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How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So StoriesReview - How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories
Evolutionary Enigmas
by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton
Columbia University Press, 2011
Review by Hennie Weiss
May 15th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 20)

In How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton take on five evolutionary enigmas concerning women's bodies. These enigmas include: menstruation, ovulation, breasts (and other curves), orgasm, and menopause. The authors use evolutionary biology to discuss, analyze and pick apart various theories and hypotheses concerning the female body. The authors dedicate a chapter to each enigma, starting with menstruation.

Barash and Lipton discuss several hypotheses and "just-so stories" in their quest of understanding why women menstruate. They introduce various beliefs, such as menstruation being a signal of sexual maturity, a signal to indicate that a woman is not pregnant, or a signal to ward off men interested in intercourse. The authors also explain hypotheses of how menstruation can be viewed as a cleaning strategy for the body, as a by-product of natural selection, or an adaptive trait of metabolic energy.

In the next chapter, the authors turn their attention to ovulation, while focusing on hypotheses trying to explain why women's ovulation is invisible. Such theories include the beliefs that concealment will keep a man around, keep him guessing, prevent infanticide, allow women to copulate with different men, to keep the peace, to avoid competition, or to express love towards one's partner.

Barash and Lipton then focus on women's breasts (and other curves). The authors state that female breasts are both larger and contain more fatty tissue than found in other mammals. First, they introduce some less believable concepts, such as the "buttock mimic" and the "aquatic ape" hypotheses. The buttock mimic hypothesis state that women developed breasts to encourage men to mate with women while facing them. The aquatic ape hypothesis suggests that breasts were used as flotation devices. The authors then focus on more steadfast hypotheses related to women's breasts including the beliefs that breasts are for storing calories, used as fat deposits, used for provisioning, or to signal physical health and genetic qualities.

In chapter 5, the authors discuss what they call the "enigmatic orgasm" focusing on why women experience orgasms. As in the chapter on women's breasts, the authors start with discussing what they deem to be "some silly suggestions" (p. 118), such as keeping women horizontal and orgasms working to avoid predators. The authors then discuss several different hypotheses that suggest that the female orgasm works to get women to copulate, that the orgasm is an evolutionary by-product, that it is an evolutionary flaw, that it facilitates monogamy and fertilization, among other suggestions.

In the last chapter, Barash and Lipton discuss menopause and why most women experience menopause (approximately) in their fifties. Some hypotheses concerning menopause include women living longer than before, that women are running out of eggs, that an extended life span was favored in men (and also therefore in women). Other hypotheses suggest that menopause guarantees that a mother can care for the child she has, that maternal survival is ensured, that the menopausal woman can help care for grandchildren and thus ensure their survival. The authors also briefly discuss women who remain childless, or choose not to have children as well as why women live longer than men.

The intended audience is most likely those interested in evolutionary biology. The book could also be used in the classroom to aid teachers and students when discussing, analyzing and comparing diverse and/or competing hypotheses concerning evolutionary biology.

The book is well written and even though evolutionary biology can sometimes be difficult to comprehend, the authors do a good job in describing and explaining the various hypotheses encountered. The examples they use shed light on complex biological and evolutionary traits and adaptations. At the same time, evolutionary biology (as well as evolutionary psychology) has received criticism for being both sexist, androcentric and also racist. Sometimes the writing comes across as sexist as well as misogynist. The authors have a tendency to refer to the female body and female biology as constantly "deceptive" as well as use words such as "covert operation" (p. 48), and "ovarian dishonesty" (p. 52). The authors also use word such as "duping their 'mate'"(p. 60) and "biological ploy to keep men hostage" (p. 55) when discussing female concealed ovulation. As the authors discuss both their own as well as other hypotheses, some ideas and hypotheses are not theirs, but the wording may still be offensive to some readers.

Even though the authors are supportive of diversity in terms of sexual orientation and sexual identity, evolutionary biology is known to be heteronormative (viewing heterosexuality as the norm) as the focus is solely on heterosexual women and men. Therefore, the focus of the book is also on heterosexual couples. In chapter 3 -- Invisible Ovulation, the authors also discuss rape as a result of both concealed and revealed ovulation. The underlying notion is that women, based on their biology, are responsible for rape. This is a notion that may upset readers and those who have experienced sexual assault or are the victims of rape.


© 2012 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.


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