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Looking for a Few Good Males

Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology

Erika Lorraine Milam

Publication Year: 2010

Why do female animals select certain mates, and how do scientists determine the answer? In considering these questions, Erika Lorraine Milam explores the fascinating patterns of experiment and interpretation that emerged as twentieth-century researchers studied sexual selection and female choice. Approaching the topic from both biological and animal-studies perspectives, Milam not only presents a broad history of sexual selection—from Darwin to sociobiology—but also analyzes the animal-human continuum from the perspectives of sex, evolution, and behavior. She asks how social and cultural assumptions influence human-animal research and wonders about the implications of gender on scientific outcomes. Although female choice appears to be a straightforward theoretical concept, the study of sexual selection has been anything but simple. Scientists in the early twentieth century investigated female choice in animals but did so with human social and sexual behavior as their ultimate objective. By the 1940s, evolutionary biologists and population geneticists shifted their focus, studying instead how evolution affected natural animal populations. Two decades later, organismal biologists once again redefined the investigation of sexual selection as sociobiology came to dominate the discipline. Outlining the ever-changing history of this field of study, Milam uncovers lost mid-century research programs and finds that the discipline did not languish in the decades between Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and sociobiology, as observers commonly believed. Rather, population geneticists, ethologists, and organismal biologists alike continued to investigate this important theory throughout the twentieth century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Animals, History, Culture

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pp. 1-8

How does a hen decide whether she is in the mood for sex? How does a hen decide which is the best rooster? For a female chicken to “choose” a rooster, in the way we think of humans choosing partners, she would have to recognize differences be-tween males, compare them based on that variation, and decide with which male(s) she should mate and invest her reproductive future. ...

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CHAPTER 1. Beauty and the Beast: Darwin, Wallace, and the Animal-Human Boundary

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pp. 9-28

In describing the “sporting-places” of bower birds in Australia, naturalist John Gould held forth at considerable length. The bower itself he described as “decorated with the most gaily colored articles that can be collected, such as the blue tail feathers of the Rose-hill and Pennantian Parrakeets, bleached bones, the shells of snails, &c.” ...

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CHAPTER 2. Progressive Desire: Rational Evolution after the Great War

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pp. 29-53

In the early decades of the twentieth century, two different ways of describing animal courtship allowed American and British biologists to generalize between animal and human reproductive behavior. The first was to couch animal courtship as an evolutionary forerunner to marriage choice in humans, within the framework of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. ...

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CHAPTER 3. Branching Out, Scaling Up: American Experiments on Behavior

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pp. 54-79

The study of animal behavior in the United States expanded considerably between the two world wars, in terms of the number of biologists interested in the subject and the scope of their research.1 Biologists working on animal behavior employed techniques from both naturalist and experimentalist traditions. ...

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CHAPTER 4. Courtly Behavior: The Rituals of British Zoologists

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pp. 80-107

In the United Kingdom, the community of zoologists interested in animal behavior grew quickly in the decades following the Second World War. British zoologists strove to produce a robust view of the role of behavior in the biology of organisms, combining research on systematics, ecology, evolutionary processes, genetics, and physiology. ...

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CHAPTER 5. A Science of Rare Males: The Genetics of Populations in the Long 1960s

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pp. 108-134

In 1946, a young French scientist named Claudine Petit entered graduate school at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. For her dissertation research, she decided to investigate selection sexuelle in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. ...

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CHAPTER 6. Selective History: Writing Female Choice into Organismal Biology

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pp. 135-159

By the 1960s, biologists could no longer say with certainty that only humans used tools, or could learn to communicate through language, or behaved according to rational rules.1 Jane Goodall’s discovery that chimpanzees used and manufactured tools surprised the scientific community. ...

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pp. 160-168

This historical exploration of female choice has focused on how scientific ideas about choice- based mating behaviors in animals developed within different communities of biologists over a span of a hundred years, from the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the late nineteenth century to sociobiological research in the late twentieth century. ...


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pp. 169-171


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pp. 173-220

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 221-228

I do not detail here any newly discovered archival collections or provide keen insights into how to uncover previously invisible materials. One of the fascinating features of this story is that my sources were hidden in plain sight. I used a wide variety of archival materials as well as both primary and secondary published sources. This essay is not comprehensive in either case. ...


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pp. 229-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898174
E-ISBN-10: 080189817X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404028
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404028

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 12 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Animals, History, Culture