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Title: Sexual selection and the ascent of women: Mate choice research since Darwin
BACKGROUND Charles Darwin’s  Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex  tackled the two main controversies arising from the Origin of Species:  the evolution of humans from animal ancestors and the evolution of sexual ornaments. Most of the book focuses on the latter, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Research since supports his conjecture that songs, perfumes, and intricate dances evolve because they help secure mating partners. Evidence is overwhelming for a primary role of both male and female mate choice in sexual selection—not only through premating courtship but also through intimate interactions during and long after mating. But what makes one prospective mate more enticing than another? Darwin, shaped by misogyny and sexual prudery, invoked a “taste for the beautiful” without speculating on the origin of the “taste.” How to explain when the “final marriage ceremony” is between two rams? What of oral sex in bats, cloacal rubbing in bonobos, or the sexual spectrum in humans, all observable in Darwin’s time? By explaining desire through the lens of those male traits that caught his eyes and those of his gender and culture, Darwin elided these data in his theory of sexual evolution. Work since Darwin has focused on how traits and preferences coevolve. Preferences can evolve even if attractive signals only predict offspring attractiveness, but most attention has gone to the intuitive but tenuous premise that mating with gorgeous partners yields vigorous offspring. By focusing on those aspects of mating preferences that coevolve with male traits, many of Darwin’s influential followers have followed the same narrow path. The sexual selection debate in the 1980s was framed as “good genes versus runaway”: Do preferences coevolve with traits because traits predict genetic benefits, or simply because they are beautiful? To the broader world this is still the conversation. ADVANCES Even as they evolve toward ever-more-beautiful signals and healthier offspring, mate-choice mechanisms and courter traits are locked in an arms race of coercion and resistance, persuasion and skepticism. Traits favored by sexual selection often do so at the expense of chooser fitness, creating sexual conflict. Choosers then evolve preferences in response to the costs imposed by courters. Often, though, the current traits of courters tell us little about how preferences arise. Sensory systems are often tuned to nonsexual cues like food, favoring mating signals resembling those cues. And preferences can emerge simply from selection on choosing conspecifics. Sexual selection can therefore arise from chooser biases that have nothing to do with ornaments. Choice may occur before mating, as Darwin emphasized, but individuals mate multiple times and bias fertilization and offspring care toward favored partners. Mate choice can thus occur in myriad ways after mating, through behavioral, morphological, and physiological mechanisms. Like other biological traits, mating preferences vary among individuals and species along multiple dimensions. Some of this is likely adaptive, as different individuals will have different optimal mates. Indeed, mate choice may be more about choosing compatible partners than picking the “best” mate in the absolute sense. Compatibility-based choice can drive or reinforce genetic divergence and lead to speciation. The mechanisms underlying the “taste for the beautiful” determine whether mate choice accelerates or inhibits reproductive isolation. If preferences are learned from parents, or covary with ecological differences like the sensory environment, then choice can promote genetic divergence. If everyone shares preferences for attractive ornaments, then choice promotes gene flow between lineages. OUTLOOK Two major trends continue to shift the emphasis away from male “beauty” and toward how and why individuals make sexual choices. The first integrates neuroscience, genomics, and physiology. We need not limit ourselves to the feathers and dances that dazzled Darwin, which gives us a vastly richer picture of mate choice. The second is that despite persistent structural inequities in academia, a broader range of people study a broader range of questions. This new focus confirms Darwin’s insight that mate choice makes a primary contribution to sexual selection, but suggests that sexual selection is often tangential to mate choice. This conclusion challenges a persistent belief with sinister roots, whereby mate choice is all about male ornaments. Under this view, females evolve to prefer handsome males who provide healthy offspring, or alternatively, to express flighty whims for arbitrary traits. But mate-choice mechanisms also evolve for a host of other reasons Understanding mate choice mechanisms is key to understanding how sexual decisions underlie speciation and adaptation to environmental change. New theory and technology allow us to explicitly connect decision-making mechanisms with their evolutionary consequences. A century and a half after Darwin, we can shift our focus to females and males as choosers, rather than the gaudy by-products of mate choice. Mate choice mechanisms across domains of life. Sensory periphery for stimulus detection (yellow), brain for perceptual integration and evaluation (orange), and reproductive structures for postmating choice among pollen or sperm (teal). ILLUSTRATION: KELLIE HOLOSKI/ SCIENCE  more » « less
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