Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Barash the gene accountant on that little economic driver called “reproduction”

Posted 25 Oct 2013 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher Education Sex on the Mind

Ugh. How do I decompose this enough? I have always had a fear that David Barash is more pundit than academic, but this column is really scary.

There is complete agreement among evolutionary biologists that all we need to understand the evolutionary process is a consideration of the effect of natural selection on genes?

The introduction to this synthesis of new books is such a distortion of the diversity of perspectives that different evolutionary biologists maintain on how evolution works, and most particularly on how to interpret the changes in gene frequencies that result from evolution. The way Barash portrays our field, E.O. Wilson, Niles Eldredge, and Joan Roughgarden look like a bunch of gene-deniers at the U.N.-sanctioned IPGFC (International Panel on Gene Frequency Change) conference.

It is so funny to me that he riffs on the tautological nature of reproductive success (see his comments on successful ancestors and legs long enough to reach the ground) while missing the tautological nature of the “of course genes are what evolves” stance. It is as if we can find everything we need to know about “natural selection” simply by looking at the genes: those little ephemeral individuals, groups, and even species have nothing to do with why some genes go up in frequency while others disappear, right? As I said before: ugh.

All evolutionary biologists (and anthropologists) also agree that just before we developed more complex societies we were essentially a polygynous species, right?

Just to make it abundantly clear that he is more politico than scientist, Barash then uses the assertion that humans clearly come from a very recently polygynous lineage to criticize one of the books he reviews. It is as if there has been little debate of the matter, that the evidence clearly points against us being socially monogamous or even — like our closest primate relatives — socially and sexually promiscuous. It is fine to argue from a perspective, but Barash as the “resident expert evolutionary biologist” is most expert at making it sound like his perspectives represent the consensus of our field. Ugh.

I have to admit that I find Barash less annoying when he says what I believe. Thus I find myself easily skipping over his contention that female orgasm and menopause both are adaptive traits, but I ought to be as attentive to the robust debate over these issues as I am about the others outlined above. I guess that is the way that punditry works, right? It is designed to please those who agree.

And while I have to agree with Barash that Sex at Dawn is a terrible distortion of both what we know about how evolution works and a good deal of the actual science portrayed in the book, it is pretty funny to watch Barash criticize the authors of Sex at Dawn for the very thing that he does so well: pointing his readers only to the data that reinforces his point of view while pretending that legitimate diversity and dissent don’t exist. But that’s punditry for you, isn’t it?

Why does The Chronicle provide Barash with this platform? Wouldn’t the very broad readership of The Chronicle benefit more from an “expert” with a more pluralistic approach to explaining evolutionary biology?

A Major Post, Articles, Evolutionary Psychology, Genetics, Human Evolution, Mating systems, Reproductive Fitness, Sex and Reproduction

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