Welcome to Peer Review, a new series in which we ask leading academics to review books written by people in the same field.
Here Mark Elgar, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Melbourne, reviews Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World by Rob Brooks, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of New South Wales.
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It’s more than 35 years since American biologist E.O. Wilson generated passionate outrage by suggesting, in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, that the humanities and social sciences would be more relevant if they took greater account of evolutionary biology.
In the final chapter of his encyclopaedic book, Wilson mentioned that these disciplines should consider how natural selection shapes human behaviour.
The response was surprisingly vehement, personal and vindictive. So much so that few, if any, investigating the evolutionary significance of social behaviour in animals called themselves sociobiologists, preferring the more neutral-sounding “behavioural ecologist”.
Applying the theory
When discussing my interests in animal behaviour as a fledgling evolutionary biologist in the early 1980s, I typically added that I wasn’t much interested in applying these ideas to humans.
How times have changed.
Evolutionary biology (and the explanatory power of natural selection, in particular) now enjoys an increasing influence in all manner of disciplines across the science-humanities continuum.
There are emerging fields of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary economics, evolutionary political science, and even natural philosophy draws on evolutionary biology.
More surprising, perhaps, is the time it has taken some traditional biological disciplines to recognise the power of natural selection.
Only now are we seeing the medical, agricultural and veterinary sciences starting to appreciate the role of natural selection in shaping pathogen virulence.
Perhaps mainstream society is more sanguine about applying evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. But can we use this understanding to help improve our lot?
Rob Brooks certainly thinks so, which is why Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll is such a riveting read.
The wide reach of natural selection
Brooks applies evolutionary thinking to an apparently eclectic choice of issues:
- The alarming growth of obesity
- The seemingly paradoxical relationship between fertility, population size and resource consumption
- Gender inequalities
- Sex ratios
- The extraordinary success of rock ‘n’ roll music
In fact, his wide-ranging selection of subject matter reflects his easy confidence in the power of evolutionary thinking.
Brooks could have illustrated the ubiquity of natural selection with softer issues, such as the evolution of insecticide resistance. Instead, he takes on those issues widely assumed to be shaped by cultural, not biological, influences.
Brooks’s first target is the commonly held view that nobody is forced to eat badly – a frequent explanation of obesity.
Combining ideas from evolutionary biology, physiology and economics, he reveals the alarming misalignment between the economics of individual foraging choices and the nutritional requirements shaped by generations of natural selection.
Tellingly, Brooks notes that the prevalence of diet-associated illnesses in some populations is a stark reminder that culture and technology do not buffer modern humans from natural selection.
The underlying fear is that the biologically determined “what is” can be used to justify a social “what ought to be”. Brooks is undaunted and unapologetic, arguing that the differences between the sexes in the biological costs and benefits of reproduction are central to the issues that concern feminists.
Brooks believes that women’s circumstances are linked to the costs of being a mother: reducing those costs will generally improve their status.
To Brooks, the knowledge of how we are shaped by natural selection provides a more sustained and powerful handle on how we might improve our lives. His chapter on human sex ratios offers a particularly compelling insight.
Evolutionary theory has been spectacularly successful in predicting animal sex ratios – i.e. the ratio of sons to daughters produced by a mother – humans included.
But applying sex allocation theory to humans doesn’t interest Brooks as much as exploring its evolutionary consequences, especially when females are so poorly valued that sex ratios are heavily male-biased.
Without wanting to give too much away, Brooks’ entertaining, entirely accessible and fascinating book will undoubtedly irritate many, including South African President Jacob Zuma, religious conservatives of most persuasions, supermarket shoppers from Sydney, polygamists, musicologists and fans of Jim Morrison.
For others, this will be a refreshingly new perspective on the expanding use of evolutionary theory.
Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World is available (NewSouth Books).
Read Rob Brooks on Sex, Genes and Rock and Roll here.
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