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His thesis? That humans, no more or less than other animals, are driven by biological forces to ensure their genetic survival. Males need to ensure it is their genes that inseminate; females that they get impregnated by the best genes available. Does that sound like sexual warfare? Game theory? You bet. Baker's credentials are based on lifelong animal research combined with studies of 100 English couples willing to be interviewed and observed in the act. In a nutshell, Baker opines that women are masters at concealing their fertility, men at promoting sperm warfare. The latter relates to evidence that in the face of deposits of sperm from two or more partners in a women's genital tract, there is competition in which one contender's sperm "blockers" and "killers" try to outdo the other's to succeed in fertilizing the ovum. In 37 fictional scenarios of sexual activity Baker plays out variations on this theme from routine marital sex to homosexuality, group sex, wife-battering, and marital rape, and lifelong monogamy—coming to startling conclusions that infidelity, masturbation, bisexuality, even rape may pay off in the survival- of-the-fittest-genes game. Baker is well aware that he has written a controversial book that will inflame many readers. To his credit, his sexual scenarios are coolly descriptive rather than prurient, as are informative passages on anatomy, the menstrual cycle, and other aspects of physiology. All the same, in reducing complex human behavior to biological urges, he omits emotional motivations and forces. To the question, "What has love got to do with it?" Baker would say, "Not much."
Expect fireworks and rebuttals, but also serious consideration for the ideas expressed by someone bold enough to open the bedroom door.
The Generation Game
The faces in the creased brown photograph stared impassively at the woman, their gazes spanning the hundred years between them and her. She loved this photograph and often asked to see it when she visited her grandmother. The faces belonged to three young children, all long dead, frozen in time by some ancient camera at a moment early in their lives. They were standing in a line, tallest and oldest on the left, shortest and youngest on the right. The two boys at either end were aged about ten and two, the girl in the middle about five.
Whenever the young woman looked at these faces, she sensed a continuity with the past that she never experienced at any other time. The photograph showed her great-grandmother with her two brothers. But, with very little stretching of the imagination, it could be her looking out from the photograph. The resemblance between her and her great-grandmother as children was uncanny. Her grandmother called it "the family face," so many of their clan having the same bone structure and eyes.
The woman looked at the photograph a little longer, then asked her grandmother to tell her the story of their family "just one more time." Before speaking, the old woman fumbled to the front of the album and took out a large sheet of paper. This family tree was her pride and joy, and she loved showing it and the photographs to her many grandchildren.
The young woman concentrated hard as her grandmother spoke, determined this time to remember what was said. She knew that one of the boys in the photograph had not lived long enough to have children.Her great-grandmother, however, had not only survived but had also escaped the poverty of her family background. She had been a pretty child who had grown into a beautiful young woman, chased by all the young men in the village. While working as a servant in a large household, she had become pregnant by the owner's son. The baby was her grandmother, the teller of the story.
Instead of being disowned and sent away, her great-grandmother was welcomed into the family. Everything happened so quickly that, despite gossip, nobody ever knew for sure that the baby had been conceived illegitimately. The young couple lived together in relative comfort for the rest of their lives and produced four more children. All were boys and, unusual for their generation, all had survived.
The grandmother then pointed to the oldest boy in the photograph, her uncle. He had not been as lucky as his sister and had failed to escape the poverty into which he had been born. Like his sister, he also had five children. Three had died as babies, and one of the survivors, a boy, had been killed in World War I when only eighteen years old. The other survivor, a girl, was infertile and died alone, in her fifties, a few years after her partner. The youngest boy, the one with the bright eyes and smile, had died of measles about two years after the photograph was taken.
The young woman pored over the family tree with her grandmother. The tree had the shape of a pyramid, three names at the top, the three young children in the photograph, and about fifty at the bottom, the woman's own generation. Then suddenly she noticed something that had never occurred to her before: every single one of the fifty people in her generation traced back to her great-grandmother, the pretty girl in the picture. Not one, of course, traced back to either of those two boys.
The young woman bent forward to look at the family tree more closely. She was looking for others who, like the two boys, had no living descendants and whose lines on the tree therefore ended in midair. The most conspicuous was one of her grandmother's brothers, the great-uncle whose name she could never remember but who was reputed to have had a very strangely shaped nose. She spotted two more lines ending in midair before her stance became too uncomfortable. Unable to bend forward any longer, she straightened up and turned away from the paper and photographs. As she did so, the baby in her womb kicked. She winced, then smiled and held her stomach. At least her line wasn't going to end in midair.
Our personal characteristics depend on our genes—chemical instructions for how we should develop and function. These instructions are packaged in sperm and eggs and passed down our family tree, finally reaching us via our genetic parents. And we inherit more than our "family face" via these genes: we also inherit many aspects of our physiology, psychology, and behavior, including much of our sexual behavior.
This book's task is to work out why we behave sexually as we do. The approach is to ask why it is that people with some sexual strategies (patterns of sexual behavior) are more successful reproductively than people with other strategies. The measure of success is the number of descendants—because this is what shapes future generations.
Families and populations become dominated by the descendants of their most successful ancestors. They also become dominated by those people's characteristics. In the scene we just saw, the younger woman's generation was dominated by her great-grandmother's face, not by Great-Uncle Who's nose. For all she knew, her generation was also dominated by a "family sexuality," passed on to so many people by the dynasty founders, her great-grandparents. Nobody will have inherited directly the sexuality of Great-Uncle Who. Whatever his sexual strategy might have been, it was unsuccessful and he left no descendants to inherit it.
It is irrelevant to our generation whether people in the past wanted many children and grandchildren or whether it just happened. The only factor to shape our characteristics is who had children (and how many) and who did not. The great-grandmother and great-grandfather in Scene 1 were probably most dismayed when their sexual fun produced a child. But if it hadn't, the younger woman and her fifty or so family contemporaries would not have lived. In effect, each generation plays a game in which its members compete to pass their genes on to the next generation. Each generation has its winners, like the pretty girl in the picture, and each has its losers, like her two brothers and great-uncle. We are the descendants of the winners, the people whose sexual strategy paid off.
The generation game will continue as long as some people in a generation have more children than others. In our own generation, the game is as active and cruel as ever. It will still be the genes of those among us who produce the most descendants that will characterize future generations, not the genes of those who produce few or none.
Whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not, and whether we care or not, we are all programmed to try to win our generation's game of reproduction, to pursue reproductive success. Our successful ancestors have saddled us inescapably with genetic instructions that tell us not only that we must compete, but also how to compete. Inevitably, some of us will have had more successful ancestors than others, so that even in our generation there will be some people who have inherited instructions for potentially better strategies. When our generation comes to work out its final score, some people will have done better than others. Let us investigate why some people are more successful than others in life's generation game.
Posted November 23, 2001
I'll never look at mucus the same again! Some rather taken-for-granted aspects of behavior and physiology (like cervical mucus) have new, deeper meaning after reading this book. For example, why are women so confusing to men? The author posits that being unpredictable gives women a sexual advantage over men in chosing who will father their children! Of course! Evolution selects for ditziness. While the author offers many obviously correct insights, not all of the author's hypotheses really hang. For example, he asserts that homosexuality does NOT result in decreased reproductive success - I'm not so sure I buy that agrument - Wilson's argument about altruism makes more sense. I certainly wouldn't call this pornography - it's written in a much too dispassionate and clinical style for that. The situations and actions do have that the ring of truth. He sometimes also drifts over into technical discussions that will be difficult to read and comprehend by a lay audience. All in all, a most disquieting and mentally stimulating book. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.