Non-Fiction Reviews

Homo Mysterious
Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature

(2012) David P. Barash, Oxford University Press, £18.99, hrdbk, 329pp, ISBN 978-0-199-75194-5


The best way to describe this book to scientists into SF is to imagine that it has been written by an alien exobiologist who is examining Homo sapiens sapiens. Looking at our species this way then some of its biological idiosyncrasies come to light. So, for example, why do human females menstruate?

And here we can begin to see that in this (so-called 'modern') age of tension – between us all claiming individuality and difference on one hand, yet identical abilities and capabilities on the other – that this book for some will be decidedly un-political correct (non-PC): sorry our species is sexually dimorphic with, for example, one sex not equipped to nurse suckling young. So if you are PC and concerned, or even offended, by asking questions such as 'why the female orgasm?' then this book is not for you. If fundamentally you are religious and find enquiring as to religion's Darwinian roots an affront then you would probably best advised to keep your mind closed and stay away from David Barash's analysis.

With regard to this last, I have to say that I was rather taken with the Lord's prayer for chimps:-
                    The dominant male is my leader.
                    I shall not want.
                    He quells my anxiety.
                    He shows me how to survive in his name's sake.
                    Yea, though the jungle is full of threats.
                    I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
                    Your strength and your vigour they comfort me.
                    You protect me from other animals
                    You bless me.
                    My cup runs over.
                    I feel safe in your territory as long as I am in
                    your troop; I submit and accept your dominance.

Having said that, for those with open and enquiring minds, this book is a delight. Written at below the proverbial New Scientist academic science level, this book will be accessible to many including those steeped in the arts. Its style is almost chatty, certainly informal (I lke that) but nonetheless properly referenced to end-chapters citation lists which include many primary research papers. For Brit SF fans of a certain age (who attended Eastercons in the 1970s to mid-1990s) then this is the sort of book you might expect a coherent Jack (Science of Discworld) Cohen FIBiol to have written. This book is very engaging.

Of course there is some non-contentious stuff. I did so like the Watson test demonstrating that it is not so much how powerful we are at logical reasoning, it is the obvious sociobiological context (or lack of) that makes logical reasoning so easy (or difficult). This is the test…

Imagine four cards. Each has a letter of the alphabet on one side and a number on the other. There is also this rule: If there is a vowel on one side then there must be an even number on the other. Your task which (if any) of the following four cards must be turned over to determine whether the rule is being adhered to.

S         4         A         7

You can do this test yourself if you want to.

Now, some people include the '4' card as being one they must turnover. '7' is also a candidate various say should be turned over. In actuality both these are wrong! If you included either of these then to find the reasons why either Google or get the book; the book includes a logically identical test but framed in a more everyday context and from this is it is easy to see where you may have gone wrong.

The Watson test explains why some scientists who are capable of great logical analysis within their own discipline are so useless when it comes to another specialist discipline: hence we get a few scientists who are climate change deniers, or who believe that social healthcare is inefficient (despite, for example, UK citizen's have a slightly longer longevity than US one's yet incur a third less expenditure per capita (and even has a world leading industrial pharmaceutical research base). Such folk have a blind spot when it comes to what the data tell them.

From my description Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature might seem a little quirky but in fact it is not: it is the human condition if anything that has its quirks. These personal species' oddities we forget as, after all, we take them in our daily stride. What David Barash has done is hold a mirror up to ourselves so that we can begin to see us from a fresh perspective; one that is less prone to personal bias. As such we get revelations intrinsically pertinent to the book's human readers (and, dare I say it, the interests of any passing alien biologists studying planet Earth's dominant animal).

Jonathan Cowie

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