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War of the sexes, 1

John Sparks studied animal behavior with Desmond Morris at the Zoological Society of London. I will be adding excerpts of each chapter of Sparks’ Battle of the sexes (1999). But the introduction of his book I’ll quote complete:

Every living creature has an overwhelming urge to breed. This is not simply a trivial expression of bestial lust, but a fundamental characteristic of life, the fulfilment of which determines whether an animal is a success or a failure. ‘Succeeding’, in evolutionary terms, means nothing more nor less than leaving offspring who will survive long enough to carry on the parents’ line. Anything less means the extinction of their own genetic heritage. Each individual therefore strives to populate the planet with its own descendants at the expense of those of its rivals. And in order to do so, each and every one of them attempts to attain reproductive supremacy by means of the sexual process.

The nature of sex is widely misunderstood, a matter of which this book will attempt to rectify. The human ideal of sex is that it is the romantic outcome of love and leads the participants into a long-term alliance, enabling them to produce and rear children—an arrangement that is all too often shattered in the divorce courts. And yet a wealth of observation on how animals conduct their private lives shows that, in the wild, sexual skulduggery and infidelity are much more the norm than the exception. Sex does not and never did encourage sharing and caring.

On the contrary, as the story which unfolds in the next six chapters reveals, it compels the participants to engage in civil war at all stages of their lives. Although mates consent to donate eggs and sperm towards the creation of new life, on almost every other issue—the choice and number of partners, the size of the families and who is going to look after them—males and females are far from agreement. Even when the sexes appear to co-operate, powerful forces of self-interest are at work. The relationship between the genders is constantly rife with tension and mistrust. Why should this be so?

Ideally, every individual, whether male or female, would like to mix and match its genes with the best of its kind to create the healthiest and sturdiest offspring—a recipe for their survival. This aspiration involves females in a quest to find the perfect sexual partner—perhaps the most elegant dancer, the most accomplished hunter or simply the biggest and most belligerent male. Once she has found him, she may resort to various forms of subterfuge in order to keep him—and his genes—to herself. Males, on the other hand, generally try to give themselves the best chance in the reproductive stakes by mating with as many females as possible.

In addition to this basic conflict of interest, the problem is that someone else always seems to have the best mate. Of course, there is no such thing as a faultless female or an impeccable male; however, when animals are set on breeding, they frequently appear to behave as though they have settled for second-best while continuing to keep their options open—in other words they divorce, swap partners and have affairs. Throughout the animal kingdom, males have inherently roving eyes, are ever ready to cheat on their partners and are accordingly paranoid about being cuckolded themselves. Females are also open to offers from males more desirable than the ones with whom they have paired up, and they use infidelity as a weapon in the battle of the sexes. All this sexual skulduggery leads to discord, as animals of every kind strive to ensure the survival of as many of their genes as possible.

The very concept of sex also calls for explanations. Intercourse is mechanically cumbersome and does not necessarily result in a net increase in numbers. Budding or cloning would seem, at first glance, to be much more effective ways of propagation. Without a doubt, sex in its various manifestations involves the expenditure of huge amounts of energy. For some animals, it shortens life expectancy; it is sometimes even lethal, usually for males but occasionally for females as well. So why do it? We shall look at some of the possible answers to these questions in Chapter 6.

Sex and foraging are two fundamental characteristics of animal life, and are often the only ones which draw creatures out into the open. Sex especially demands very public behaviour among many species. Males and females need to find each other, repel rivals, court, make the sexual connection and provide for their young. However, in talking such a high profile, they face the danger of being haunted or sexually cheated.

Individual species have inevitably evolved their own strategies for dealing with these risks, and these strategies have fashioned the dazzling array of individual species who share our planet. For all of them, sex is a continuing battle.

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