Higgamous, Hoggamous, woman’s monogamous;
Hoggamous, Higgamous, man is polygamous.
This is a book about the “primary male-female differences in sexuality among humans,” in which the following things are not discussed: guilt, wonder, loss, self-regard, death, metaphor, justice, purity, intentionality, cowardice, hope, judgment, ideology, humor, obligation, despair, trust, malice, ritual, madness, forgiveness, sublimation, pity, ecstasy, obsession, discourse, and sentimentality. It could be only one thing, and it is. Sociobiology.
Sociobiologists who concern themselves with human beings tend to divide into one-animal men and two-animal men. (Virtually all the leading figures in the movement are male—Wilson, Hamilton, Trivers, Maynard Smith, Morris, Dawkins, Tiger-Fox.) Symons, a physical anthropologist whose previous involvements have been with rhesus monkeys, is emphatically a two-animal man. “There is a female human nature and a male human nature and these natures are extraordinarily different, though the differences are to some extent masked by the compromises heterosexual relations entail and by moral injunctions.” Nor is it only the stark reality of sexual estrangement that stands out when one is not beguiled by “proximate” matters—culture, history, thought, social structure, and so on; so too does the hardly less stark “ultimate,” that is, Darwinian, reason for this estrangement.
Men and women differ in their sexual natures because throughout the immensely long hunting and gathering phase of human evolutionary history the sexual desires and dispositions that were adaptive for either sex were for the other tickets to reproductive oblivion.
When it comes to fitness, and it finally does, one sex’s meat is the other’s poison.
Given an axiom, Symons builds a world. First, he argues, various characteristics of the human psyche, itself a product of natural selection “via mind’s effects on behavior,” lie at varying “distances” from our genes; that is, are governed by them to differing degrees of tolerance. In particular, emotions are “closer” than thoughts, thus more universal in man, more uniform, and more “ultimate.” “The intellect is how, the emotions why.” The evolution of human sexuality is thus, primarily at least, the evolution of an emotional economy—or, given Symons’s his-and-hers view of things, economies. Behavior varies widely, and so do customs and ideas about what sexuality is or ought to be. But sexual feeling, adaptively shaped in the hard school of paleolithic knocks—hunting, gathering, and doggedly avoiding oblivion—is, if not fixed, the next best thing to it: a set of “invariant motivational/emotional neural systems.”
The nature of these “profound differences in psyche” between men and women (which at base are genetically determined differences in brain structure), their evolutionary “scenarios,” and their expression in our lives as we try somehow to get on with the mating game, are the book’s subject. Inter an enormous lot of peculiar alia (at one point he doubts whether Erica Jong really feels as strongly about her famous “zipless fuck” as she does about the Germans; at another, wonders whether Playgirl wouldn’t sell better if its centerfold men had erect penises rather than flaccid ones), this is…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.