Human errors add to natural burden

Ever Since Adam and Eve

August 25, 2000

This book is something of a tour de force . It manages to combine a wealth of idle asides about the curiosities of human and mammal reproduction with an erudite comprehensive survey of both human biology and contemporary human behavioural ecology ( aka sociobiology). Lavishly illustrated with relevant examples of western classical art, it also offers a great many colour photographs of contemporary human behaviour - not to mention boxed excerpts from novels of many different cultures, all germane to some reproductive issue of the moment, or asides on some of the more curious features of the history of medicine.

Did you know, for example, that condoms were first described in 1564 by the Italian anatomist Gabriel Fallopio (after whom the Fallopian tubes are named) as a means of protection against the syphilis plague then ravaging Europe? Or that the oldest-known example of a condom (made of animal intestine) was recovered from the dung heap of Dudley Castle and dated to about the time of that old lecher King Charles II?

This is an enjoyable book that will inform. The book's educational value is that it brings together two themes in modern biology, which while complementary in a very important sense, tend not to have interacted a great deal hitherto. Malcolm Potts and Roger Short have managed to weld a coherent story by interweaving the physiology of reproduction and growth with the findings and implications of evolutionary theory (in particular, its application to human behaviour).

This is at times a shocking tale, and Potts and Short do not shrink from drawing to our attention some of the more appalling things that humans do to each other in the name of culture and reproduction. There is the photograph of a young Asian mother holding her twins: the girl is a quarter of her brother's size. In the belief that she did not have enough milk to feed two, she had given preference to her son and bottle-fed the daughter. As Potts and Short repeatedly point out, formula baby milks are not always the best thing to feed babies on because human breast milk is uniquely adapted to the infant's needs; feeding formula preparations can have devastating consequences and threaten the lives of babies that are fed on it, especially in undernourished third world populations where childhood diseases add to the infant's survival burden. The girl twin did not survive.

That is but one harrowing example of the kinds of parental investment decisions that, consciously or unconsciously, humans engage in everyday. The particular mother in the photograph may have been Asian, but she is symbolic for all of us, mothers and fathers alike, in everyculture. Hers was an extreme example of what all of us have done at one time or another.

There is now a large and technically sophisticated evolution-informed body of literature on human behaviour that explores and documents many of these phenomena, and Potts and Short review it in some detail. Those in the social sciences and humanities who continue to doubt biology's relevance to understanding human behaviour would do well to read this book before adding further to a depressingly ill-informed debate.

Potts (a physician) and Short (a vet-turned-human-reproductive-biologist) have one other agenda that they seek to explore in this book, and it is one of their own personal pet themes: Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. They are keen to remind us of the hard facts that these are but the most recent of the plagues that have afflicted us over the course of history, merely the latest examples of the kinds of host-parasite evolutionary wars that have bedevilled life on earth almost since it first evolved a multicellular form.

Yet we constantly forget the lessons of past plagues, continue to abuse antibiotics and ignore simple advice (for political and religious reasons that have little basis in the realities of biology) that would reduce the impact of sexually transmitted diseases.

The authors reserve their most trenchant invective for the population bomb that threatens us all. Malthus may not have been right in his predictions about an impending population disaster in the 19th century, but we ignore his concerns at our peril. We managed to forestall his prophecy only by generating massive improvements in wealth and health through the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

But the demographic consequences of that continue to tax our intellectual abilities if food supply is to keep pace with population size. We barely manage it in many parts of the world, and the consequences - ranging from malnutrition and premature death to mass migration and conflicts over Lebensraum - continue to haunt us. The underlying issue of continuing high fertility rates in the third world is one that Potts and Short are much exercised about.

This then is a book that ranges far and wide over many aspects of the human condition and its past history. It is not a textbook, and should not be read as one. It is meant as a contribution to the popularisation of science. Its command of diverse literatures is as impressive as it is flawless. Read it and be informed.

Robin Dunbar is professor of evolutionary psychology, University of Liverpool.

Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Author - Malcolm Potts and Roger Short
ISBN - 0 521 64404 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 358

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