Go Milk a Fruit Bat!

Two of the memorably worst lines of English poetry, composed in 1799 by one John Hookham Frere:

The feather’d race with pinions skim the air—
Not so the mackerel, and still less the bear.

Hookham Frere’s insensitivity to bathos is impressive; but however inferior his verse it has a moral. The lines come from his unduly neglected poem The Progress of Man; Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin. Birds, bears, and fish carry a political message: Things are as they are and it is folly to change them. The French Revolution disturbed the God-given order: to proclaim the rights of man was as absurd as to suggest that mackerel—or even bears—might fly.

That logic is still with us. Nowadays, though, the status is quo because of evolution rather than the Almighty. Darwinism’s ability to explain the human condition was seized upon as soon as The Origin of Species appeared. From Plato to Galton, from Bernard Shaw to Charles Murray, biology has a dismal history of being used to absolve murderers, rapists, thieves, martyrs, saints, capitalists, Communists, and social democrats from blame for their actions.

Jared Diamond’s book sets out to evolutionize sex. It pins its heart (a metaphorical one in this case) to its sleeve in the very first paragraph. Sex, Diamond says, “…is the source of our most intense pleasures. Often it’s also the cause of misery, much of which arises from built-in conflicts between the evolved roles of women and men.”

So much, then, for the Arts Faculty; so simple the logic behind literature, painting, and the stage. Sex is, in addition, claims Diamond, responsible for the origin of hairlessness and tool making. It is all, it seems, a matter of evolved roles.

When it comes to the mating game, humans are unique. What causes women to be the only female mammals to conceal the time at which they are most fertile? Why, when it comes to penis size, does man stand alone? What is behind the human menopause, shared only with the pilot whale? Why, for that matter, is voyeurism not even commoner than the Internet allows? Other mammals do it in the road; and human sex is most peculiar in not being a social activity. We may share 98.8 percent of our genes with chimps and almost as many with gorillas; but when it comes to matters reproductive we are very different from either. The sex lives of most readers of The New York Review of Books are more similar (I assume) to those of albatrosses than of chimpanzees. Humans and sea birds both live in large colonies but show fidelity, albeit a grudging one, to a single mate. No other primate is remotely like that.

Diamond’s case is that our sex lives are better understood in terms of genetics than of grand opera. He is among the best of a talented bunch of writers on evolutionary biology. This book is (like his earlier work on the same theme …

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