Clive Bromhall: The Eternal Child: How evolution has made children of us all
Ebury Press, hardback 2003, paperback 2004

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