Genetics and Evolution

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MenReview - Men
Evolutionary and Life History
by Richard G. Bribiescas
Harvard University Press, 2008
Review by Minna Forsell
Apr 28th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 18)

"What is a man?" Who has never ponder this question? I certainly have. As is often the case with simple questions, the answers are complex and hard to come by.  Most people's answers taken together could probably be summarized as "something very natural and utterly incomprehensible". The notion of a man is so fundamental to our thinking, being and experience, that it is hard to examine it detachedly. Who could ever claim to be an expert on the subject?

The author of Men, Richard G. Bribiescas, tries to answer the question from the perspective of an expert of biological anthropology. His book consists of ten informative chapters on human male physiology and male life history. Brimming with biological research, evolutionary theory, interesting questions and hypotheses on adaptability and senescence, it takes us on a riveting journey. Even without any knowledge about hormones, metabolism and molecular structure, it is fairly comfortable to follow Bribiescas passionate voice throughout the 225 pages. According to the author, other fields of study, especially medicine, would profit from learning more about evolutionary theory. "Physicians are not provided with the intellectual tools to formulate useful questions about the development and etiology of disease or the human body's often perplexing reactions to pathogens. Moreover, increased awareness of the full range of nonpathological variation in human biology is needed" (216). The same argument definitely applies to psychology. For psychologists to understand the evolution of our species and our place in the natural world would certainly increase our scope for creative understanding of human beings. There is evidently more to human lfie than the stuff that Bribiescas brings to our attention, but without evolution and biological foundations, nevertheless, there would not be an opportunity for social, cultural or psychological processes to develop.

One of the main themes running through this book is, not surprisingly, reproduction. This discussion on men, babies and parenting is highly absorbing. There would be no babies without fathers, but from a male perspective, the risk of being a father without babies is, and has been throughout human life history, considerable. "The question facing males are: Are my children really mine? And what do I do with calories and time since I don't have to share them with offspring?" writes Bribiescas in his concluding chapter. When it comes to reproduction, males differ from females in respect to parental assuredness and somatic investment in offspring. This, of course, affects our psychological makeups. And indeed, another theme in this book is: How does this difference influence male doings in the world? Does male dominance and warfare have anything to do with evolution and human biology?

Having only studied men empirically and from a psychological viewpoint, the perspective offered by Men is fascinating. For anyone interested in human beings, biological anthropology has some important contributions to make to the understanding of unconscious processes. Existential psychologists emphasize our fear of death, and its impact on human life. Reading Men, I realize that human beings also have other reasons to hope, wish and long for a future in life and after death. Biological reasons. And the probability of achieving it differs between the sexes. Females can comfortably nurse their offspring, secure in the knowledge that it is theirs. For a man, however, the situation is fundamentally different. Even if he has "done it with thousands of women", there will always be a possibility that he is unrelated to anyone in the next generation. He may gain power and wealth in this world, but can he be sure that his genes will be part of upcoming generations? Bribiescas depicts the male creature in a compelling way: "From an evolutionary perspective, males are quite alone" (223).

© 2009 Minna Forsell

Minna Forsell is a psychologist, recently graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.


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