I think it was Albert Einstein who said "Things should be made as
simple as possible, but not simpler." The saying may well be applied
to this book in which Oxford zoologist Clive Bromhall attributes, well,
just about everything to neotony - an evolutionary process in which infantile
characteristics are retained into adulthood. I quite enjoyed reading it
- up to a point. High science it certainly isn't and it may appeal to
those who find other popular science books inaccessible. For example,
Bromhall includes little fictious stories to illustrate his points. This
is very entertaining but one can't help thinking that he believes a little
too much in his own theory. Human beings may well be an infantile species
but that doesn't mean we're stupid.
Bromhall set out to write a book about the evolution of homosexuality.
This used to be a poisoned chalice as far as science was concerned but
is now the holy grail of scientific inquiry. I am gay and have been following
the recent literature (Roughgarden, Bagemihl, Muscarella, Kirkpatrick)
with great interest. Unfortunately, Bromhall clearly hasn't and his ideas
on the subject are a bit old fashioned. For example, he states that "the
only glimpses of same-sex preference in other species are in domesticated
species". We now know that this isn't true. Homosexual activity,
including long-term same-sex pair-bonding, is recorded in over 450 different
species, many in natural habitats. The 'domestication' theory was popularized
in the 1960s by Desmond Morris and has now been refuted by many writers.
There are several similar examples of out-dated theorizing throughout
the book. References are conspicuous by their absence - a worrying trend
in this genre of book.
The shadow of Desmond Morris (who wrote a foreword for the book and has
worked extensively with Bromhall) is present throughout this book. Bromhall
and Morris are zoologists and are used to studying animals who are much
more at the mercy of their evolutionary heritage than we are. They are
both a little over zealous in equating primate behaviour to human beings,
a highly questionable and controversial matter. Social constructionists
will have a heart attack half way through the first chapter of this book
and should keep well away!
Bromhall's central idea, however, is very interesting and I look forward
to seeing how he hangs some meat on the bones of the idea that is sketched
out in this book. I'm pretty sure, though, that however much Bromhall
/ Morris try to convince me that 'biology is destiny', they won't succeed
in demonstrating that neotony is anything more than a small piece of the
puzzle that is human behaviour. An acknowledgement of this would have
made this book a bit more credible and a bit less childish.
Ross Brooks, 26.02.04