Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Survival of the Loosest: the Myth of Monogamy

Bar the doors and break out the chastity belts, boys, because girls of most species sleep around, and it's for their own good, if not yours.

For generations, biologists had assumed females to be naturally chaste, while males were renowned for their promiscuity. Even Charles Darwin, who invented the idea of sexual selection, didn't dare challenge the Victorian morals of his day. Man evolved from ape, fine. But an immodest and lustful Mother Nature? Heaven forbid!

Now, hundreds of studies and a spate of books are challenging that conventional wisdom. Females of many species, it turns out, have evolved strategies for passing on their genes that involve copulating with multiple males -- and recognition of that fact is literally changing our view of the birds and the bees.

"Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets," says evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson, author of "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," the most recent and entertaining book exploring the variety of female harlotry.

"As a rule, loose females have more and healthier children."

To be sure, biologists are examining these questions in the dispassionate light of scientific inquiry. In describing their theories, they prefer the more neutral term "polyandry," meaning many males, instead of "promiscuity." And they caution laypeople not to look to nature's own apparent infidelities for any justification of their own behavior.

The misbegotten idea that males evolved to make love and females to demur gained scientific currency in the late 1940s in fruit fly experiments by Angus Bateman, a British scientist who reached his erroneous conclusions in part because his experiments lasted only three or four days.

Had he run his experiments longer, he might have discovered that male black- bellied fruit flies secrete an anti-aphrodisiac in their semen that's relatively short lived. As soon as it runs out, females become interested in copulating again.

On the surface, the conventional view made sense. Sperm seemed to come cheap to males, while eggs were expensive to females, which have to invest the time to raise offspring. Scientists could not fathom any possible benefit of multiple partners of females, and they could come up with plenty of potential costs, such as sexually transmitted diseases.


Then came DNA paternity testing. In one species after another, it turned out that biologists were as cuckolded as the males they had been observing. The first and most extensive examples of polyandry were found among avian species, which was quite a shock to scientists because birds had appeared to be paragons of traditional family values.

"The way the male and female rush back and forth to their demanding brood of chicks seems like nature's model of good parenting," says Marlene Zuk, biology professor at UC Riverside and author of "Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex From Animals."

"Now, we find that they're actually in the same situation as millions of modern-day husbands and wives, eyeing a child warily and making uneasy jokes about the milkman," she says.

DNA testing in chicks of seemingly monogamous females showed a wide range of extra mates. In one study, for example, as much as 90 percent of the offspring of the brilliantly colored Australian fairy wren were from mates other than the presumed father.

Biologists have struggled to come up with broad theories for why females benefit from playing the field, but so far the reasons seem to vary widely according to species. A lot of complex theory boils down to this: A gal's got to do what's necessary to ensure the survival of her genes.

In some cases, females may get more help around the home. Among bronze- winged jacana, for example, harems of up to four males do all the child care, enabling a female to have four times as many broods. Male greater rheas, flightless South American birds that resemble ostriches, receive eggs from several females, incubate them and rear all the chicks, while females go off to mate and lay other clutches.

In other cases, females swap sex for food -- the more sex, the more food and the healthier their offspring.

Among green-veined white butterflies, for example, a virgin male ejaculates a sperm packet roughly 15 percent of his weight that also contains nutritious substances. Females that have sex with several virgins lay more and bigger eggs than those that do it with only one or with males that have lost their virginity and consequently make sperm packets only half the size of their virgin glory.


In other cases, promiscuity is simply a matter of survival. Male chimpanzees, for example, have been known to kill infants not their own. Frequent sex with several males -- in one 15-minute period, a female was observed having sex with eight males -- can heroically confuse paternity and act as insurance against harm to her offspring.

But while females are busy ensuring their genetic survival by sleeping around, males have not been idle. After all, female promiscuity puts the genes of males at risk. It's no good being Don Juan, seducing all the females in sight, if none of them uses your sperm, Judson says. So males have developed counterstrategies to ensure their genetic survival.

"This is perhaps the most significant discovery of the past two decades, that male and female attributes coevolve," writes Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Sheffield in Britain and author of "Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition."

(From the San Francisco Chronicle)

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