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The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition [Paperback]

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 19, 2000 0674955390 978-0674955394 Revised

What does it mean to be female? Sarah Blaffer Hrdy--a sociobiologist and a feminist--believes that evolutionary biology can provide some surprising answers. Surprising to those feminists who mistakenly think that biology can only work against women. And surprising to those biologists who incorrectly believe that natural selection operates only on males.

In The Woman That Never Evolved we are introduced to our nearest female relatives competitive, independent, sexually assertive primates who have every bit as much at stake in the evolutionary game as their male counterparts do. These females compete among themselves for rank and resources, but will bond together for mutual defense. They risk their lives to protect their young, yet consort with the very male who murdered their offspring when successful reproduction depends upon it. They tolerate other breeding females if food is plentiful, but chase them away when monogamy is the optimal strategy. When "promiscuity" is an advantage, female primates--like their human cousins--exhibit a sexual appetite that ensures a range of breeding partners. From case after case we are led to the conclusion that the sexually passive, noncompetitive, all-nurturing woman of prevailing myth never could have evolved within the primate order.

Yet males are almost universally dominant over females in primate species, and Homo sapiens is no exception. As we see from this book, women are in some ways the most oppressed of all female primates. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is convinced that to redress sexual inequality in human societies, we must first understand its evolutionary origins. We cannot travel back in time to meet our own remote ancestors, but we can study those surrogates we have--the other living primates. If women --and not biology--are to control their own destiny, they must understand the past and, as this book shows us, the biological legacy they have inherited.

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The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition + Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World (The Routledge Series Integrating Science and Culture)
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Editorial Reviews


This is a splendid book. It is a scientific treatise on primate sex and status, successfully masquerading as a good read. (Alison Jolly American Scientist)

The bulk of the book represents an attempt to create a perspective on the evolutionary biology of women by evaluating their female primate heritage. These chapters are original, high quality formulations presenting and explaining the behavior of female primates using a combination of sociobiological and socioecological principles of analysis...The book is written toward a borderline between the scientific and the popular audience--not an easy thing to do--but, by and large, Hrdy does just that. For this reason, the book has a place in both research and teaching. (Jane B. Lancaster American Journal of Physical Anthropology)

It is an understatement to say that this is a provocative essay. Although the book is written for a general audience, it will compel specialists to reconsider many of their assumptions about the evolution of primate females. Those interested in evolutionary influences upon human social behavior will be stimulated and challenged. Undoubtedly, many of the hypotheses will be controversial, and some may be disturbing. (Joan B. Silk Ethnology and Sociology)

In its treatment of primate behavior, Hrdy's book has no peers...[It is] a fascinating account of the selective pressures that have shaped the behavior of males and females. (Dorothy Cheney Science)

[A] breakthrough book...A primatologist by training and feminist by predilection, Hrdy asked the basic and in my mind perfectly sensible question: How do women compare to other female primates? What can we understand about our urges, desires, and fears, our sexuality, our relationships with men and with other women, and the near universality of women's second-class status, by examining the lives and loves of our closest nonhuman kin? Among Hrdy's many bracing conclusions: Far from being coy and sexually tepid, as the stereotype has it, women may well have evolved for a restless sort of promiscuity, the better to confuse issues of paternity and thus heighten their children's chances of survival in the hazardous, half-cocked company of men. (Natalie Angier O Magazine 2007-06-01)

From the Back Cover

This is a splendid book. It is a scientific treatise on primate sex and status, successfully masquerading as a good read. (Alison Jolly, American Scientist)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised edition (January 19, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674955390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674955394
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #757,335 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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53 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars title a tad misleading April 26, 2000
By A Customer
This book deals mostly with primates. Despite the layperson style title, the book itself is quite scientific and detailed. This can be great for those educated in anthropology and sociobiology as it is very thorough, giving exact names and evolutionary history on the primates discussed, yet can seem a little dry to the layperson, especially if read for long stretches. However, layperson, do not despair. Hrdy will often use humour to lighten or better explain an idea and when she occasionally uses jargon it is usually tongue-in-cheek and always explained. Many of you will be attracted by the feminist-sounding title, but do not be fooled. Only rarely does the author tie in her observations with human behaviour. In fact, any feminism does not appear until the final 2% of the book and seems to simply be angry raving against the oppression of women, and is not linked as well as it could be to the previous 150 or so pages. Generally, however, I enjoyed the book, even though it contained more detail than I, as a layperson, actually needed. To anyone unhappy with the stereotype of the strong male in charge of his passive harem of females or with the aggressive male just using the females as a vessel for his genes, then this can shed new light on the way primates behave and are shaped by their biology. Tying in the information with the woman in the title is left up to the reader.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insights Into the Evolution of Human Behavior December 4, 2006
Found this book to be an excellent read. I am a biologist and physical anthropologist by training...with specific interest in human evolution. The links between behavior in our closest primate relatives and ourselves...are very relevant. I found Hrdy's scientific discussion of these issues...appropriate and as insightful as science allows us to be. I would recommend this book and other books by this author...she is a scientist with the background to draw connections AND and excellent science writier. Enjoy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (born 1946) is an American anthropologist and primatologist, and is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis, where she remains involved with the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She has also written books such as Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species and Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. (NOTE: Page references below refer to the 256-page 1981 paperback edition.)

She states early on, "Myths about women ruling the world usually come linked with a theory about the true nature of women. The prototypical matriarchs, the Amazons, were believed to be on the whole aggressive and warlike---masculine spirits in drag... Valerie Solanis revived the Amazonian ethos in her 1967 Scum Manifesto... while Elizabeth Gould Davis [in The First Sex The Book That Proves That Woman's Contribution to Civilization Has Been Greater Then Man's]... averred that there once was a 'golden age of queendoms, when peace and justice prevailed on earth and the gods of war had not been born.'" (Pg. 11)

She notes, "by and large the reproductive strategy of the female is what determines how much the father must provide... we should not ignore those ways in which monogamy is imposed on males by females." (Pg.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Resource April 23, 2013
By DeeGee
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Can't answer all the questions yet....Still in progress with the book....Finding it slow reading due to its technical nature, but fascinating.
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15 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The house feminist of sociobiology March 1, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is supposedly a feminist sociobiologist. In reality, she is more sociobiological than feminist. Reading her book was a real disappointment.

Despite its feminist veneer, "The Woman That Never Evolved" is essentially just another sociobiological book preaching that biology is destiny, patriarchy is natural and women complicit in their own oppression (no less!).

The only difference with the regular androcentric literature is that Hrdy wants to believe that equality between the sexes is at least a possibility. However, her belief in sociobiology is so strong that this possibility seems very remote indeed. She clearly thinks that only the contemporary Western world has achieved something close to equality, and that this is a unique situation that might never be repeated again. The reason? Our evolutionary heritage, which apparently favours the males, after all.

Naturally, Hrdy attacks the idea that there ever was equality between the sexes: "The female with `equal rights' never evolved; she was invented, and fought for consciously with intelligence, stuborness, and courage. (...) To assume that women today are regaining a natural pre-eminence, or reinstating some original social equality, belittles the real accomplishments and underestimates its fragility. However well-intentioned, these myths pose grave dangers to the actual progress of women's rights. They devalue the unique advances made by women in the last few hundred years and tempt us to a false security".

This, of course, simply isn't true. There is ample anthropological evidence that non-patriarchal societies have existed: the Iroquis are a classical example, another are the Montagnais-Naskapi. Other examples could be mentioned, too.
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