback – August 1, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0520240759 ISBN-10: 0520240758 Edition: New Ed

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; New Ed edition (August 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520240758
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520240759
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Zuk takes the reader on a tour, and her message is an eloquent and important warning: because gender biases have shaped the way researchers have studied animal behaviour, and because we also look to the behaviour of animals to inform ourselves about our own behaviour, we are in danger of perpetuating these gender biases. Take heed!"--BBC Wildlife Magazine -- Review

From the Inside Flap

"Zuk's analogies are better than anyone's—pithy, insightful, and funny. Who said feminists lack humor? Zuk made me laugh with deep pleasure more than once, as she reviewed the lessons of feminism for our understanding of non-human animals. Her main point—that studying the lives of non-humans should not be for the lessons they seem to provide for our political purposes, but for the pleasure of knowing nature on its own terms—will be compelling reading for all naturalists, feminists and not-feminists alike."—Patricia Adair Gowaty, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology

"Marlene Zuk uniquely combines a great breadth of knowledge about the behavior of animals with an ability to challenge conventional wisdom. She also writes with a graceful style and a mischievous wit. The result is a bold, fresh and feminist book about how our sex lives evolved."—Matt Ridley, author of Genome

"This is an engaging and much needed book, which I hope will be widely read."—Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Customer Reviews

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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Marlene Zuk is a biologist, and has specialized in studying insects, especially crickets. Part of the reason she had picked insects for her field is that they are very much unlike humans; she knows that studying primates, dolphins, or other mammals would be harder for her because of a human tendency to anthropomorphize. She says that with insects "it is harder to see myself reflected in their behavior." That sort of recognition of how all of us react to animals informs her remarkable book, _Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn about Sex from Animals_ (University of California Press), which is full of information about the sex lives of our fellow creatures on the planet, what we have to learn from them, and why we can't apply what we learn to ourselves. She shows that animals have incredibly varied versions of sex, and "... if we try to use animal behavior in a simplistic manner to reflect on human behavior, we will, in myriad ways, misperceive both."
Zuk is a feminist as well as scientist, and is dismayed by the use of examples in biology to represent either feminism or "traditional family values." As a feminist, Zuk was initially heartened by the merging of environmental concern and women's rights into "ecofeminism." "Mother Nature" or some other Earth goddess is frequently invoked, but Zuk demonstrates her doubts that biological lessons show that females tend to be more caring, less aggressive, or more empathetic. She gives examples of, say, reed warbler females who practice infanticide on rivals' eggs, or female wasps that battle fiercely to take control of a colony.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
University of California, Riverside biology professor Marlene Zuk, whose specialty is insects, especially crickets, makes two main points in this modest volume. One, what is "natural" as observed in nature is not necessary right and should not be used as a guide for human society; and two, how we interpret the behavior of animals is colored by our biases, both anthropomorphic and male-gendered.

Professor Zuk writes from the avowed position of a feminist, although she makes it clear that she is not an "ecofeminist" nor does she agree with those feminists who believe that the exercise of science and "attempts to study the world are just culturally derived exercises relevant only in a certain social context." (p. 16)

In other words, Zuk wants to reconcile the ways of science, especially evolutionary biology, to feminists while pointing out to biologists that many of their preconceptions contain a male bias. She recalls a poem from A.E. Housman that includes the phrase "witless nature" which she takes as a cornerstone for her position. Nature "is not kind, not cruel, not red in tooth and claw, nor benign in its ministrations. It is utterly, absolutely impartial." (p. 15)

From this it follows (for most of us anyway) that we should not draw moral conclusions about how people should behave, nor should we form notions of what is "right" or "wrong" from observations of nature. This is a position that most professionals in evolutionary biology today appreciate, although this was not always the case, as Zuk is quick to remind us. She sees the antiquated notion of scala naturae (from Aristotle) which puts humans at the pinnacle of evolution as part of the reason for the errors of the past.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bonam Pak on June 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I read the original hard cover edition of 2002. The 256 page book contains 212 regular text pages. Author Marlene Zuk defines herself by some other people's term of "liberal feminism". As that she distances herself from "ecofeminists" who shape their interpretation of the animal world to fit contemporary feminist doctrine. Well... it is very necessary to get a biologist's perspective that is not patriarchal. In rare instances, I find some remarks not really that blatantly feminist either. Though after surfing the net for one Dr. Susan Block's dresscode made me think about the idea of maybe forgiving Zuk for making a sqibbing insinuation about the good doctor's choice of attire - or lack of it. In principle that is every individual woman's choice, of course. At least I have never heard anything similar about some male media expert's choice of clothing.

As a "liberal feminist" Zuk isn't actively set to discriminate homosexuals. However, she isn't exactly unbiased either, when it comes to interpretations. On the one hand, she's self-critically musing about her former ignorance on witnessing male crickets (her animal of expertise) love singing to other male crickets without her thinking of anything obvious before reading Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions) on some 450 species of scientifically witnessed homosexual behavior. One the other hand, she is nullifying that statement in the same breath by claiming this wouldn't necessarily mean anything as she also witnessed some crickets singing to twigs and leaves. Well, there was an Asian prince once (for real!), who only fell in love with ducks.
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