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Sex and the Single Human : THE RED QUEEN: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, By Matt Ridley (Macmillan: $25; 405 pp.) : THE EVOLUTION OF DESIRE: Strategies of Human Mating, By David M. Buss (Basic: $22; 262 pp.)

March 27, 1994|Beryl Lieff Benderly | Beryl Lieff Benderly's books include "The Myth of Two Minds: What Gender Means and Doesn't Mean."

"What does a woman want?"

Freud despaired of finding out, but Matt Ridley and David Buss think they know: A woman wants a stable, generous, high-status, devoted, older man to help her raise her kids. They're also pretty sure of why: because eons of evolution have shaped her genes to those desires. And what does a man want? They know that, too: as many young, nubile, shapely sex partners as he can deceive, wheedle or cajole. And for the same reason: evolution.

In the guise of exploring the origin and nature of human sexuality, Ridley and Buss reprise a body of writings and assumptions that has, over the past couple of decades, argued for a genetic basis to such complex and highly varied human institutions as courtship and marriage. Ridley, a journalist trained in zoology, presents the latest theories of evolutionary biology. Buss, a University of Michigan psychologist, more ponderously introduces us to a hybrid discipline called evolutionary psychology. Both accept the sociobiological notion, most prominently associated with the name of Donald Symons, that a difference in "parental investment," the amount of resources and effort an individual must put into producing a child, provides an evolutionary--and thus a genetic--basis for la difference.

Since a man can impregnate in an instant, Symons reasons, but a woman must gestate for nine months, the sexes must necessarily pursue divergent strategies for seeking mates. From a strictly mathematical standpoint, a man seeking to "maximize his fitness" (jargon for producing the largest possible number of descendants) should therefore strive for sex with as many women (but as few strings) as possible. A woman seeking the same goal should do her darndest to get some guy (preferably but not necessarily the actual father) to stick around and help her raise the much smaller number of children she can bear in her lifetime. Human males, this argument goes, are thus genetically suited to promiscuity, or at least polygamy; human females, to faithful monogamy.

Why any reasonable adult would pursue the goal of maximal fecundity in the first place is a question supposedly answered by the theory of the "selfish gene," which forms the foundation of an intellectual edifice too complicated to diagram in this space. Suffice it to say that the Symons school sees human beings as creatures whose behavior evolution has programmed uniformly and in detail. "It is the assumption of this book that there is . . . a typical human nature," Ridley states on his first page. And Buss, who expounds at length on humanity's "evolved preferences" for doing this or that, apparently doesn't disagree.

"A psychiatrist can make all sorts of basic assumptions when a patient lies down on the couch," Ridley continues. "He can assume that the patient knows what it means to love, to envy, to trust, to think, to speak, to remember, to sing, to quarrel, to lie." This is news indeed to the research psychiatrists just now mapping the mechanisms that babies use to learn, through intimate relationships with caring adults, such decidedly non-innate features of the human spirit as love, trust, devotion and reason. But because Ridely and Buss both postulate at the outset what they claim to be investigating, neither can convincingly explain the profusion of family types, gender roles and property arrangements that cover the earth.

Ridley, at least, is frank--and oddly proud--about why. "The stuff of anthropology--the traditions, the myths, the crafts, the language, the rituals--is to me but froth on the surface," he proclaims, dismissing generations of scholarship by people who know a great deal of about human behavior. If his and Buss' bibliographies accurately reflect the reading that informs their books, neither has bothered to consider the vast literature arguing the elegant and at least equally persuasive proposition that culture, the great evolutionary adaptation of the human species, exerts an immensely powerful influence over what we do. Buss does report at length on a large, cross-cultural study of mating habits and desires that he organized but still takes for granted that similarities across cultures reflect inborn tendencies, not similar conditions.

"Anthropologists insist that a Western urban man is far different in his habits and thoughts from a bushman tribesman than either is from his wife," Ridley writes, leading this reader, at least, to speculate uncharitably about whom Ridley might be married to. "Indeed," he goes on, "it is the foundation of their discipline that this is so, for anthropology consists of studying the differences between peoples. But this has led anthropologists to exaggerate the motes of racial difference and to ignore the beams of similarity."

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