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Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition

4.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674006669
ISBN-10: 0674006666
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When mammals have sex, many sperm race to fertilize one egg. Does chance alone decide which sperm succeeds? What happens when sperm from different males chase the same egg or eggs? How are things different for the male and female gametes of squid, poultry, starfish or sharks? And how might female organisms benefit from choosing more than one mate? Such questions are the province of biologists who study sperm competition, an intriguing, sometimes bizarre field that draws on evolutionary theory, biochemistry and old-fashioned animal watching. Birkhead (Great Auk Islands), professor of behavioral ecology at Britain's University of Sheffield, has written an engrossing, accessible explanation of sperm competition and related elements of animal biology. Birkhead succeeds on two levels at once. He sets out evolutionists' nuanced arguments about sperm competition and sexual selection, and shows how their hypotheses have been tested. He also offers a fantastic array of biological believe-it-or-nots. The fish called capelin in effect mate in threes; two males at once assist the female capelin in pushing spawn out of her body. Male giant squid shoot long needlelike spermatophores from a penis nearly three feet long; the spermatophores stick in the female's skin, and no one knows how the sperm reach the eggs from there. Nobody's sure why such systems evolve: studies of house mice, Australian fairy wrens and Panamanian pseudoscorpions, though, might help explain them. Birkhead's work is solid and intriguing, a clear picture of many out-there phenomena: no one who cares for biology should miss it.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


A century after Darwin originated the concept of sexual selection, an explosion of research began on the topic. Tim Birkhead has documented a fascinating part of this explosion; a part that Darwin did not discuss--namely adaptations taking effect after mating: sperm competition and sperm selection, and the associated battles of the sexes. Birkhead's account is riveting--it will captivate everyone, not only for its scintillating and easy presentation of the biology, but for its portrayal of some of the dramas, personalities, and social pressures that shaped the directions of the research.
--Professor G. A. Parker, Population & Evolutionary Biology Research Group, Nicholson Building, The University of Liverpool

Darwin explained why males evolve weapons to conquer rivals and ornaments to charm mates. But this is only half the story. Tim Birkhead shows how conflicts continue after copulation inside the female reproductive tract, which provides an extraordinary obstacle course where sperm from different males often battle for paternity. This is a marvellous and lucid survey, from bed-bugs to humans. If you want to know why sex is so complicated, read this book and give your brain a treat.
--Nick Davies, Professor of Behavioural Ecology, University of Cambridge

Tim Birkhead has written an engaging, popular account of the ultimate battle between the sexes, the contest to see whose sperm wins the race to fertilise the egg. This warfare shapes the reproductive lives of the lowly dungfly, the spawning salmon, the mating frog, the flirtatious zebra finch, the sneaky rutting stag and the cuckolding courtesan. But the female exploits the male to her own advantage in the end. This excellent book will leave you in no doubt that Kipling was right when he declared that the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
--Professor Roger Short, Royal Women's Hospital, Australia

At last: a book that lives up to its title! Real biology, not pseudo-science; clear, convincing and a welcome absence of speculation.
--Steve Jones, author of Almost Like a Whale, The Language of Genes and In the Blood

This is a well-written, entertaining, and quite interesting book. It's the best introduction I know of to an important and controversial topic in evolutionary biology.
--Lee Dugatkin, author of Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees

The recent appreciation of the fact that females in many species mate hundreds of times, often with various males, is a problem for traditional views of animal sexuality. Tim Birkhead's tour of the new data is studded with bizarre adaptations and quirky behaviors, but its strength lies in his elegant account of the science and its puzzles-- some solved, others still mysterious. Promiscuity is a wonderfully fresh account--equally invaluable for students of evolutionary biology and ribald after-dinner speakers.
--Richard Wrangham, Peabody Museum, Harvard University

A delightfully written and fascinating tour of the mysterious world of sperm competition and sexual conflict. Birkhead has done a masterful job at engaging the reader with background stories of the key players as the scientific dramas from Darwin on have unfolded, while maintaining the highest standards of scientific balance and accuracy. The book is informative, disturbing, and never boring. After reading this book, you will never think about human mating in quite the same way.
--David M. Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating and The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex

By viewing males and females as each having their own agenda, the choices underlying reproduction become far more complex than previously thought. Tim Birkhead offers a highly readable account of the decisions involved, and the many adaptations found in nature. He also presents a sober-minded evaluation of sperm competition, which is a relief after the hype and exaggeration by others.
--Frans de Waal, author of Good Natured and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

Tim Birkhead's excellent book tells us almost everything we always wanted to know about the evolution of sex. It also gives us a fascinating account of the sometimes tortuous paths that have led to scientific discoveries of sexual strategies.
--Bert Hölldobler, University of Würzburg, Germany

Birds do it, bees do it, and they mostly do it more than once. Female promiscuity and male sperm competition are rife in the animal kingdom. Tim Birkhead guides us through the unseen side of the battle of the sexes. He has complete authority within the literature produced by earnest research, and an easy style that conveys his own fascination with what really determines whose genes make it into the next generation. Whether you read this book as a work of science or as a late night excursion into the wild world of a fruit fly with sperm 38 times the length of its body and scientists wading knee-deep in mating garter snakes, it is likely to give you a whole new view of the facts of life.
--Alison Jolly, author of Lucy's Legacy

Birkhead...has written an engrossing, accessible explanation of sperm competition and related elements of animal biology. Birkhead succeeds on two levels at once. He sets out evolutionists' arguments about sperm competition and sexual selection, and shows how their hypotheses have been tested. He also offers a fantastic array of biological believe-it-or-nots. [His] work is solid and intriguing, a clear picture of many out-there phenomena; no one who cares for biology should miss it. (Publishers Weekly)

[Darwin] didn't expand on...promiscuity in females...but Tim Birkhead more than makes up for Darwin's omission. Promiscuity is a fascinating, wide-ranging, erudite, readable journey through some of the weirder stretches of biology.
--A. H. Harcourt (Nature)

[A] fascinating story of a revolution in evolutionary biology. Until recently, biologists and cigar-toting males who haunt singles bars would have agreed that the reproductive act is what it's about. That may still be the case for singles-bar louts, but biologists now know the Darwinian struggle to reproduce does not end with copulation. "Generations of reproductive biologists assumed females to be sexually monogamous," Birkhead writes, but recently they've found that in many species of insects, birds and reptiles, females are highly promiscuous...These new findings demolish the idea that reproduction is a warm, romantic collaboration. "This is real sexual conflict: the battle of the sexes," Birkhead says,; males and females are out to get "the best, selfish genetic deal they can get." The battle of the sexes is an old story, but the idea that it continues after copulation, in the microscopic arena of sperm and eggs, is distinctly new...As the battle of the sexes continues, Birkhead's provocative book is a reminder of how little we know.
--Paul Raeburn (New York Times Book Review 2001-04-29)

Darwin's evolutionary theory, as originally presented, taught the importance of, and the powerful results of, the processes of sexual selection. However, according to...Birkhead, Darwin's attention stopped short at mate selection. This current work takes the study of sexual selection to yet another level...[Promiscuity is] quite readable and engaging...Birkhead is an excellent, clear writer and this approach allows even non-biologists to learn much about his subject. Certainly, the book will stimulate the reader to consider the meaning of male-female relationships in a new light.
--Keith S. Harris (Metapsychology 2002-01-23)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (February 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674006666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006669
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #974,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Promiscuity" is about sex. Well, I suppose that much is obvious. And sex always makes for great reading. We are all obsessed and entertained by it. Still, this book took me by surprise. It is not your typical book about sex: offering cheap thrills or mundane, overdigested sociopsychological chatter. It is a unique guided tour of the bizarre world of reproduction throughout the animal kingdom. It is also a glimpse into the odd world of evolutionary biologists, in this case those who spend their lives contemplating the meaning behind all of the bizarre variations on sex in the animal world. Apparently, these highly respected academic scholars go to work each day to figure out such things as why some fruitflies make sperm that are 20 times longer than their bodies and why others produce seminal fluids that are toxic to their mates, why some marine flatworms have dozens of penises, why certain slugs have a penis that is longer than their body and that occassionally become so horrifically tangled about their mate that they must be chewed off, why dunglfies sometimes drown their mates in wet dung, why females of one species of catfish fertilize their eggs by drinking sperm, and why deep-sea anglerfish males bite their mates and never let go. The list goes on and on, preparing me with remarkable ammunition for the next dinner party.
Yet this stranger-than-fiction book is not merely a collection of Ripley's sex tales. It is a well-organized treatise of cutting edge science that masterfully instructs the reader as to the common evolutionary threads that define the underlying nature of sex. The reader is left, for example, with an abundant understanding of why sex between men and women is more about conflict than cooperation, which personally clarified much in my life.
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Format: Paperback
If you want to be grossed out, amused and steeped in leading scholarship all at the same time, this may be your book. In a fun, concise and well structured book, Birkhead gives us an up-to-date account of sperm competition in animals. The examples used are wide-ranging, from bed bugs to people, and never fail to raise an eyebrow. A Doay sheep female copulated 163 times in five hours and a man eating sushi once learned that the wiggly things in his tongue owed their thanks to a squid spermatophore. Beyond these exemplars of bizarre, though, this book contains cogent arguments for the place of sperm competition. It kindly sandbags the sensational claims of Baker and Bellis (in their Human Sperm Competition), giving us a fairer treatment in its place, both with respect to humans (where sperm competition has been of relatively little recent importance, evidenced by the relatively small testes and poor sperm quality of males) and numerous other taxa. The section on female benefits to multi-male mating is also worth noting. Evidence is amassed for female benefits in obtaining sufficient sperm, resources and improving the genetic quality of their offspring (e.g. through pairing her genes with a good MHC complement). These last ideas on genetic benefits will continue to inspire new research, just as other ideas in the book should too (accessory glands such as the prostate may have originated in the evolutionary battle of the sexes). It could be stated that the book overstates the case for sexual conflict, when benign agreements have been reached; after all, it wouldn't pay over evolutionary time for the faithful California mouse or swan to employ cruel mechanisms at expense to a partner. Yet this book is worth the strange questions and looks you'll get on the bus when people see its cover and look over your should while reading it (just as happened to my yesterday).
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This is an important and valuable book for anyone interested in evolutionary biology. It exposes the competition not only between males but between males and females for control over reproduction, particularly after coitus occurs. Securing a reproductive opportunity is not the prize. The prize is fertilizing the egg, and many species have evolves ways of controlling when and by whom that happens.
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Format: Paperback
Birkhead is a careful scientist with competent writing skills. His review, including some of his own research, illustrates once again themes found pretty much in all evolutionary areas, including some bizarre adaptations which should delight those interested in biological curiosities. Still, I am skeptical that the casual reader is really going to enjoy this book.

Survival in the face of disease has long been identified as the likely driver for the origin of sex. There is evidence it plays a role in sexual selection, so that, for example, the length of a swallow's tail seems to correlate with resistance to pathogens. More interesting, is that a female may actually be able to choose sexual partners on the basis of whose genotype will be most different from her own, increasing the odds that the diversity of her offspring will permit some survival in the face of new mutations of viral and bacterial attackers or parasites. Sperm selection can not only occur via choice of mate, but when there are multiple inseminators, by selection of sperm (more research needs to be done to confirm this). Supporting studies have been done on mice as well as fruit flies.

We may take for granted that there is a "large" egg, and a small, mobile sperm, but Birkhead provides theoretical reasons why sex would evolve this way, as contrasted to two equal size gametes fusing.
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