Promiscuous Males And Choosy Females? Challenging A Classic Experiment


Of the 100 “top science stories for 2012” chosen by Discover Magazine, I am most fascinated by #42: “The Myth of Choosy Women, Promiscuous Men.” It reports a serious challenge to an experiment that has remained a touchstone in evolutionary biology for over 50 years.

The study, on fruitfly mating, was done in 1948 by geneticist A.J. Bateman. Bateman showed that the male insects’ strategy was to mate with many females, whereas the females’ strategy was to be discriminating in their choice of partners. Male reproductive success, in other words, correlated positively with number of mates, but female reproductive success did not.

Now, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Patricia Gowaty and her colleagues Yong-Kyu Kim and Wyatt Anderson have repeated that study. They conclude something startling: Bateman blew it.

Before I explain where they say Bateman went wrong, I need to show how Bateman’s conclusions rippled far beyond the scholarly world of fruitfly sex. His findings — promiscuous males, choosy females — seemed to strike a cultural chord. Afterbiologist Robert Trivers cited it in a key 1972 paper on parental investment, the “Bateman principle” turned up everywhere. In my own field of primate behavior, for instance, field researchers expected to see (and thus often did) male primates with highly active sex lives and females who were coy, verging on sexual passivity.

And don’t think that humans were left out of this picture. We’ve all heard it, right? When some big-name male public figure sleeps around, and cheats on his wife, isn’t there always someone ready with an evolutionary explanation about vigorous male seed-sowing?

Written By: Barbara J. King
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  1. Actually this study showed Bateman’s  study was flawed and did not show anything else.

    Then the implication that the more modern studies are flawed by association was not convincing.

    All in all a weak article.

  2.  Yeah, I have to agree. So many equate the acknowledgement of how sexuality tends to work in the natural world with an agreement with it on ethical grounds, which isn’t implied at all. It’s the naturalistic fallacy by proxy.

    Rape, for instance, is pretty common in nature, and “works” pretty well to keep animal populations up. Acknowledging this does not signify in any way an ethical acceptance of rape as a practice among humans.

  3. Evolution is still conserved. In humans, a male is ready to mate with any female but a female is choosy.

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