Hope for the homely

Research on male flycatchers topples Darwin's theory of sexual selection.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
May 8, 2006 10:45PM (UTC)

In some respects, nice guys really do finish first, according to Sharon Begley's story in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Or at least nice birds do.

The findings, based on research with male flycatchers, essentially blow Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection out of the water. The so-called sexy-son hypothesis holds that a female who mates with an attractive male will have cute offspring. They, of course, will be just as charming, able to get the girl and give their mother a gaggle of gorgeous grandkids. As time went on, the most desirable genes would survive since females would covet them.

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In the case of the flycatcher, however, the hot male birds were so busy getting their groove on, they ignored their little ones. The busted birds, on the other hand, were better fathers, creating sons who later had no problem getting the ladies to lay a few eggs.

The idea that females choose mates by getting an eyeful of how they look in their genes is being increasingly challenged. "Instead of choosing mates who will increase the genetic quality of their offspring, females make choices that will increase their number of offspring," Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden told Begley.

If you think that's interesting, check out these other tidbits from the animal kingdom: Female crickets are, um, sexual go-getters, mating with any male who asks in an attempt to increase the genetic diversity and chance of survival of her baby crickets. Female red deer sneak off with the wimpy stags while the males with the biggest antlers blow all their energy fighting each other for sexual supremacy. And it doesn't matter how little plumage a male red-winged blackbird has; he has as much chance of getting lucky as his pretty boy brethren.

"Each kind of male has its own way of going about its life. Each works out fine," stresses Roughgarden. So what does this tell us? Well, for starters, women are not always won over by all the male genetic bling out there. Maybe it explains why human females are so fond of the sweet guys with the soft bodies and bald spots, who make us laugh, and take good care of their little flycatchers. Now, that's sexy!


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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