Attempting to demystify the feminine mystique

"How Women Got Their Curves"

- David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton

Columbia University Press

- 210 pages - $29.95

Modeling their latest book on Rudyard Kipling's playful speculation as to how animals came to be the way they are (the elephant with its long trunk, the camel with its hump, etc.), University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash, along with his psychiatrist wife and co-author Judith Eve Lipton, consider the female human body.

In "How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories," Barash and Lipton ask probing questions about some of the features that we take for granted in the female form of Homo sapiens but that actually prove to be enigmatic in the overall scheme of living things.

Why do women menstruate, when almost no other living creatures do so? Why is women's ovulation hidden, when it certainly isn't in other primates? Why do human females have permanently sizable mammary glands, even when they aren't lactating? Why do women undergo menopause when men, as well as both genders in most other species, continue to have reproductive capabilities throughout their lives?

The co-authors employ the principles of evolutionary biology but also invoke a spirit of playfulness in tackling these and other questions surrounding the feminine mystique.

Science, they contend, is an extended game of making suppositions and pursuing hunches - in short, of hypothesizing - and then of doing one's best to poke holes in those hypotheses. ("Sometimes," the authors note, "the imagination needs weights rather than wings.")

And when all is said and done, may the best theory win.

There are big questions asked in "How Women Got Their Curves," and no definitive answers have been found yet. That doesn't mean that reading this book is a waste of time. Readers will be completely caught up in the efforts of researchers to marshal evidence and pursue clues - instead of a whodunit, this is a why-does-it - and because it pertains to our bodies (or those of our lovers, daughters, sisters or mothers) it is a fascinating quest.

If you aren't yet familiar with the notions of "infanticide insurance" or the "lioness strategy," you'll learn about these and other provocative ideas that attempt to explain why the occurrence of human ovulation is a secret - even to the ovulating women themselves.

If the concept of breasts as flotation devices or as a frontal form of buttocks mimicry hadn't occurred to you, Barash and Lipton will explain how these ideas developed - and why they were discredited - before moving on to other explanations for the curvaceous female figure that still are being tested.

These and many other aspects of women's anatomy and behavior are puzzled over with the help of the latest data and the perspectives-in-progress of leading scientists and other thinkers in the fields of anthropology, animal behavior, biology, psychology and human sexuality.

Witty literary references combined with the authors' own delightful wordsmithing infuse the "good, clean intellectual fun" that is promised and delivered in this book.

"How Women Got Their Curves" celebrates the joy of scientific pursuit and I enthusiastically recommend it.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest.

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