Monday, June 19, 2006

Darwin's Challenge on Sex and Selection

And a challenge for all of us to think outside our boxes.

Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, challenges classical Darwinian sexual selection theory with her book Evolution's Rainbow and paper, "Reproductive social behavior: cooperative games to replace sexual selection," published last February in Science. She and co-authors propose an alternative model based on game theory to replace Darwin's Venus and Mars sexual selection theory. The classic model of men want sex and women want to cuddle pervades our culture and perhaps it dictates our biology and what we are without questioning if it is the only valid model.

But what about the prevalence of 'aberrant' sex? Horny women, bi- and homosexuality, and polygamy.....Oh my!! Unquestionably branded as aberrant sexual behavior in human culture, it is not uncommon in other species. The current issue of SEED lists 450 species, as a matter of fact. Raising various mammalian specimens myself (rats, mice, dogs, cat, sheep, horses, rabbits...) over a lifetime, I questioned the omnipotence of the classical sexual selection model based on observation of these species, including our own.

Roughgarden's paper expectantly caused a disturbance in the arena of biologists with a barrage of rebuttals and letters to the editor (see link below) and elsewhere. While Roughgarden proposes to replace Darwin's classical theory, perhaps expanding upon it would be more productive and reflective of the real world.

In a discussion appearing in SEED of Roughgarden's proposed model and the controversy*, author Jonah Lehrer aptly writes:
"Roughgarden's cataloging of sexual diversity has challenged a fundamental biological theory. If Darwinian sexual selection -whatever its current variant- —is to survive, it must adapt to this new data and come up with convincing explanations for why a host of animals just aren't like peacocks."
Time for all biologists to step outside their box for a moment and consider Roughgarden's points.

* The Gay Animal Kingdom, online article and in the June/July 2006 printed issue.

Abstract for Roughgarden et. al. paper and listing of published rebuttals in Science .

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