- Paperback: 250 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press; New Ed edition (June 4, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0520240758
- ISBN-13: 978-0520240759
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #941,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex from Animals New Ed Edition
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"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
From the Inside Flap
"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
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Excellent book for Biology and veterinarian majors. Pairs best with 'The Genial Gene'.
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. Humans were seen as the positive norm, and to the extent that the behavior of other animals deviated from that they were inferior. Zuk also points to a "male model in biology" assumed by biologists (consciously or unconsciously), as an addition source of bias. She points to the idea that males are more aggressive than females as an example of an unwarranted preconception.
My experience (for what it's worth--I coached girl's basketball some years ago, and believe me the girls were VERY aggressive), and from what I know of aggressiveness theoretically, suggests that females are indeed just as aggressive as males in going after what they want. The reason that women use violence (a kind of aggressiveness) less than men do has to do with social conditioning of course, but also with the fact that a woman's reproductive capability is seldom if ever enhanced by the use of physical force while a male may use force to his reproductive advantage. In the case of non-human animals I am thinking especially of male lions killing the cubs of another male to bring the female into estrus. In the case of humans I am thinking of human males using the spoils of war to gain access to females and to nurture their offspring. (I am NOT thinking of rape since that sort of unsocial, high-risk behavior seldom leads to successful reproduction; more often it leads to ostracization and an early demise for the rapist, a state of affairs that is not adaptive.)
Zuk writes in a witty style that is easy to read. Her target readership is the non-specialist; indeed one gets the sense that she is addressing her undergraduate students. Politically speaking, she steers a middle course between the extremes of the sociobiological right and the socialist left, a fact underscored by the appearance on the cover of endorsements from Matt Ridley on the right, Patricia Adair Gowaty from the left, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy from somewhere in the middle.
I would give a more ringing endorsement of this book were it not for the fact that there is virtually nothing new in Zuk's very agreeable presentation, and my lingering sense that a person who identifies herself as "feminist" biologist (instead of merely a biologist) is not entirely objective any more than the old guys from the patriarchy were. However, to be fair, at no place in the book does Zuk espouse anything close to a preference for the politically correct at the expense of scientific inquiry, as feminists sometimes do when the conclusions are not what they want. Zuk knows that to make science subordinate to what is politically and socially agreeable is to sacrifice science completely. Indeed, I see this as the profound central message of her book, and a reason to hope this book receives a wide readership.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
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. There is nothing wrong with showing that females do not have to be passive, but insisting that nature reinforces stereotypes of any sort will not only be futile, it will keep us from learning what animals are really doing. Birds look so industrious and caring in their efforts to make nests and nurture their young that we tend to picture them as examples of propriety, and sermons have been written on the theme. Especially with the advent of easy DNA testing, however, we are learning that males roam around to the territories of other males to intrude upon their females, and that the females were receptive of such attention. Even in the scientific literature, judgmental terms such as "adultery" and "fooling around" have been used for such behavior; perhaps these are simply more fun to say than "extra-pair copulations."
There are surprising revelations here on many areas of animal and human sexuality, homosexuality, male and female orgasms, menstruation, and much more. Zuk knows a wide range of peculiar and completely natural animal behaviors, and her persuasive book shows that we habitually look at such behaviors through our own lenses. We will have to learn our morals elsewhere than from creatures produced by amoral evolution. In a typical humorous aside (this is a witty book that is a pleasure to read), Zuk points out that female snakes may mate with numerous males, even in writhing balls of mating snakes, and this "... must imply what? Orgies are natural? Sexually voracious females are to be applauded?" Skip the morals and object lessons, she demonstrates; intelligent watching of what evolution has produced is far more important.