Wednesday, May 25

Sexual selection, under review: “To understand desires, you have to watch Almodóvar’s films as well as read Darwin”


The origin of man and selection in relation to sex It is one of the most important books in the history of science. Published in 1871, the text lowered the human being from his almost divine pedestal to put him at the level of the rest of the living beings on the planet. The only problem: like all books, it was written by a person with biases, ideas, opinions and prejudices. The author: Charles Robert Darwin.

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A review article published in the journal Science analyzes how the Victorian society in which the British naturalist lived, as well as his prejudices against women, affected his vision of sexual selection. Its authors review what they have learned since Darwin about how mate choice occurs and how it modulates the evolution of species.

“Darwin’s biggest mistakes stem from the fact that he underestimated women,” Gil Rosenthal, a researcher at the University of Padua (Italy) and co-author of the article, explains to SINC. “He realized that the choice of mate was the mechanism by which the ornaments that so caught his attention evolved, but he did not see women or female animals as beings capable of exercising sophisticated strategies of comparison, choice and manipulation.

His Victorian modesty did not allow him to contemplate female desire, much less the clitoris

Gil Rosenthal

The context in which Darwin lived also affected the way he viewed and described sexual selection. That is why he resorted to euphemisms such as “a taste for beauty” and “the final ceremony of marriage.” Evolution goes far beyond the plumage of peacocks, but his fascination with birds made him ignore other aspects of the animal world such as oral sex in bats and homosexual behavior in bonobos.

“His Victorian modesty did not allow him to contemplate female desire, much less the clitoris,” says Rosenthal. Even so, the authors clarify that the scientist did not have an alternative in England in the 19th century and recall that The origin of the man it was “the best thing that could have been done” to advocate the abolition of slavery, which Darwin abhorred.

Researcher at Princeton University (USA) Agustin Fuenteswho did not participate in the article Science, clarifies that “Darwin could not see beyond his own prejudices when he examined human beings.” He argues that he was “a brilliant scientist,” but that “misogyny and racism are systemic processes, not just individual ideologies,” so “he was entangled in systems of bias” that affected his view of human evolution.

“When it wasn’t about sex, Darwin had a clear vision,” says Rosenthal. “The sketch of the evolutionary theory that he based on many empirical observations and with an elegant logic is maintained until today. Even sexual selection.

Darwin could not see beyond his own prejudices when he examined human beings. He was a brilliant scientist, but misogyny and racism are systemic processes, not just individual ideologies.

Agustín Fuentes, evolutionary biologist at Princeton University

Errors that persist to this day

Some of Darwin’s mistakes have survived for decades to become embedded in the public’s view of how evolution affects sex and mate choice.

“The most persistent misconception is that mate selection is a eugenic process in which the female chooses the most attractive male or the one who sings or smells the best because these ornaments predict that she will have healthy and strong offspring,” explains Rosenthal. “Those conspicuous traits may evolve because they attract attention and for no other reason, or because they bring benefits to the male at the expense of the female.”

For Fuentes, one of the biggest errors that persist today about sexual selection in humans is that “males fight for females and females choose the best, strongest or with the best genes.”

The most persistent misconception is that mate selection is a eugenic process in which the female chooses the most attractive male or the one that sings or smells the best because those ornaments predict that she will have healthy and strong offspring.

Gil Rosenthal

For this reason, he criticizes the thinking “based on assumptions of costs and benefits” that arises from a central reproductive unit composed of a nuclear family with two adults and their offspring. This, he adds, “is not the basal form of residence, social organization, or childcare in humans, neither evolutionarily nor now.” psychologist Cordelia Fine also debunks this simplistic view of what he calls the “imaginary alpha male accounts” in his book Testosterone Rex.

Lessons learned: females have brains

The review does not forget to summarize what has been learned since Darwin. Fuentes believes that sexual selection “is complicated and complex” for most animals and “doubly complicated” for humans. How and why individuals make sexual decisions goes beyond feathers and dances to non-reproductive behaviors that fit poorly into the traditional Victorian roles Darwin focused his attention on.

“We have learned that females have brains, and that courtship, feathering, and flashy displays are just the beginning of a long series of interactive decisions that take place before, during, and after mating. final marriage ceremony what Darwin said,” says Rosenthal.

In both animals and humans, sexual choice is not made in a vacuum, but in a sociocultural context that shapes preferences and determines how they are expressed.

Gil Rosenthal

“Also that the most attractive is not necessarily the best and that the best for you is not the best for me,” he continues. In addition, he highlights that in both animals and humans “choice is not made in a vacuum, but in a sociocultural context that shapes preferences and determines how they are expressed.”

the article of Science highlights the importance of fields such as neuroscience, genomics and physiology when studying the choice of sexual partners. Fuentes, however, believes that he forgets other areas of knowledge.

“The authors do a good job of demonstrating [que la selección sexual es complicada] in other animals, but they don’t show why the simplistic assumptions are so wrong for humans,” he says. considers it important to point out that the anthropology and the social Sciences They have made it possible to make “great strides” in the understanding of human sexuality and behavior.

What the text does highlight is that the field of evolutionary biology focused on studying sexual selection is no longer a “club of Victorian patriarchs,” referring to the increased presence of women and members of the LGTBI collective since the 1970s and to the new perspectives they offered.

“Feminism and the evolution of sexual mores have alleviated the misogyny and sanctimoniousness that clouded Darwin’s thinking about a taste for the beautiful,” the authors write. “However,” they warn, “we are seduced by beautiful males, rather than by the biological mechanisms that made them beautiful.”

Rosenthal believes it is important to understand that “mate choice is highly important as an agent of sexual selection, but sexual selection is not as important for mate choice.” In other words, that “sexual desires and reproductive strategies are expressed in prolific variety in both flies and humans.” And he concludes: “To understand them you have to see Almodóvar’s films, in addition to reading Darwin.”



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