Sunday, 9 September 2012

Homo Mysterious – David R. Barash ***

There is an interesting premise (and a dubious assumption) underlying this book. The premise is that some of the most interesting bits of science are the bits where we don’t actually know the answers – in this case, in the ‘evolutionary puzzles of human nature’ to quote the subtitle. The dubious bit is the author’s assumption that this is a new idea. David Barash comments ‘One of these days I will design a course titled something like “What we don’t know about biology,” hoping that my colleagues in chemistry, physics, geology, mathematics, psychology, and the like will join in the fun.’
It may be true that biologists often present their science as if it were all known facts, but I think physicists, for example, have always emphasized the gaps in out knowledge in their courses. If you think of cosmology, for example, with about 95% of the mass-energy of the universe unexplained, or the uncertainty over the standard model or quantum gravity, I think that it’s clear that in at least some sciences there is already a fairly widespread awareness, and maybe it’s just a matter of biology catching up.
Even so, it’s a good thing to acknowledge this – homing in on the detailed human biology aspects of what Stuart Firestein identified as the driving force of science: ignorance (in a good way). Barash takes on a detailed exploration of many of the mysteries of human biology – primarily sexual features (particular in the female), homosexuality, art and religion. He does this by examining different hypotheses for why, for example, menstruation takes such a dramatic form in humans (different from pretty well every other mammal), or why we create art.
In the process of examining these hypotheses, Barash can be quite vicious in attacking some ideas that he doesn’t like (particularly those proposed some while ago by poor old Desmond Morris, who gets a lot of stick). On the whole Barash’s writing style is good – amiable and approachable (though I think Richard Dawkins goes over the top calling it ‘A beautifully written book.’
In principle this should be good stuff, and bits of it are, particularly, I think, the first of the two chapters on art. However the reality is, to be honest, rather boring in far too many places. It’s partly because there’s no resolution. Of course it’s important to know that there are these areas where we don’t know the answers, but we all like to get to some conclusions, so the sheer open endedness of it can be trying. But it’s also because reading repeated hypothesis after hypothesis to explain particular traits, some of which can be rather samey, just gets dull after a while.
If this is an area that particularly interests you, then these different possibilities should be both informative and exciting. But if you are coming at this from a general interest in science, wanting to explore a new area, then the lack of conclusions will probably prove a touch frustrating, and the strings of hypotheses will test your boredom threshold.
Review by Brian Clegg

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