Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

A special 25th anniversary edition of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Consensus was published in March. Harvard University Press are advertising it together with Richard Lewontin’s new book, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment, presumably to let everyone know they’re not taking sides. Lewontin and Wilson, fiercely opposed to each other intellectually, used to have labs one directly above the other at Harvard (and weren’t on speaking terms) – an arrangement curiously reproduced in the design of the new ad.

One of the many books to emerge from the evolutionary psychology stable (ideologically aligned with Wilson) this year is The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller. It’s subtitled ‘How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature’, and the basic idea is that ‘the richness and subtlety of modern human psychology reflects a legacy of minds that evolved, like the peacock’s tail and the elk’s antlers, for courtship and mating.’ The mysteries of the human mind have been solved, then; but there’s something terribly deflating about it all: you get the feeling it’s answered everything and nothing (or just nothing). Miller, we learn from his biographical blurb, not only ‘lives in Surrey with his partner and their toddler’, but ‘enjoys swimming, safaris, strategy games and monogamy’. Strange they haven’t found the gene for smugness yet.

Not to be outdone is David Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, whose new book, The Dangerous Passion, is about jealousy, and why it’s ‘as necessary as love or sex’. His acknowledgments begin with an anecdote (of sorts) about when he was ‘a youth of 17’. ‘Influenced no doubt by the prevailing cultural ideologies of the time, I publicly proclaimed that my girlfriend’s body was her own ... and that jealousy was an immature emotion ... There was only one problem – I didn’t have a girlfriend!’ Poor chap. Things soon took a turn for the better, however, and a year later he ‘became involved for the first time’, and ‘it was as though a jealousy switch in my brain, previously on the “off” setting, suddenly got flipped to “on”.’ Presumably he’s never looked back, since he’s now ‘internationally known for his expertise on sex, emotions and the strategies of human mating’. I don’t know if that’s meant to be a joke or not.

Hovering somewhere beyond the other end of the psychological spectrum is Stanislav Grof’s Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research, due to be published in July. His preface, too (at least in the advance proof version), begins with a personal recollection: ‘More than forty years ago, a powerful experience lasting only several hours of clock-time profoundly changed my personal and professional life. As a young psychiatric resident, only a few months after my graduation from medical school, I volunteered for an experiment with LSD’ – it gave him ‘an overwhelming and indescribable experience of cosmic consciousness’. Well, maybe it did, if you accept his peculiarly solipsistic sense of ‘cosmic’. It’s certainly an alternative to playing strategy games.

Someone who, in all likelihood, didn’t spend his adolescence on acid is Douglas Murray, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, who’s written a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas. Tina Brown flew all the way from New York to meet young Douglas (Murray not Alfred) before buying the US rights to the book. It’s been embargoed till 15 June, but presumably it’s all right to reveal that Murray thinks ‘Bosie’ and his ‘much-neglected’ poetry have been unfairly overlooked in all the fuss about Oscar Wilde. Murray has had privileged access to a Home Office file that shouldn’t have been opened till 2043, and his long list of illustrious acknowledgments (again, I’ve only seen an advance proof) includes Lady Eccles and Anthony and Lady Violet Powell. Murray began the book when he was 16, still at Eton, and finished it a week before starting at Oxford. (Much of the work was done while teaching at a remote prep school in Scotland in the limbo between Eton and Oxford – a gap year to broaden the mind.) Thanks are also extended to one Richard Mason, presumably the same Richard Mason who won huge publicity and a huge advance for his first novel, The Drowning People, which he wrote between Eton and Oxford.

So as not to end on a snide note, I’d like to look ahead to 8 June 2004, when the planet Venus will pass directly enough between us and the sun for its shadow to be visible. It may seem premature to announce this now, but four years isn’t so much on the grand scale, and Eli Maor, a mathematician from Chicago, has written a book about it: Venus in Transit is published this month. These transits happen twice a century or so, the last few in 1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882. It’s not as spectacular as a solar eclipse, but it’s significant for various reasons – Halley worked out a way to use it to measure the ‘astronomical unit’, the mean distance between the earth and the sun. Everybody knows the earth is very small, but it’s almost impossible even to come close to visualising what that means, just as it’s hard properly to visualise a million people. Venus is much the same size as the earth, and passing across the face of the sun it will look pretty tiny (though not as tiny of course as if it were right next to the sun). Though Maor doesn’t mention this, watching the transit is probably the closest anyone’s likely to come to having a concrete sense of extraterrestrial perspective – it ought to be a satisfactorily humbling experience. I wonder if Messrs Miller, Buss and Grof will be watching.