Summary Judgment: The War of the Sexes — Paul Seabright

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present isn’t a bad book, but you’ve already in effect read it if you have a cursory knowledge of the vast evolutionary biology literature—or if you’ve read books like Roy Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, or Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, or Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved. If you have read those books—especially the first—you don’t need to read this one, and that’s why I’m not linking directly to it. There are too many better books.

Given a choice between The War of the Sexes or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, choose the latter. You’ll learn more about topics like this one, from The War of the Sexes:

Much of the elusive, infuriating, and enchanting nature of what we feel and why we feel it. Far from being a flaw in our makeup, it is a testimony to the complexity of the problems natural selection had to solve to enable us to handle sexual reproduction at all.

Although this is true, it also feel perilously close to being banal; by now, it’s well-established that emotions/feelings and “intelligence” or “logic” aren’t really separable entities in the human cognitive makeup. What we might think of as “a flaw” is actually an adaptation. Haidt discusses this in far more detail. Seabright also points, again correctly, to the way our own desires are really trade-offs and tensions rather than absolutes:

All individuals, men and women, will also want contradictory things: to be successful and to be protected, to choose our partners and to be chosen by them, to be passionate and to be reasonable, to be forceful and to be tender, to make shrewd choices and to be seduced. With such contradictory impulses, all of us will sometimes make choices we regret. Sex is about danger as well as about tenderness: the two are inseparable, and they are what has made us such a tender and dangerous species.

Our romantic lives aren’t immune to trade-offs, which might be why we find those romantic lives so frustrating so much of the time: they’re hugely important and simultaneously impossible to do perfectly “right.” But, again, this doesn’t feel like news. It feels like olds.

The writing is competent and the research reasonably thorough, but, again, the book as a whole is only useful if you’ve read little or no evolutionary biology; as it went on, I skipped steadily more pages. It isn’t bad. I feel like I’m witnessing a guy burst into a room the day after a big game, breathlessly wanting to celebrate his team’s victory, only to find the rest of the group expunged its impulse the night before.

One response

  1. Pingback: Press and Reviews for The War of the Sexes | Paul Seabright

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