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How do individuals choose their mates? Why are some more successful at attracting mates than others?
These age-old questions are broadly relevant to all animals, including human beings. Darwin's theory of natural selection offers one way to answer them. Sometimes phrased as "survival of the fittest," the theory can also apply to mate choice, predicting that it's beneficial to choose the mate who's best adapted to surviving in its environment—the fastest runner, the best hunter, the farmer with the highest yields.
Summary - Sexuality - Course - People - Context
That's a bit simplistic as a summary of human sexuality, of course, since people pair up in the context of complex social norms and gender roles that are uniquely human. Researchers like us do think, though, that mate choice in other animals is influenced by these kinds of perceived adaptations. It fits with scientists' understanding of evolution: If females choose to mate with well-adapted males, their offspring might have a better chance of surviving as well. Advantageous traits wind up passed down and preserved in future generations.
But in many species, males try to attract mates by displaying characteristics that seem to be decidedly non-adaptive. These signals – such as a dazzling tail on a peacock or a beautiful tune from a songbird – were originally a big wrench thrown into Darwin's theory of natural selection. Traits like these seem to do the opposite of making an animal more likely to survive in its environment. A flashy tail display or a showy melody is cumbersome, and it announces you to predators as well as love interests. Darwin got so upset by this inconsistency that he said "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick."
Conundrum - Darwin - Theory - Selection - Adaptations
Thinking about this conundrum led Darwin to another major theory: sexual selection. Instead of directly displaying adaptations, males might need...
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