- Paperback: 474 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press; New edition edition (December 6, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0520246799
- ISBN-13: 978-0520246799
- Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.9 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #794,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People New edition Edition
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"The book is thought-provoking, even at times profound. . . . I hope this book will be widely read. It combines the combustible power of a keen intellect with powerful conviction and ethical courage. Scientists are trained to create the illusion of objectivity by hiding their hopes and expectations. Roughgarden tries a different approach, openly injecting her reasoned convictions and policy agenda into her analyses. I don't agree with all of her conclusions, but she has written an important and honest book about a subject that matters."--"American Scientist"
From the Inside Flap
"An entrancing tale of sexual ambiguity in animals and people, but also that rarest of literary beastsa science book written from the heart."Steve Jones, author of Darwin's Ghost
"A thoughtful and scholarly, yet deeply personal, perspective from a brilliant theoretical biologist. This articulate and provocative disquisition is must reading for anyone fascinated by one of the most important contemporary social challenges."Simon Levin, author of Fragile Dominion
"This book challenges not only the assumptions about male-female differences in behavior and homosexual-heterosexual differences, but also the very meanings of maleness’ and femaleness’ in physical and biological terms. Roughgarden builds a strong case for biological diversity related to what humans call sex, gender, and sexuality."Bonnie Spanier, author of Im/partial Science: Gender Ideology in Molecular Biology
"Joan Roughgarden asks, and indeed tries to answer, all the big questions about sexual diversity among humans and animals. She takes her readers on a wonderful journey through ecology and evolution and is a brilliant and talented narrator. Evolution's Rainbow will fundamentally change many ongoing conversations on sexuality and science."Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity
"Every now and then science focuses on a subject that matters. Gender and gender differences matter to us social primates. And we will judge, condemn, restrict or incarcerate people based on our notions of biologically normal variability in gender and sexuality. Thus, it is immensely important when a book comes along, written clearly and authoritatively by an eminent scientist, that demonstrates how wrong most people’s ideas are about this subject. This is such a book."Robert Sapolsky, author of A Primate’s Memoir
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Top Customer Reviews
Needless to say, sociobiology is not great news for people who think that alternatives to monogamy are good. And that is where Joan Roughgarden enters the picture. She summarizes her main thesis as "Overall, sex is essentially cooperative - a natural covenant to share the genetic wealth. Sexual reproduction is not a battle." This does not fit very well with males fighting for dominance and coy females gratefully joining the harem of the winner. Traditional sociobiology teaches that sex is the ultimate winner-take-all economy. Roughgarden disagrees.
Roughgarden's main line of attack is to point out the value of genetic diversity. According to Darwinist theory, asexual species should outperform sexual species. After all, those with "great genes" should be able to donate 100% of their genetic wealth to their offspring. By contrast, a member of a sexual species can only donate 50% of their genetic wealth. So you would expect the asexual species to out compete their sexual rivals. But with a few rare exceptions, they don't. Why not? Because of the value of diversity. One butterfly may be larger and stronger than other butterflys, but only because it has enzymes optimized for a cold, damp, and dark environment. If the climate gets warmer and sunnier, its rivals with "inferior" enzymes will outcome it. Asexual species are force to put all their eggs in one basket (pun intended). When the environment changes, they die. The reason why sexual species do better is because of their genetic diversity.
Roughgarden argues (p.21) that this puts sociobiologists into a tough spot. On one hand they agree that genetic diversity is good for adapting to a changing environment, but on the other hand, they say that females prefer the alpha males with "great genes". Sociobiologists can't have it both ways, Roughgarden says. The essence of her theory is that sex and alternatives to monogamy are ways for this rich genetic diversity to be shared by the group. So the battle lines are drawn. Orthodox sociobiology has a dark vision of sex and human nature. It holds that males fight to demonstrate their "great genes" to females. Thus monogamy is really a type of detente. Monogamy deescalates the sexual competition between males. Roughgarden stands this on its head. She says that promiscuity is good because it spreads the genetic diversity widely. And beta males are not genetic losers; they just have novel reproductive strategies, such as by adopting feminine traits as a way to show females that they would be devoted caregivers rather than goonish alpha males.
However, there is no paradox in orthodox sociobiology and sociobiologists can have it both ways. I'm sure everyone has heard of the prisoner's dilemma - the most famous problem in game theory. The police arrest two bank robbers but they only have enough evidence to convict them for a minor crime. So they separate the two prisoners and make each of them a deal: testify against your partner and your jail sentence will be reduced. If you stay silent and your partner testifies against you, then you will go to jail for bank robbery while he gets the light sentence. I don't want to get too bogged down in the details of the prisoner's dilemma, but the main point is that no matter what the other guy does, your best play is to testify against him. But since the other guy faces the same incentives, he will also testify against you. The upshot is that the police end out getting the testimony of both prisoners and they both go to jail for robbery.
The prisoner's dilemma highlights a crucial problem in the social and behavioral sciences. Sometimes what is good for individuals is bad for the group. The good of the group would be advanced if the prisoners could both cooperate (stay silent). But the good of the individual is advanced if they choose to defect (testify). In these cases, individuals tend to choose their own self-interest and the group suffers. And that's exactly what happens in matters of sex and reproduction. The good of the group is promoted by females making choices that value sexual diversity, but it is in the self-interest of each female to choose the fittest male butterfly possible. Sure, the environment may change, but it probably won't. So her best odds are by choosing males adapted to the current environment. So the prisoner's dilemma leads to males fighting battles for dominance and females choosing the alpha males. They are the fittest strongest males in the current environment. The only way to solve the prisoner's dilemma is to force people to stop defecting. Sometimes the government can do this (such as by regulating environment pollution). But in this case, the solution comes from sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction promotes genetic diversity in comparison to asexual reproduction. But only partially. Females can still free ride by choosing to reproduce with the most dominant male. Thus traditional sociobiology is not in a bind at all. Genetic diversity is good for the species, but bad for individuals.
That takes me back to Franz de Waal's quote. The way to get a group to cooperate is to find a way to stop sexual competition between males. Some species like birds and humans do this with monogamy, which works pretty well (as long as people go along with it and don't have affairs). The eusocial species like leafcutter ants solve the problem of sexual competition by creating a special reproductive caste. The queens and male drones can reproduce but the workers cannot. Either way, you've cut down on sexual competition dramatically.
Thus, I think the core of Roughgarden's thesis is flawed. But it is in the details where she truly shines. She points to some fascinating examples of species that seemingly violate the paradigm of competing males and coy females. She points to cliff swallows where females openly commit adultery, fish species in which females prefer "feminine, beta" males over the "masculine" and "alpha" males, and many other cases. And in doing so she builds on Sandra Vehrencamp's theory of a sexual labor market. Roughgarden writes (p.70)
"the basic idea is that an animal helps another in exchange for access to reproductive opportunity. Some individuals, the privileged, are envisioned to have control of reproductive opportunity, and to pay out some of that opportunity to others who do not have similar access. In return for this paycheck, the underprivileged contribute labor to assist the privileged in their reproduction."
A good example of this is that some female fish prefer beta males to alpha males with "great genes." That is because the beta males will stick around to raise the children, but the alpha males will not. The alpha male will abandon her to look for other females to procreate with. Thus the beta male offers help raising the children and "outbids" the alpha male. An even more radical example comes from cliff swallows. Female cliff swallows sometimes openly commit adultery, but their mates do not seem to mind. This doesn't make any sense at all under traditional sociobiology, which predicts that a jealous male will "mate-guard" his spouse in order to prevent adultery. Instead he goes along with it. But Roughgarden suggests that the correct way to think about it is that the female is buying "dead spouse" insurance. If the male dies then a rival male might destroy her eggs. But if the rival male has copulated with the female, he won't do want to do that. He might destroy his own eggs.
I think that Roughgarden and Vehrencamp's view of a labor market for sexual opportunity is powerful (who hasn't talked about the "marriage market" or the "sexual marketplace"), but it is flawed for two reasons. I've already pointed out the first flaw: that there is such a thing as "great genes". A promiscuous world gives males with "great genes" a lot of power, and it creates an incentive for males to fight for dominance to prove that they have the "great genes." That gives us a second reason why a female might openly commit adultery. It could be that the cuckolded male is a "beta male" with low quality genes and he simply does not have the bargaining power in the sexual marketplace to negotiate for his wife to be faithful. Basically the beta male says, "Look, I get it. You're out of my league. But we can still be together. You can see other men and I'll raise your children regardless of whether they are by me or some other man." Personally I think both models correctly predict adultery. Supposedly the swinger movement started with fighter pilots in World War II. They had an extremely high mortality rate and were realistically worried that they might not be around to raise their children. So they slept with each others' wives. They didn't know who their biological kids were. That would make it easy for the other pilots to take on the role of second father for the pilots who died - they might be raising their own biological children. But I do not think that most cuckolds are like fighter pilots, who are prototypical alpha males. Although I'm not aware of any empirical research, I suspect that most cuckolds are beta males, not alpha males. In that sense, applying Roughgarden's insights to orthodox sociobiology gives us the richest and most powerful theory of sex and reproduction yet.
That's why I believe that her book is incredibly brilliant and insightful even when I disagree. I think that Roughgarden's ideas on the labor market theory of reproduction are powerful, but they make much more sense light of the fact that alpha males have good genes and beta males have (relatively) bad genes. And that just takes us back to the view of males as sexual competitors and coy females siding with alpha males. What Roughgarden does do is show that sometimes males don't have to fight. Sometimes low status beta males develop feminine traits as a way of internalizing their low status. And that takes me to the biggest problem with her theory, which is that inequality would always be with us. The price of feminine males and dividing males into those who are high status and those who are low status. You can have sexual diversity or you can have sexual equality. But not both.
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." In this case, it is easy to think that Roughgarden claims that because there is sexual diversity in nature, and because there is homosexuality and gender change in nature, therefore it is natural that humans are sexually diverse, and those that oppose diversity are enemies of the nature expression of sexuality. This argument is of course fatally flawed. It is easy to find species in which adultery is common, species in which a new male mate kills the young of the previous male, species in which individuals abandon their young with high probability, species in which females generally mate with all the males in the group, and species in which individuals eat each other's feces. This does not make adultery, killing and abandoning offspring, or sharing feces at dinnertime, acceptable practice for humans. In fact, Roughgarden does not commit the naturalistic fallacy. Her argument is that since Victorian times we have lived in a culture that is hostile to sexual diversity, that this is a morally bad cultural bias, and it both oppresses gays, lesbians, and transsexuals today, and accounts for the poor interpretation of sexual dynamics in Darwinian theory. Moreover, she argues that it is illegitimate to use the argument that these diverse sexual practices are "against nature" as a valid critique, just as criticisms of adultery cannot be based on the absence or rarity of "adultery" in other species.
About 80% of this book is a pure pleasure to read, as well as being extremely informative concerning the variety of sexual behaviors in the animal world and a wide variety of human cultures through time and space. Evolution's Rainbow is also a good source of instruction in evolutionary biology as long as "Darwin's theory of sexual selection" is not in question.
The basic argument of the book is that sex is basically cooperative, not competitive and conflictive, as is presented in standard evolutionary theory. I am not sympathetic to this argument. I learned standard evolutionary biology, and accepted both the widespread validity of the coy female/promiscuous male theory without (a) believing that it is universally valid for the animal world, or (b) at all valid for humans. Moreover, I learned from modern biological theory that cooperation is just as important as competition and conflict. Indeed, the modern biological interpretation of the increase in biological complexity since the first bacteria is due to the synergy of cooperation among units of one level of complexity leading to the emergence of a new level of complexity. This process is inherently cooperative, but the emergence of a new level depends on suppressing conflict among individuals on the older level. All of biological life, I learned and I still believe, is an interaction of cooperation and conflict. This include relations between (among?) the sexes in reproduction and nurturing of offspring.
It is not impossible to treat Roughgarden's "counterexamples" as merely oddities or simple exceptions to the rule. Certainly this is what I thought before I read this book. She has convinced me that this is a poor way to think of sexual diversity in the animal world. She has also convinced me that there may be subtle but important forms of sociality in animals to which one is blind if one interprets everything through the lens of Darwin's version of sexual selection. She has not proved the case even in a single species, but she certainly raises plausible alternatives to traditional explanations.
A major issue is treated confusedly in the book, and I have found it to be perpetrated in even the most erudite reviews of the book. Darwin's theory of male decoration was what has been called the "sexy male" theory, as developed analytically by Ronald Fisher and others. This theory says that through random drift, females come to prefer some fitness-neutral aspects of the male, and the female will both mate preferentially with males having this attribute and pass the gene preferring this attribute on to her offspring. There is thus "runaway sexual selection" which is fitness-reducing for the species since it is costly to produce the trait for the male, and costly to be choosy over the trait for the female. As far as I can tell, and I have studied this theory closely, it has absolutely no support either theoretically or empirically. It is just a dead theory, despite its being a favorite of evolutionary psychology--a field dominated by researchers who cannot understand the math and do not study non-humans, but who are great popularizers and appear to have convinced a gullible public of its importance.
The correct version of the Darwinian sexual selection theory is the "costly signaling" approach, which says that decorated males are likely to have "good genes," and hence to increase the fitness of the female's offspring. Roughgarden implicitly accepts the "good genes" approach without argument, merely complaining that females care about the total contribution of the male, not just the quality of the genes passed on to the offspring. However, her general critique of the standard account of sexual dynamics in Darwinian evolutionary theory is misguided. Roughgarden gives no proof that the "good genes" theory is incorrect, or that her "social selection" theory is universally, or even frequently, superior. Her alternatives are creative and interesting, such her suggestion that male decoration is a signal of general prosociality. But it is certainly not proved. Moreover, her claim that the standard signaling theory behind the good genes model is based on generalized "deceit" perpetrated by the male is just wrong. The first principle of signaling theory is that signals that persist over time must be on balance veridical, or else the receiver would increase fitness by ignoring the signal, so some mutant that ignores the signal will eventually emerge and will eventually displace the gullible signal receivers.
Roughgarden rejects the "good genes" theory on grounds that females care about their mates' total contribution to the social resources of the group, not just the genetic quality of the male. But, what determines such total contribution if not the genetic quality of the male? One can hypothesize that males have certain personal characteristics that are not incorporated in its genome, but for most species, this is not at all plausible.
I suspect that Roughgarden's research will broaden and enrich existing models of strategic sexual interaction rather than replace them. Despite Roughgarden's insistence that her ideas are an alternative to Darwin's, I find the two quite compatible, and I suspect Darwin, were he still around, would agree.
Another peculiarity of the book is that Roughgarden treats all deviations of sexuality from the standard coy female/promiscuous male model as adaptations that improve the fitness of the individuals involved. I believe generally that costly species' characteristics that required many cooperative mutations to occur are almost certain to be adaptations. But the huge variety of sexual practices and their close association with speciation makes it likely that much of this variety is random drift rather than an adaptation. In particular, it does not follow from "evolution's rainbow" that extensive sexual diversity is adaptive either for the individual or the group. Moreover, who cares? We can accept sexual diversity for its own sake, not because it arose as an adaption or is serves some adaptive purpose in modern society.
Many researchers, even those with strong moral incentives to do scientific research, are put off by how intimately Roughgarden links her moral principles to her scientific theories. This certainly makes me uncomfortable. I can work with other research intimately for years without finding out, or being interested in the least in, their political or moral positions. No one knows from my published work on human cooperation and conflict what my political and ethical view are, and I am happy to keep it that way. On the other hand, Roughgarden's personal commitment is refreshing and is an attractive aspect of this book