Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 06/15/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
THE well-known connection between human sexuality and storks may be dubious, but there is a lot to be learned from our closer relatives like monkeys, gorillas and lemurs.
Robert Martin, curator of biological anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum, has dedicated a 50-year career to primate behaviour, ecology and evolution.
His own work is mixed with that of many others, from Thomas Malthus to present, to create a fact-filled tour of the reproductive process from sperms and eggs through to baby care and weaning.
A major theme throughout all the chapters is determining what is "natural," with the evidence coming from early human societies and comparisons with other primates.
For example, it turns out that differences between sperm, including the relative strength of their tails, is related to the mating habits of each species.
Primates that have evolved to be monogamous have a certain shape of sperm, while promiscuous species have a different shape. Human males, sad to say, do not have monogamous sperm.
The book poses a wide range of questions and offers many answers, without shying away from controversy. Regarding nursing habits, he confirms that breast-feeding has a clear advantage over bottle-feeding.
Regarding the rhythm method of birth control, it's not very effective and may even lead to a higher risk of birth defects.
Some of the material is simply interesting, like the differences in mothering habits between mammal species. Some mammal mothers have large litters of nearly helpless infants and offer minimal care beyond their milk. Others have just one or two well-developed offspring and care for them closely.
We humans suffer some disadvantages of both -- single offspring and long pregnancies, but our infants are still helpless compared to other higher primates. At some point, however, many years ago, women lost their back hair and babies lost their ability to hold on for themselves.
In a scientific "win" for the Bible, it turns out that the reason that human childbirth is so painful really is because of our appetite for the fruit of the tree of knowledge -- our big heads holding those big brains. If it weren't for that narrow birth canal, our heads could be even bigger (and pregnancy could be even longer).
For a book devoted from cover to cover to sex, it is far more scientific than sexy. By the end, one might be utterly desensitized to the word "copulation" and mental images of the same. On the other hand, Martin's restraint, or modesty, is evident in his near total abstinence from innuendo in the face of constant opportunity.
The book does jump from one topic to another and back and forth across evolutionary time rather abruptly, but the material is almost always compelling.
There are a couple of exceptions, including one chapter that descends into a long discourse about some academic distinction between types of placentas. The reader simply has to lie back and think of England for a few pages.
While some of Martin's conclusions about what is "natural" may be controversial, given how universal the topics of sex and child-rearing are, he is careful to not equate the natural way with the right way.
Studying our evolutionary and more recent past tells us where we came from, and it may offer clues as to why we are shaped and programmed as we are, but the future is still up to us, and our big heads.
Paul Klassen is a Winnipeg engineer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1
Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories? Please use the form below and let us know.
Having problems with the form?Contact Us Directly
'Stolen Ones' is exciting addition to Laukkanen's series
Review: A Hemingway makes sense of her family's troubles
Toni Morrison sets her new novel in an alien world: Today
Doerr, Guirgis among Pulitzer winners in arts
Clinton dismisses allegations of favouritism at foundation
David Baldacci's latest thriller is engaging
Review: 'Pleasantville' has gripping, believable plot
A masterful new biography of artist Isamu Noguchi
A colorful account of the birth of modern art in Paris
Canadian Toy Testing Council sells off toys
Author believes walking's healing powers can change the world
Stranded hikers face their demons in provocative novel
A royal mess
Winnipeg author recounts the history of hockey's kooky collectibles
George VI shone through Royal Family's tensions
Spiritual healing: Religion and science not always at odds, author discovers
Psychiatry a much-maligned, misunderstood field
Churchill's war cabinet a focused, feisty bunch
Holmes hits the road with unlikely companions
New in Paper
Promising Winnipeg YA author delivers
Jazz singer shares her letters to late love
On the Night Table: Lloyd Axworthy
Kristin Hannah says novel 'The Nightingale' is her favourite
Puppies Attack: Hugo Awards reflect sci-fi/fantasy divide
Court monitor: Apple antitrust co-operation has 'declined'
WALL STREET JOURNAL-BEST SELLERS
USA TODAY Bestsellers
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY Bestsellers
Phil Klay, Leslie Jamison among PEN award nominees
Terry Gould wins J.W. Dafoe Book Prize
Gould wins Dafoe prize for book on Canada's police-training missions abroad
Posthumous book by Charlie Hebdo chief slams 'Islamophobia'
Documentary filmmakers' memoir gives backstage peek at stars
Review: Narrative of 'Adult Onset' feels intensely personal
'The Girl on the Train' tops Maclean's fiction list
Agent says Harper Lee's new book sold in 25 territories
Review: A search for true love in 'The Beekeeper's Daughter'
Eduardo Galeano, a leading voice of Latin America left, dies