Brooks's Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' Roll

Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' RollAustralian evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks’s book Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How evolution has shaped the modern world has been released. It’s a good read – accessible and amusing. The books ranges between more serious issues such as obesity, population control and infanticide to the more light-hearted, the exploration of rock ‘n’ roll that the book title foreshadows. It is a book I’ll be adding to my list of recommendations for those who ask why evolution is relevant today.

I think it is fair to describe Brooks as an optimist when it comes to population. He shares the common view among biologists that resource scarcity and peak oil will be troublesome (an issue that I am relatively optimistic about – as most economists seem to be) but he finds hope that population growth may be curtailed. His logic lies in the idea of sexual conflict, which occurs because men and women do not have the same interests when it comes to mating. Women must invest in pregnancy, childbirth (which risks death) and breastfeeding, so have a higher incentive to invest in the child than the father, who only needs to give a couple of minutes of his services.

By considering sexual conflict, Brooks adds a dimension that is often missing from discussions of population. As power shifts in a relationship to the female, an expected result will be a reduction in fertility. If you wish to cut fertility, educate women and increase their power. However, I’m less optimistic than Brooks as I’m not convinced that the fertility decline will be permanent. and don’t consider increasing population to be a one way path to success in the long-term (despite the increase in ideas that comes with more people).

As I read the chapters that addressed sexual conflict, I realised that I should have written a few of my posts on Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids differently. Brooks alerted me to more dimensions of sexual conflict than I had considered at the time. In particular, the asymmetric investment of men and women makes statements that men and women want the same number of children seem even less plausible.

As a libertarian leaning economist, the chapter on obesity was the one that most directly confronted my biases. Brooks’s argument is that humans have evolved to varying degrees to the high carbohydrate diet of the modern world. As populations transition from their old diet high in protein, fat and complex carbohydrates, the risk of obesity increases. Populations with the shortest exposure to modern agriculture and grains are the most vulnerable. Once you add in the subsidies given to many grain and sugar producers and the higher prices of protein and fresh fruit and vegetables, this combination directs the human diet in the wrong direction.

The solution proposed by Brooks is to consider subsidising protein and vegetables, and taxing simple carbohydrates such as sugar. At the least, we should remove the perverse subsidies that we offer many farmers. Although I am always supportive of removing subsidies, I’m naturally wary of any story involving taxes or subsidies to shift human behaviour. However, I want to explore this issue in some depth, so will come back to it in a later post.

The rock ‘n’ roll story contained in the book is one that seems obvious, but at the same time, is a story that so many resist. Why are rock stars predominantly male? What is the evolutionary rationale for their actions when it seems to increase their death rate by so much? When you look at Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, dead at 27 but with four children to four different mothers (and I’ve seen higher estimates of his reproductive output), the evolutionary explanation seems clear. Evolution is not just about survival – it is largely about sex. And if you want to read a book about sex, Brooks’s book is as fun to read as any.


  1. What about sex, genes and gospel music? Or, sex, genes and folk music? Sex, genes and blues music? Sex, genes and classical music? It’s been 152 years and over 10+ schools of thought from evolutionary theory and they have failed to generate an accepted theory of culture and theory of mind. So with that being the case, how does Brooks, or any other evolutionary theorist (including Darwin) know where culture ends?

    Darwin wrote himself on several occasions that natural selection was “much diminished” in civilised societies. It’s also worth noting that natural selection was metaphorised analogously from ‘artificial selection’ which was the full focus of Darwin’s chapter from The Origin of Species. Darwin would later go on to wrote that if he start his book again he would go with ‘natural preservation’ rather than ‘natural selection’ because preservation is a more accurate term than the analogous selection. This is something that authors like Brooks & Co forget and ‘selection’ becomes synonymous with evolution, which is not all change but a very particular kind of change.

    It’s different from Lamarckian change, and different from the change we see in Chalmer’s Vestiges and yet ‘selection’ more and more is used to describe and account for all change through narrative and cherry-picked example alone. This is why the title doesn’t refer to any other of dozens of musical genres. When it comes to culture, the telling structure we seek is not in our genes. Genes don’t explain genre or generational effects which are two noteworthy elements of the cultural world. The only way evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists can convey a veneer of plausible evolutionary explanation about culture is to do two things:
    1. overextend the reach of evolutionary theory, and this involves cherry-picking examples and focusing on the particulate of social phenomena all the time avoiding the wider, deeper and needier task of generating an accepted evolutionary based theory of culture and of mind.
    2. they have to dilute the science method to bridge the rest of this gap. Without a general theory of culture to hold it all together what we are offered is narrative and statistical conjuring with little in the way of experiment and certainly little in the way of null hypothesis. Human universals which could be explained through a general theory of culture are conveniently promulgated as evidence of genetic basis even though there is no often no visible desire to locate these genes, it’s more narrative. The common approach in evolutionary psychology in recent years has been to refer to ‘mental modules’ which are all too often supported by just-so stories which Rudyard Kipling wrote to joke about the previous Lamarckian ways of understanding evolutionary change, and yet evolutionary psychology is replete with them as ‘pseudo-scientific’ explanation abounds for adaptation after adaptation. If you haven’t read a conference paper breakdown for an evolutionary psychology conference, I suggest you do. They have it all worked out, but while there lacks an accepted theory of culture and mind from the evolutionary perspective all they have is “the illusion of define”.

    This books looks like more of the same. Just to be clear, I don’t want to have sex with anyone reading this and that is not my motivation for writing this. If we/you are critical of thought it doesn’t take a genius to realise that as we move through systems cosmos, nature, culture and mind new structures require new laws of explanation. Evolutionary theory wasn’t discovered by cosmologists, it was two naturalists. I think there is a theory explaining the law-like motions of culture and mind but it certainly won’t come from the mind-set that wrote this book, as much as Brooks and Co would like it to be.

  2. I’d be interested to know your thoughts, Mark, after reading the book. Although I’d have to admit you’re unlikely to read the book, given how you seem to feel about attempts to use evolutionary tools to gain some understanding of human society and culture.

    I’m happy to admit that there is far more to culture than contemporary evolutionary biology and economics can explain. And I’m just as curious about how we might reach the laws of explanation you so hunger after. But I’m equally sure that without nuanced and modern understandings of evolution, ecology and economics (that minor specialty of ecology), we won’t get beyond the theoretically and emprically bereft understanding of culture that currently prevails. It’s all witchcraft at the moment.

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