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Promiscuity - an Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition (USA) [Paperback]

T Birkhead
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 Nov 2001
Males are promiscuous and ferociously competitive. Females--both human and of other species--are naturally monogamous. That at least is what the study of sexual behavior after Darwin assumed, perhaps because it was written by men. Only in recent years has this version of events been challenged. Females, it has become clear, are remarkably promiscuous and have evolved an astonishing array of strategies, employed both before and after copulation, to determine exactly who will father their offspring. Tim Birkhead reveals a wonderful world in which males and females vie with each other as they strive to maximize their reproductive success. Both sexes have evolved staggeringly sophisticated ways to get what they want--often at the expense of the other. He introduces us to fish whose first encounter locks them together for life in a perpetual sexual embrace; hermaphrodites who "joust" with their reproductive organs, each trying to inseminate the other without being inseminated; and tiny flies whose seminal fluid is so toxic that it not only destroys the sperm of rival males but eventually kills the female. He explores the long and tortuous road leading to our current state of knowledge, from Aristotle's observations on chickens, to the first successful artificial insemination in the seventeenth century, to today's ingenious molecular markers for assigning paternity. And he shows how much human behavior--from the wife-sharing habits of Inuit hunters to Charlie Chaplin's paternity case--is influenced by sperm competition. Lucidly written and lavishly illustrated, with a wealth of fascinating detail and vivid examples, "Promiscuity" is the ultimate guide to the battle of the sexes.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (30 Nov 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674006666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006669
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 12.9 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,420,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Biologists have long been aware that sex poses different problems for male and female animals. Males typically compete for sexual access to females, and females are typically choosier. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. In the vast majority of animal species, males fight among themselves to mate with females, and females choose from the victors.

In the past few decades, biologists have realised that male competition and female choice rarely stop at the moment of copulation. Unless the species is completely monogamous, females may sometimes mate with more than one male during the same fertile period. Whenever this happens, the competition between males may continue after copulation, via a process known as sperm competition. Sperm from one male encounter sperm from another male inside the female's reproductive tract, and they do battle, continuing the competition that their originators engaged in prior to copulation. Similarly, the female continues to exercise her power of choice by selecting from the rival sperm she finds inside her.

Incredible as this may seem, the phenomena of sperm competition and sperm choice, as they are called, have now been well documented in dozens of species. In a new book for Faber and Faber, Tim Birkhead gives an accessible and comprehensive overview of this research. Birkhead is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sheffield, and has spent many years researching the reproductive behaviour of birds, but his book covers many other kinds of animals too. From shrimp and water bugs to hamsters and hyenas, Birkhead takes the reader on a guided tour of infidelity and its consequences. Promiscuity is perhaps misleading as a title, as it suggests that females are being less choosy in mating with multiple males, when it is often precisely the opposite. The main lesson of the book is that multiple mating by females is often a way of being more discriminating, because it allows the female to compare the quality of rival sperm directly.

This is a fascinating and well-written introduction to one of the most interesting areas of research in contemporary biology.--Dylan Evans --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"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...Birkhead's provocative book is a reminder of how little we know." -- Paul Raeburn, New York Times Book Review

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weird Stuff with Goop 10 Nov 2000
This book seems to have attracted the longest reviews I've ever seen on Amazon, which to my mind make it sound intimidating.
It's not.
I bought it on the way through an airport and got into the embarrassing position of not being able to put it down: I read it on the plane, in the cab, in the hotel foyer, and it's one of those annoying things you dare not pick up as a bedtime reader, because it will keep you up, not send you to sleep!
The subject - how sperm and egg are so incredibly diverse, and how putting Man into a much wider biiological context helps to understand us and why we are as we are - very often disappears beneath the detailed anecdotes of the mechanisms of this bit of goop and that bit of goop going squelch. if you like those anecdotal passages - and I do - then it's mesmerising: one of those books that makes you look out the plane window, somewhere over Switzerland, and see a totally different planet than the one you took off from.
In common with Matt Ridley's "The Red Queen", there's a style of biologists logic which makes my head hurt when it is written as a solid paragraph in essay format. "Because the X does Y notwithstanding the Z doing whatever, it naturally follows that"...
The words are english: the sentences are well-formed. However, I find myself going back and re-reading them, over and over again, trying to fit my head into the concepts. Of course, this is what makes the book so good - but don't buy it because you want an easy, comfy reassuring ride.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Promiscuity' by Tim Birkhead 3 Oct 2000
By A Customer
Before leaving his castle, the lord asked his wife to put on her chastity belt. With the belt locked and the key around his neck, he was able to avoid the trade-off between mate guarding and joining a crusade. In the Middle Ages, a woman travelling on her own risked unpleasant encounters with men. To avoid harassment or worse, she wore a chastity belt. Although historians now think the first story is a myth, the two stories illustrate our thinking of sexual behaviour from either the male or the female perspective. In his new book Promiscuity, Tim Birkhead shows that the history of the study of sperm competition followed much the same path. Not too long ago, sperm competition was seen as a continuation of the battle among males for access to females. As seemed logical (from the male scholar's perspective?), the focus was on males. Thus, they guarded their partner and pursued copulations with other females. However, it became exceedingly clear that mate guarding can be very ineffective- as females may choose to be actively promiscuous. This demanded new evolutionary explanations. Why are females promiscuous? I doubt that we have a general explanation, but what we do have is a wealth of data on male and female tricks to control the outcome of sperm competition. This book marvelously describes the amazing diversity and utter sophistication of reproduction and places it all in the context of current evolutionary thinking. It is a vivid account of the battle of the sexes, written for a general audience, but with a minimum of concessions to scientific rigoroso. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars stranger-than-fiction sex book 2 Sep 2000
By A Customer
"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 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.
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