Curb Your Darwinism

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose
by Deirdre Barrett
Norton, 2010, 216 pages.

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espite what economists say, biology is really the dismal science. In its clinical guise, it’s all about how your body can and eventually will break down. Doctors can put you back together for a time, but their final judgment is always the same: “You’re going to die. Here’s why, in excruciating detail.” In its scientific guise, biology is full of heretical, inconvenient, and even dangerous facts. We are descended from dumb, mute beasts. What? We are not equal, nor can we be made equal. Really? We are not entirely responsible for what we do. How’s that? We are very likely to make our planet uninhabitable long before its geological expiration date. Come again? Scientists tell us we can forestall ecological catastrophe, but they know how things will end: “You’re all going to die. Here’s why, in mind-numbing particulars.” Interesting, but not very helpful.
It’s hardly astonishing, then, that we don’t like to talk about biology. It’s just depressing. Neither is it remarkable that when we must talk about it, we tell ourselves comforting lies. In fact, biology may be the only discipline (except for history) in which the practitioners themselves are afraid to speak the truth, or at least the whole truth. Take the “nature vs. nurture” debate—a debate that has yet to be decided, and looks far from resolution any time soon. A good thing, too, for it fuels in no small part a successful pop-science genre, of which Deirdre Barrett’s Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose is but a recent example.
Barrett is a Harvard psychologist in the Oliver Sacks mode, which is to say she is both an academic researcher and a popular writer. Her previous works show how nimbly she straddles the line between them: In The Pregnant Man (1998), she offers titillating “cases from the hypnotherapist’s couch”; in The Committee of Sleep (2001), she argues that dreams can be used in creative problem solving; and in Waistland (2007), she tells us how to “r/evolutionize [sic] our view” of weight and fitness. With Supernormal Stimuli, however, she’s entered a minefield, as passions on both sides of the “nature-nurture” debate run high. Not surprisingly, then, she treads carefully, determined to avoid alienating any reader. Unfortunately, this overweening caution, combined with a tiresome affection for puns and pop-culture references, makes it hard to take her arguments as seriously as we should.

Marshall Poe teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the host of the New Books in History website (http://newbooksinhistory.com).

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