Re: Sperm Wars

Date: Fri Nov 21 1997 - 11:54:16 GMT

This is not going to be a detailed summary of the entire book, because
Alex Beck has already done one which I thought was pretty good, and
detailed enough. So here are the main points to remember from this:

Our sexual behaviour is shaped by evolutionary forces having acted on
our ancestors. Thus, it follows fundamental rules. These underlying
rules are of course completely unconscious, and some of them are even
sometimes difficult to accept, but it's interesting to see the relation
between what Robin Baker says and what is said in the Selfish Gene by
Dawkins. The two are closely linked I think when it comes to explaining
the evolution of sexual behaviour.

Before talking about anything else, it is important to note first the
incredible (well, no, it's not that incredible) asymmetry between men
and women. Of course there are the obvious differences, but this goes
even further. The main idea to grasp here I think is the differences in
investment into offspring between males and females. The female egg is
much bigger than the male sperm, therefore right from the start (ie,
before conception), a woman is more "devoted" to her child, at least
physically. Indeed, she is already providing more in terms of resources
and energy than the male is. And it is because the male is somewhat
more excluded from the relationship with the child (at the start
anyway), that he will be less attached to it and will invest less into

This disparity between males and females seems to be the key-element
affecting their reproductive stategies. Indeed, in a sexual
relationship between two individuals, the woman seems to be the one in
a stronger position. She is able to confuse the man, who will never be
completely able to determine exactly when she is fertile. In a way, a
woman will always be slightly more "reluctant" than a male to give
herself entirely just to anyone (which men, as we shall see, will find
easier to do), because she will be much more choosy in her choice of a
partner. What I mentioned earlier on about this huge female investment
seems to affect the female considerably in her choices. Logically, the
fact that a woman invests more in her child will mean that the number
of children she has is going to be limited if she wants every single
child to be cared for properly, and thus be successful in her/his own
reproductive strategies. THerefore, she is going to want a partner that
is going to increase the chances of this happening. And the underlying
idea emerges here again : she is going to be looking for the best

A woman is looking for the most suitable genes, the ones that, once
combined to hers, will produce a healthy, successful offspring, that
will in its turn pass on good genes down the family line and thus keep
the whole thing going. And that is why a woman is going to be so
choosy, because not only does she want her child to be cared for
properly, and then be successful reproductively too, but she also
doesn't want to waste time and energy over it. The criteria for this
selectivity then will be based on the extent to which the best
qualities in males will signify "best genes". A man inspiring decency
and commitment will be favoured over someone unfaithful and deceitful,
because he will be seen as a stable, potential father for the child.
Also, a woman will be looking for aspects of dominance (which traces
back to the EEA), i.e. status and wealth, which will evoke territory
and resources.

Genes for fitness, healthiness, and security will be important too, so
women will want a sexy partner (because this will increase the
likelihood of a potential son being sexy, and then of that sexy son
being successful sexually afterwards). They will also be attracted to
older men, because this will mean that these men have proved that they
can survive for so long, thus they are attractive, thus genes for
longevity will be passed on.Finally, the important criteria that will
determine a woman's choice of partner will be sperm success. Sperm
success explains phenomena such as infidelity, by saying that a woman,
being constantly on the look out for a strong, fit partner, will want
to evaluate men in their actual ability to conceive. Thus, by being
unfaithful, i.e by having sperm from more than one man in her body at
the same time, a woman is pitting together two different sperm. Of
course, the most successful one will "win", and, completelety
unconsciously, the woman will have chosen the fittest father for her

This is where it is interesting to examine the male's side of the story
too. What we said about women leading can be explained here quite
easily if we consider the issue of infidelity discussed above. Indeed,
a man has much much more to lose from a woman's infidelity than a woman
has from a man's. Consider the loss from a female point of view. If a
man is unfaithful, the woman can either choose to stay with him (that
is, if that option is open to her, i.e. if he hasn't left first), or
she will be left on her own, and will usually decide to keep the child.
In this case, she could try and find another partner to help care for
the kid and provide all the necessary resources.If she stays on her
own, them this might be a disadvantage for the child because it might
not be cared for properly and thus could be unhealthy and unsuccessful.
This then would't be a successful stategy for her. So she should really
go out and find someone else fast. Fine. Whatever she does, though,
she's still got her genes with her.

Now consider the loss for a man. If his partner is unfaithful, the man
has absolutely no way of knowing whether the baby he is raising is
really is. No matter how meticulous his calculations are, we will never
be 100% sure whether the sperm that fertilised the egg was really his.
Thus, a man can be tricked into raising somebody else's child,
representing a very unstable strategy, because this will mean that none
of his genes will have been passed on to the next generation.

And this is exactly what men are trying to do. The lack of commitment
(or at least, to a lesser extent than in women) is explained by a man's
need to pass on as many genes as possible, and thus to have as many
babies as possible and to raise as little as possible. The example in
the book of the man from the one night stand whose sperm won, showed a
successful strategy there, since he was successful in passing on his
genes, and then let another man look after the child, leaving him free
to do the same over and over again.

It's interesting to understand these asymmetries between men and women,
because, although they are purely unconscious, they seem to explain an
awful lot. It makes you wonder whether all these couples that stay
together for so long and raise two or three children together are
really as happy as all that. I can't help but think now that men are
just thinking about how bored they are to be raising a screaming kid,
while the woman is wondering when looking at her poor old decrepid
husband whether he really was the sexiest one with the best genes...

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