Sexy genes that rock’n’roll: a review.

Full disclosure:  a month and a half ago, I began working in the same building as the author of the book that I review in this post, Rob Brooks.  He’s also an editor at Behavioural Ecology, a  journal that I submit to.  I haven’t  yet met Rob, though we’ve had a couple of brief interactions on Twitter.  I provide this background so that you can judge my review in context.

The Book: Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’roll, by Rob Brooks.  University of New South Wales Press, 2011.  [amazon].

The verdict: A great read, if a touch disjointed.

In Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll, evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks (from my new institution, the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia) provides his insights into the application of what we know about evolutionary biology to the human condition.  The book is organized into three loose groups.  The first few chapters deal with the current obesity crisis sweeping the world, while the next chapters deal with issues of reproduction, love, and mating – not an entirely overlapping set of concepts!.  After a brief segue into human sex ratios the books discusses of the application of sexual selection to music, both production and consumption thereof, and ends with an explanation of why we die wrapped draped over the shoulders of famous rock’n’roll deaths.  The text is well-written and has a clear emphasis on making the product of evolutionary theory relevant and understandable to people who have little or no training in the field.  While I didn’t come across much in the book that I didn’t already know in some form or another, this is no slight to the depth of the scholarship on display; rather, it’s a tip of the hat to the complex trade-off between presenting the voluminous detail required to make the case for a behaviour’s evolutionary roots and the need to make it relevant and interesting to people who don’t wish to become biologists themselves along the way.

Brooks is at his best when explaining how evolutionary biology can help to explain the roots of issues that you may see on the news every day:  why are we getting fatter, as a society?  What is the evolutionary basis for love?  Why have population sizes in countries like India and China exploded while fertility rates in developed nations dwindle away?  This last issue is close to my heart, because in the last year of my undergraduate degree I first cut my teeth in science by trying to test the work of James Chisholm (whose book Death, Hope, and Sex would make an interesting follow-up to some of the material discussed here) using 50 years of published UN data on mortality and fertility rates.  As it happened, I had bitten off far more than I could chew and nearly choked on the data, but the process gave me a desire to do more and started me on the road I’m now following.  Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll addresses these topics with a deft touch, providing enough meat to make the case with all the well-known examples showing up, while at the same time stitching it together into an interesting narrative that draws you through the book.  For example, the discussion of human mating systems and the causes and consequences of polygyny in particular presented in Chapter 7 is one the most lucid applications of current evolutionary thought to this subject that I’ve seen.

On the other hand, if the book suffers from a problem, I would say that the narrative is coherent within ideas but the switch between ideas (obesity to love, love to mating systems, mating systems to music, music to senescence) tended towards the disjointed.  In fact, looking at the notes I made while reading, I wrote about 2/3rds of the way through that the book seemed to be a collection of evolutionary novellas more than a coherent whole.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps a bit more attention paid to the transitions would help.   I would also take minor issue with the presentation of the research on music’s role in human sexual selection.  This is an idea I’m familiar with from evolutionary psychology, and it’s a hypothesis that I enjoy greatly, but the book seems to verge on taking the argument for granted.  The issue of whether music and musical culture is a product of sexual selection is, to me, still unsettled, and I would say that the details of this topic are a wild and unexplored frontier, not a well-mapped road.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid and entertaining book which is well-worth a read for the interested general public and good snack food for workers in the field.  The next time you find wondering what to read for fun and looking for something with a little substance to it, I’d recommend giving Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll a try.

Note:  I initially downloaded the Kindle version, which was horribly formatted and crashed my iPad’s Kindle app repeatedly at the second chapter; it didn’t crash my wife’s Kindle, but on the iPad it was so bad that I ended up getting a refund from Amazon (I eventually read the book from iBooks).  I raised the issue with Rob, and he promised to follow up with the publisher.  Hopefully, the issue has since been solved.

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