Book review: The guns which shoot life

The Human Sexes: A Natural History of Man and Woman by Desmond Morris, Network pounds 17.99
The differences between men and women and how their roles have changed over time is a fascinating topic. This book is based on a television series and one can assume that accounts for some of the topics receiving a rather superficial treatment. Nevertheless there is much of great interest.

Males and female differ in their physical and psychological make-up, as everyone knows. But more unexpected is that the leg cross in which the crossed-over foot is tucked round and behind the other is almost entirely female. There is a puzzle as to why men have their reproductive organs - the testicles - dangling on the outside. Theories for this range from the requirement for a low temperature to the type of running and leaping men use. Men grow beards as a gender display and to show that they are ready to reproduce and the firm breasts of young women serve the same function. But why do men shave? Morris's answer is that it makes them look younger, cleaner, makes facial expressions more visible, and generally makes them more attractive to women, who feel less threatened.

Morris is not afraid to express strong views. For example with respect to that most potent of all male sexual signals, the erect penis, Morris says that while it shoots life it is completely forbidden on public screens, while guns which shoot death are common place and that it is, he thinks, by this distinction that the 20th century will be remembered. Again when discussing the Karma Sutra's presentation of sexual positions he refers to the prudery imposed by "mentally warped priests" and how religion has imposed guilt and shame on sexual pleasure. Morris will also not allow fashionable taboos to stop him discussing differences in mental abilities between males and females; even when infant males are more percussive and females more dextrous, and boys a little later are better at visual and spatial tasks while girls are superior in verbal skills. Stuttering is much less common in girls. As regards high intellectual attainment, the greater number of men is put down to the greater range of abilities - both lower and higher - in a population of males compared to that of females. Unlike men, women are capable of recognising their babies by their smell alone.

Studies in different cultures have found great diversity in what is regarded as sexually attractive, yet one common factor seems to be a small waist compared to wide hips, the ideal preferred ratio is 0.7. In Western society it is claimed that everyone wants to look around 21, both old and young alike, the age at which women are thought to be most sexy. Most of the hundred or so coloured illustrations in the book are trivial and irrelevant (left), but the photographs of the result of a "face lift" on an older woman is almost unbelievable.

In general women are disadvantaged with respect to males. Societies in which men have more than one wife are common but those in which wives have more than one husband are very rare. In one of these, in Southern India, when a woman marries she takes on her husband's brothers. In many societies however women are treated as possessions. The Islamic custom of requiring women to wear veils apparently comes not from the Koran but from early scholars' view that women are pudenda, nothing more than a sexual organ, and so must be covered. But much more serious is the fact that there are over a hundred million women alive today who have had all or part of their external genitals cut away when they were young girls.

Morris has a somewhat romantic view of a distant past in which he claims that there was equality between the sexes, but that in modern civilisation, urbanisation has favoured males. The evidence for a past paradise is not convincing. Can we really assume that there was no domestic violence - which is today the biggest single cause of injury to women? Unfortunately Morris completely leaves out the biology of sex differences that are the product of hormonal action in the foetus. The Y chromosome that causes these hormonal secretions is what makes males male, and undoubtedly predisposes them to violence. Nevertheless he believes that now that women have joined with men in the workplace it is possible for a new equality to develop based on talent rather than gender. The effect of working mothers on their children is controversial and only touched upon.