Monday, October 31, 2005

The Case of the Female Orgasm

Bias in the Science of Evolution
by Elizabeth Lloyd
Although this book has been panned by many biologists, I found this book totally convincing. It addresses the scientifically and politically sticky question of whether women's orgasms evolved because they're somehow advantageous, or whether they are an evolutionary by-product of natural selection favoring men who orgasm. It's fairly obvious why men orgasm: stripping it to its bare bones, it's about geting their genes into the woman. But what function would the women's orgasm have?

Clearly women don't need to have an orgasm to get pregnant, but biologists have suggested that it helps bond men and women together, or that it has a mechanical function, helping women suck up sperm they want to keep and expel that which they don't. (Such things are known from the world of amphibians, for example, but there's little evidence for it in people.)

Lloyd picks apart all the competing stories and findings, and the only one that holds up is the byproduct view. For example, most of the theories that advocate an advantage for more orgasmic women fumble when they run into the data: there is huge variability amongst women in how easily they have orgasms. Some never can, some can with intercourse only with sufficient foreplay and "manual aid," and some can reach the big O simply by thinking. This doesn't jive at all with most of the ideas that orgasm is an adapation.

Some feminists have objected to the byproduct view, seeing it as belittling to women. But Lloyd counters that part of the project of feminism was to liberate women from being defined biologically, as the child-bearing sex. So implying that women's orgasms must have been naturally selected to be important runs counter to this feminist push, Lloyd argues. So it's not where orgasms came from that's important, but how people make the most of what they've got.

Get it from Powell's Books.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer's second novel is disjointed, but it ultimately pulls mostly together and rewards close attention. Told in three voices, like his previous novel, my favorite was the precocious kid who is trying to unlock the mysteries of his dead father's life. The novel's other lines were harder to follow—because they were written in stream-of-consciousness and were also less compelling—but ultimately they all tie together in a neat package. (I'm sure it would all be tighter on a second read, but I rarely read a book twice.) Some might think some of it too cute, but I applaud Foer for tackling the sitcky topic of how people cope with the fallout of 9/11.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I just finished George Saunders' new novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Here's my mini-review:
A fable about the dangers of power in the hands of the brainless, Reign of Phil at first seems at first like a thinly-veiled critique of the Bush administration. But actually it goes deeper than that, and deals with people's fears in the face of oppression, and how they seek happiness. I like some of Saunder's other stuff better (see my earlier post on some of his New Yorker stories), but Reign of Phil is still worth a read.
Read excerpts from the book, from the publisher's website on the book.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

good = bad

Everything Bad is Good for You
by Steven Johnson

What? Video games are beneficial? They tax your decision-making, pattern-sussing, and plan-formulating skills? Fabulous! I've always felt guilty about playing video games, but after reading this book I think pop culture—especially gaming—is more intellectually demanding than I had thought. One point that particularly rang true was how Johnson pointed out that almost no one reads the directions for games; rather, part of the fun of the game is figuring out the rules of the world as you go along. So there's a new Zelda game coming out next year—and you get to be a werewolf! Maybe I'll pick that one up...