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David P. Barash, Judith Eve Lipton
How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories.
2009. Columbia University Press: New York. ISBN: (Hardcover) 978-0231146647. US $29.95 224 p
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.” In How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton counter Wilde and try to understand the mysteries of women. In the course of the book, they speculate about phenomena such as menstruation, orgasms, and curves. Although the premise of the book is interesting and the writing style inviting, the book suffers from an overemphasis on hot hypotheses at the expense of more logical ones and a general tendency to ramble too much without a cogent argument.
The book’s title derives from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories, a collection of tales to explain natural phenomena such as how leopards got their spots. Similarly, the husband and wife team of Barash (an evolutionary biologist) and Lipton (a clinical psychiatrist) seek explanations for uniquely female features and functions. As one example, they discuss the role and importance of menstruation, an important question that has received increasing attention recently due to the development of a birth control pill that reduces the number of periods a woman has in a year. Some people have expressed concerns that suppressing menstruation could have long-term physiological consequences (none have been reported so far, aside from an increased risk for blood clotting, while on most forms of birth control). Others, however, have argued that menstruation carries no clear biological benefits for women and it makes sense to dispense with the monthly discomfort. Barash and Lipton present several hypotheses to explain menstruation, but they seem particularly fixated on the possibility that menstruation serves to “cleanse” the reproductive tract of harmful pathogens. While the authors write honestly about the lack of evidence to support this idea, they undermine themselves by admitting that they favor it, despite its flaws. They reject an alternate and more plausible hypothesis, namely that menstruation occurs because it is metabolically inefficient to maintain a thick endometrial lining, because it does not “place the phenomenon [menstruation] itself front and center as the apple of evolution’s eye.” Evolution does not have an agenda, and this statement both misinterprets natural selection and suggests the authors are more interested in being trendy than accurate.
Subsequent chapters on invisible ovulation, the purpose of curves, the orgasm, and menopause follow a similar format with numerous theories being thrown around and discussed, some more substantively than others. Often, Barash and Lipton propose follow-up experiments that would provide evidence for or against a particular hypothesis. The authors deserve credit for enthusiastically tackling complex and often awkward aspects of human biology and for writing in an accessible style. Unfortunately, though, they take their title too literally and their “just-so stories” end up being as defined: delightful, but empty.