Friday, May 21, 2010

Why We Do It, by Niles Eldredge

Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene, by Niles Eldredge

In 1976 Richard Dawson penned The Selfish Gene which expounded on a popular theory in evolution theory saying that genes whose attributes successfully promote their own duplication will be selected in favor of their competitors. More simply, evolution works at a genetic level rather than at at a sexual level; it is our genes that drive reproductive behavior rather than the desire for the prettiest women to mate with the most virile men. Eldredge is highly critical of this theory, and Why We Do It lays out his argument.

Reproduction doesn’t drive all aspects of our culture today; economics and society has a much bigger influence. To Eldredge this means that genes can’t be actually driving behavior but instead simply carrying information. This information is used to build larger organisms which then choose if and when to reproduce. The drive to eat and survive is stronger than the drive to procreate, and sex has become largely decoupled from simple reproduction—humans do not go into heat (Spring Break not withstanding) and choose our mates on features other than proximity. Sex exists for its own sake in society as recreational; Viagra doesn’t exist to help couples have children, and birth control certainly doesn’t either. Our genes don’t drive us to reproduce, and sex happens for fun much more often than for baby-making.

This is an interesting book, but Eldredge vacillates wildly between science and opinions, often losing his point in snark. He often castigates his intellectual opponents, calling their theories absurd or astonishing. He dislikes media as well, complaining they are “besotted with genes.” While I tend to agree with many of his theories, I found this level of disdain more appropriate for a religious or political text rather than a scientific one.

First Sentence:
Why do people have sex?

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