Sex and the Single Human : THE RED QUEEN: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, By Matt Ridley (Macmillan: $25; 405 pp.) : THE EVOLUTION OF DESIRE: Strategies of Human Mating, By David M. Buss (Basic: $22; 262 pp.)

Beryl Lieff Benderly's books include "The Myth of Two Minds: What Gender Means and Doesn't Mean."

"What does a woman want?"

Freud despaired of finding out, but Matt Ridley and David Buss think they know: A woman wants a stable, generous, high-status, devoted, older man to help her raise her kids. They're also pretty sure of why: because eons of evolution have shaped her genes to those desires. And what does a man want? They know that, too: as many young, nubile, shapely sex partners as he can deceive, wheedle or cajole. And for the same reason: evolution.

In the guise of exploring the origin and nature of human sexuality, Ridley and Buss reprise a body of writings and assumptions that has, over the past couple of decades, argued for a genetic basis to such complex and highly varied human institutions as courtship and marriage. Ridley, a journalist trained in zoology, presents the latest theories of evolutionary biology. Buss, a University of Michigan psychologist, more ponderously introduces us to a hybrid discipline called evolutionary psychology. Both accept the sociobiological notion, most prominently associated with the name of Donald Symons, that a difference in "parental investment," the amount of resources and effort an individual must put into producing a child, provides an evolutionary--and thus a genetic--basis for la difference.

Since a man can impregnate in an instant, Symons reasons, but a woman must gestate for nine months, the sexes must necessarily pursue divergent strategies for seeking mates. From a strictly mathematical standpoint, a man seeking to "maximize his fitness" (jargon for producing the largest possible number of descendants) should therefore strive for sex with as many women (but as few strings) as possible. A woman seeking the same goal should do her darndest to get some guy (preferably but not necessarily the actual father) to stick around and help her raise the much smaller number of children she can bear in her lifetime. Human males, this argument goes, are thus genetically suited to promiscuity, or at least polygamy; human females, to faithful monogamy.

Why any reasonable adult would pursue the goal of maximal fecundity in the first place is a question supposedly answered by the theory of the "selfish gene," which forms the foundation of an intellectual edifice too complicated to diagram in this space. Suffice it to say that the Symons school sees human beings as creatures whose behavior evolution has programmed uniformly and in detail. "It is the assumption of this book that there is . . . a typical human nature," Ridley states on his first page. And Buss, who expounds at length on humanity's "evolved preferences" for doing this or that, apparently doesn't disagree.

"A psychiatrist can make all sorts of basic assumptions when a patient lies down on the couch," Ridley continues. "He can assume that the patient knows what it means to love, to envy, to trust, to think, to speak, to remember, to sing, to quarrel, to lie." This is news indeed to the research psychiatrists just now mapping the mechanisms that babies use to learn, through intimate relationships with caring adults, such decidedly non-innate features of the human spirit as love, trust, devotion and reason. But because Ridely and Buss both postulate at the outset what they claim to be investigating, neither can convincingly explain the profusion of family types, gender roles and property arrangements that cover the earth.

Ridley, at least, is frank--and oddly proud--about why. "The stuff of anthropology--the traditions, the myths, the crafts, the language, the rituals--is to me but froth on the surface," he proclaims, dismissing generations of scholarship by people who know a great deal of about human behavior. If his and Buss' bibliographies accurately reflect the reading that informs their books, neither has bothered to consider the vast literature arguing the elegant and at least equally persuasive proposition that culture, the great evolutionary adaptation of the human species, exerts an immensely powerful influence over what we do. Buss does report at length on a large, cross-cultural study of mating habits and desires that he organized but still takes for granted that similarities across cultures reflect inborn tendencies, not similar conditions.

"Anthropologists insist that a Western urban man is far different in his habits and thoughts from a bushman tribesman than either is from his wife," Ridley writes, leading this reader, at least, to speculate uncharitably about whom Ridley might be married to. "Indeed," he goes on, "it is the foundation of their discipline that this is so, for anthropology consists of studying the differences between peoples. But this has led anthropologists to exaggerate the motes of racial difference and to ignore the beams of similarity."

Anthropologists, in fact, have not investigated racial differences in behavior since the Nazis' nefarious promotion of eugenics in World War II. What they do study is how human beings use symbols, ideology, social structure, technology and their own biology to achieve the goals that their culture teaches them to seek.

The fact that humans mate is biological, of course, just like the facts that we eat and talk. But whether we eat with forks or chopsticks, whether we speak English or Urdu, and whether we raise our kids as monogamous couples on the Arctic tundra, as polygamous families on the Arabian desert, or as single mothers in urban housing projects, surely depends on where and how we live our lives. And equally clearly, as scholars such as Ruth Bleier, Peggy Reeves Sanday and David Gilmore have amply shown, what defines us as men and women varies enough around the globe that genes cannot be the sole, or even the main, explanation.

Indeed, assuming a single, uniform, inborn human nature leads an intelligent man like Ridley into such absurdities as offering stereotypes in lieu of intellectual arguments. Concerning the ongoing scientific dispute about whether males have innately superior spatial skills, he comments, for example, "When a family in a car gets lost, the woman wants to stop and ask the way, while the man persists in trying to find his way by map or landmarks. So pervasive is this cliche that there must be some truth to it." Then how about the cliche--equally prevalent among women--that men are clueless about human nature?

Nor does either Eidley or Buss consider the views of biological scientists who dissent from the Symons orthodoxy. More than a decade ago, for example, biologists like Philip Darlington scathingly criticized the whole idea that differential reproductive success can guide evolution in a world where the great majority of creatures--and, until an evolutionary moment ago, a substantial majority of humans--never live long enough, regardless of how evolution might have sorted their sex genes, to reproduce in the first place. If most of the beings ever born, spawned, hatched or sprouted have succumbed to disease, predators, hunger or accident long before they could bestow their genes on the next generation, adaptations can never be as perfect as computer simulations would suggest.

Still, for all their bias, both books offer material that merits interest. In lucid, witty prose, Ridley provides illuminating discussions of non-human animals. Buss, in more a pedestrian style, presents lots of intriguing information from his huge survey. And in his final chapter, Buss even recants the evolutionary dogma. "A central message of human sexual strategies is that mating behavior is enormously flexible an sensitive to social context," he acknowledges. "Thus, in the sexual arena, no behavior is inevitable or genetically preordained--neither infidelity nor monogamy, neither sexual violence nor sexual tranquility, neither jealous guarding nor sexual indifference."

And even Ridley, on his penultimate page, finally admits, with admirable though belated humility, "Half the theories in this book are probably wrong." My bet is on the ones that deny the power of our species' unique and most truly human attribute, the ability through culture, to invest our lives with meaning and then shape our actions to express it.

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