Book review: “X and Why” by Tom Whipple

It’s not often that word romp comes to mind while reading a popular science book. On the other hand, if the book is about ‘science of sex’, maybe it’s inevitable.

I think that the author, a Times science journalist, is trying hard to be objective. But the old stereotypes of male supremacy keep poking their ears above the hedge of selected scientific facts.  He avoids some cliches of gender science but slides into the other.

Somehow only facts that are non-threatening – at least in theory – for a straight man get an airing. The legendary disbalance in male and female fertility is demonstrated by amusing historical anecdotes of a Sultan of Morocco with his 600 sons and ‘wife of a Russian peasant‘ – she doesn’t have a name – who’s allegedly had 69 children.

The classic experiment “male students want to go to bed with strangers, females don’t” gets a long description. But the social explanations are barely mentioned and dismissed in this case and the other similar cases.

The author also allows women sexuality and infidelity as a norm, talking about two strategies – selecting a handsome rogue on the off chance of him changing his ways and long play in the chance of securing his desirable genes for her sons. He also talks about the fluidity of female sexuality – the cited research suggests that most women are bisexual. For example, 20 percent of modern younger women experimented with same-sex affairs while only 2 percent of the older women while there’s no dramatic increase for men.

Having read  Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “Testosterone Rex” the author quite suggest that everything is ruled by testosterone and as an average man has more of it he’s destined to rule the universe forever.  But the selection of facts suggests that – he keeps telling about men being the majority of CEO nudging towards the conclusion.

He does not nudge but bludgeons the readers by a Darwin quote about the eternal inferiority of women as a result of sexual selection. Surely, the father of evolution theory who lived when women were forbidden the higher education, cannot be wrong.

This is a book clearly written by a non-academic. If similar books (such as mentioned “Testosterone Rex” ) written of academics are often a dense read with meticulous referencing, this book conforms to journalist cliche. Chapters start with life stories, often only tenuously connected to the research. And research fizzles out.

You may think that as a card-carrying equalist (= feminist) I am biased. But without underlying ideas, the book is just a random collection of facts about human sex designed to earn the author some money. Oh, wait… the author is the journalist that earns his living by packaging facts for public consumption.

Is there a point in spending time reading this book? Sure, if you enjoy the facts and witty writing while being aware of the bias.

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