Your Ultimate Book Guide to Sex Matters
The philosophy, evolution, psychology, and physiology of sex
When you study evolution, you quickly realize that sex matters. It underpins our development, relationships, society, culture, and our sense of self. Despite the current culture wars on the topic and the determination of a vocal group to erase the reality of sex, mountains of scientific evidence confirm the reality of sex and its importance for our lives. It’s humans that make sex complicated, not biology.
This month’s book guide is a collection of books that I believe provide a solid foundation from which to understand the reality and implications of sex – and why it matters. Happy reading!
By Robert Martin | Published 2013 (Basic Books)
I first read this book the summer before I started graduate school and recall it providing a fantastic overview of the basics of human sexual reproduction and early child rearing. For those just starting out in their study of human evolution and sex, this is a great book to build a foundation of knowledge about how two humans create a new one, and to learn about what child rearing looked like pre-civilization. Having a basic understanding of human reproduction provides crucial information for the broader understanding of human sex.
By Kathleen Stock | Published 2021 (Fleet) | Read my review
This book hits on the philosophy of sex and critically addresses the modern gender movement advocating that sex is not binary and gender is more important that sex. Stock provides a clear, understandable, and balanced overview of the major phases of academic thought over the late twentieth and early twenty first century on the topic of sex and gender. She also explains the varied perspectives on ‘what is sex’ and ‘what is gender identity’. The crux of her book is at the end where she argues that binary sex matters for feminism, and for a coherent, logical, and practical understanding of men, women, non-binary, and trans individuals.
By Frans da Waal | Published 2022 (W.W. Norton) | Read my review
Humans are primates with a rich evolutionary history. Leading primatologist, da Waal, provides a nuanced (for modern times) and delightful read on how basic sexual biology shapes status, cooperation, violence, and mating across primate societies. While undeniable that sex matters for our behavior, there is also incredible diversity of how maleness and femaleness manifest across primates. He also moves beyond the chimpanzee ancestor stereotype and shows how bonobos are in many ways better models for our sexuality.
By David Buss | Published 2021 (Little, Brown Spark)
When it comes to the evolved psychology of human mating, no one else can claim to have developed a larger body of knowledge and expertise than David Buss. The latest in his prolific line up of popular books provides up to date, clearly communicated research about the conflict between men and women in mating, and how that conflict manifests as deception, violence, and assault. It’s a great read on the sex differences in mating-related psychology and behavior among humans, backed up by decades of research.
By Carole Hooven | Published 2021 (Henry Holt and Co.) | Read my review
This book is an excellent deep dive into the testosterone literature to clearly explain what testosterone is is and how it makes the difference between men and women across our lives. Although scientists are still learning a lot on the detailed mechanisms, critical periods, and cascading pathways, one thing is clear: testosterone is what makes boys, boys, and men, men. Adding T to development sets off a cascade of developmental events that masculinizes the brain and body. Having a Y chromosome with its critical SRY gene and functioning androgen receptors (that process T) is what signals the body to develop as a male. A must read book to understand the physiological differences of men and women.
By Kevin Mitchell | Published 2018 (Princeton University) | Read my review
This book is not explicitly about sex, rather it’s about how genetics and brain wiring shape us. But, this book has an excellent chapter on sex differences in brain development, which is important to understand in the broader context of our genetics and brain development. It’s also one of my favorite science books ever and I recommend it whenever I can. It delivers a clear (but somewhat technical) presentation of complex genetics concepts and their connection and implications for our understanding of personality, developmental disorders, sex-differences, and intelligence.
Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves
By Menno Schilthuizen | Published 2014 (Viking) | Read my (academic) review
Humans may be complicated but our genitals are remarkably boring. When we looks at the sex lives and genitals of animals across the animal kingdom, we learn a great deal about the how sex drives evolution. When we step out of our egocentric view of life as humans, we can see that we are actually not that much different than animals, that sex matters and is real, and that sex has real consequences for evolution and behavior. This is a remarkably fun read that shows the bizarre are beautiful sexual adaptations and counter-adaptations that have evolved.
By Bobbi Low | Published 2015 (Princeton University)
So much in evolutionary psychology and behavior is underpinned, in part, by sex. This is one reason the field gets a bad rap – can’t we talk about anything else – but, in reality, sex matters. And award-winning scientist, Low, explains why. This book, as is typical for Princeton University Press, is a technical book that could serve as a cross between a popular book and a textbook. It is the most comprehensive book on the intersection of sex with human behavior, from mate choice and sexual strategies to ecology and culture.
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