on June 2, 2010
Joan Roughgarden's book "Evolution's Rainbow" is something of a disappointment.
It's badly edited, written in colloquial language, and covers a lot of topics not really relevant to the subject (such as Bible interpretation). There are other problems as well. The author protests strongly against expressions such as "transvestite snake", but has no problem calling male bighorn sheep "gay"! Of course, snakes are no more into transvestism than sheep are into the California gay subculture... (I think - I admit that the world would have been a more interesting place, had they been so.) On a somewhat stranger note, I noticed the author's strong aversion to asexually reproducing organisms. Aren't they a legitimate part of the rainbow?
This is all very unfortunate, since Roughgarden does mention many salient facts and makes interesting criticisms of the current paradigms.
One controversial point is her claim that "gender" is a biological category among humans. People who are transgendered really were "born that way". The usual position among anthropologists is, of course, that gender is a socially constructed category. Since Roughgarden believes otherwise, she can compare gender among humans with gender among animals and plants (a biological category).
In her polemic against androcentric sociobiology and its theory of "parental investment" (which supposedly makes Mother Nature patriarchal and sexist), the author points out that there are pipefish in the North Sea that reverse the sociobiological scenario. Among these fish, the *males* make the largest parental investment, while the females are aggressive, fight over the males and form dominance hierarchies. Ah, poor sociobiologists! Disconfirmed by Mother as usual. There is also an entertaining chapter on homosexual behaviour among animals, including birds where male-male couples occasionally raise the young. This "gay" behaviour has been observed among Black Swans, amongst others. Gay romance, anyone? There is even a lizard in Texas which is quite literally lesbian - all members of the species are female and reproduce asexually, but they nevertheless have non-reproductive sex!
Unfortunately, the badly edited chapters of this book sometimes make the arguments of the author quite weak. Thus, Roughgarden believes that gender bias may have led researchers to confuse cooperation among birds with brood parasitism. The male birds aren't really "cuckolded" at all, but involved in a complex system of reciprocal altruism within a larger colony. Perhaps they are, but this doesn't falsify Neo-Darwinism, which has no problem with *reciprocal* altruism. This isn't sufficiently emphasized by the author, making her proposals sound more earth-shattering than they really are. They may disprove one faction of Neo-Darwinists, but not Neo-Darwinism as such. As for the "female mimics", the author believes that they cannot really fool the other males, since they aren't perfect mimics to begin with. Maybe. And then, maybe not. For instance, most small passerines recognize their own eggs, but (weirdly) don't recognize their own chicks, which explains why cuckoo eggs mimic those of the host bird, while cuckoo chicks don't have to be mimics. Since song birds have surprisingly uneven cognitive abilities, this might go for other animals as well, and can explain the existence of "female mimics". Perhaps the mimics only need to mimic some key traits? Once again, a more extensive discussion seems called for.
The frankly worst chapter in the whole book is Joan Roughgarden's attempts to interpret the Bible as pro-gay. No, Joan, it isn't. Ruth and Naomi weren't lesbians. Paul wasn't warning gay couples of the dangers of sexually transmitted disease. When the Ethiopian eunuch was quoting Isaiah, he was pointing to a passage all Christians believe is a prophecy about Jesus. He wasn't calling for transgendered activism against the powers that be! Ur-Christianity may have had some interesting ideas, but they certainly weren't pro-gay. Incidentally, the Ethiopian eunuch was Jewish, yet Roughgarden implies that Christianity was more "inclusive" than Judaism, using the baptism of this person as an example. Really?
Despite everything, "Evolution's Rainbow" was worth reading, since it does contain original and provocative angles on many questions. However, I don't think it deserves five stars. I give it three.