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Evolution's Rainbow:

Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People

Joan Roughgarden

Earlier this year, we announced the publication of a new book by Joan Roughgarden, a transwoman and Professor at Stanford University in California. At nearly five hundred pages it seems a daunting prospect, yet it is written attractively for the everyday reader, while having an extensive bibliography and endnotes for the more academic.

Why has sexual reproduction evolved? Why only two? And why should organisms not be able to produce both egg and sperm cells, either concurrently or at different times, perhaps in response to a changing environment? The first part of the book describes the vast number of species that defy our commonly held assumptions.

The author then moves on to challenge the pervasive picture of the 'choosy' female investing in the production of her eggs, and the profligate wandering male. As she points out, males invest as much energy in the vast amount of sperm they must produce, and in mating. They have just as much interest in the outcome, and in many species support it with parental care.

Various eminent writers have published reviews of this book in past months. Perhaps, to them, it is ancient knowledge, but to ordinary readers like ourselves, it is a revealing review of the reductionist accounts which pervade the popular literature from the 'selfish gene' onwards. They have criticised, perhaps with justification, her ideas on Darwin's theory of sexual selection, or at least the popular accounts of it. This has been the aspect of the book promoted by the publishers, as a smoke screen for a conservative American public, of her main message, that throughout human history, same sex behaviour has been a force for cultural stability. As the author puts it "if a theory says that there is something wrong with so many people, it is the theory that is wrong, not the people."

She goes on to describe the variety of cultures and cultural practices, through the world and through history, often labelled as 'primitive' that most people are only dimly aware of. While admitting to not being an anthropologist, she brings these people to life with their personal accounts. Perhaps because of not being an anthropologist, there seems something lacking, the whole book is an admirable foundation for further studies.

University of California Press. 2004
hbk, 474 pages, £17.50
ISBN 0 520 24073 1
Digital download from $9.71
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