Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

2010 Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine (January 2011)

Looking for a Few Good Males is an intellectual and cultural history of Charles Darwin’s theory of “female choice.” Darwin proposed sexual selection as a theoretical stopgap to explain why variations within a species—including differences between males and females and racial variations—could persist for long periods of time. For Darwin, sexual selection also served as a naturalistic mechanism explaining beauty in the animal kingdom. By raising issues about mind and aesthetics at the animal-human boundary, female choice proved to be a highly controversial scientific theory. In the late 19th century, zoologists criticized descriptions of female choice in animals for being anthropomorphic—a female “compared” mating displays and “chose” the “prettiest” male with whom to mate. A century later, zoologists attacks accounts of female choice as an evolutionary mechanism in humans for being zoomorphic—a woman “instinctively” mated with the first man whose courtship “rituals” stimulated her above a minimum excitatory “threshold.” Both formulations, conscious choice behavior in animals and the biological basis of behavior in humans, precipitated long-lasting disagreements among communities of biologists attempting to understand the relationship of behavior and evolution. By considering how changing conceptions of the animal-human boundary interweave with contemporaneous understandings of gendered behavior, Looking for a Few Good Males challenges the standard history of sexual selection. Rather than seeing the history of female choice as driven by male bias against the importance of female behavior, I suggest instead that biologists’ discomfort with choice-based behaviors in animals was at least as important in shaping the history of Darwin’s theory, which has become a cornerstone of modern evolution. I argue that when biologists have studied the sexual behavior of animals, their investigations were as much about what it means to be human as they were about animal nature.  

Transient

How I came to the topic [link].

Preview the book [link].

 

Reviews

Lee Ehrman, Reports of the National Center for Science Education 34/2 (2014): 28-30. [link]

Jesse Richmond, “Still Figuring Out Nature’s Economy,” Historical Studies of the Natural Sciences 42/1 (2012): 62-70. [Essay review with Mark Barrow, Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology; Mark Borello, Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection; and Amanda Rees, The Infanticide Controversy: Primatology and the Art of Field Science.]

Mara Flannery, Cosmos [Australia], Issue 43 (Feb-Mar 2012): 88.

Marion Thomas, Centaurus 53/3 (Aug 2011): 240-242.

Marga Vicedo, Isis 102/2 (Jun 2011): 352-353.

Mark Borello, Journal of the History of Biology 44/2 (May 2011): 365-367.

Kirsten Leng, Gender & History 23/1 (Apr 2011): 207-209.

Donald Dewsbury, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 47/2 (Spring 2011): 204-206.

Elen Oneal, Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123/1 (Mar 2011): 188-190.

Joan Roughgarden, “Beauty and the Beast,” American Scientist 98/6 (Nov-Dec 2010): 507 [link]. 

Tim Birkhead, Quarterly Review of Biology 85/4 (December 2010): 505; see also, “What are you reading?” Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1949 (27 May 2010): 51.

Margery Lucas, “Female Choice: Hidden in Plain Sight,” PsycCRITIQUES 55/41 (2010).

J. E. Platz, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 48/1 (Sep 2010).

Karen Rader, “Looking at Sexual Selection,” Science 328/5984 (10 Jun 2010): 1356-7 [link].