BOOKS: Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1993:

Sexual Strategies: How Females
Choose Their Mates, by Mary Batten,
G.P. Putnam Sons (200 Madison Ave., New York, NY
10016), 1992, 248 pages, hardcover $21.95 US, $28.95
CN (ISBN 0-87477-705-4)
From the perspective of evolutionary biology,
everything in nature revolves around the struggle of genes
to survive and reproduce. During her years of researching
and writing nature documentaries, Mary Batten, presently
editor of The Calypso Log, noticed that while the scientific
establishment accepted most aspects of evolutionary biolo-
gy, it tended to ignore the often-documented role of female
choice in the evolution of species and societies.

Sexual Strategies is a lucid and engrossing account
of this neglected aspect. From insects to primates, she
explores the myriad ways in which females exercise repro-
ductive choice. The result is a new perspective on the role
of female choice in human affairs.
Basic biology suggests that males and females are
designed to pursue conflicting reproductive strategies. In
most species, males, with their greater quantity of genetic
material, are biologically compelled to share their genes
with as many females as possible to ensure reproductive
success. While these males are therefore attracted to any
healthy female capable of bearing young, females––with a
greater physical investment in reproduction––are seeking
males able to provide for future offspring. Even when
males contribute only their genes, females have the final
choice, prefering mates who present vital or in some cases
unusual attributes.
Like humans, females of most species choose
males who control resources sufficient to ensure survival.
“Universally,” writes Batten, “females prefer males with
resources, and select such males whenever they have the
opportunity.” In Adelie penguins, for example, these
resources are the layers of fat that enable males to incubate
eggs for long periods of time. In other species, resources are
defined as territories where both can forage for food. In
human terms, resources can range from a few head of cattle
to a position in a prestigious company, depending on the
society. Nor has Batten found that increased economic
opportunities for women influence their innate attitudes
toward males. Citing examples from several surveys, she
concludes that “the more money a woman makes, the more
she values the financial and professional status of a potential
Sexual Strategies deals openly with other contro-
versial aspects of evolutionary biology. A chapter is devoted
to the methods male-dominated societies employ to subvert
female choice. Male insects may trick their mate with empty
promises of food, but male human control of female repro-
ductive choice includes arranged marriage, organized prosti-
tution, even sexual mutilation in some contemporary cul-
tures. Batten doesn’t flinch from depicting some of the more
brutal manifestations of males’ attempts to protect their
genetic investment. At the same time, she realizes that most
modern societies restrict female reproductive choice by legal
means. Laws banning contraception and abortion, for
instance, can be seen in biological terms as attempts to
ensure paternity.
Batten also deals candidly with sexual violence.
Males of many species, including insects, fish, and birds,
rape when they “have been excluded from the usual avenues
of courtship.” Though recent theories propose that rape is
not primarily a sexually oriented act among humans, statisti-
cally human rapists tend to be predominantly young, poor
and uneducated, therefore less likely to attract willing
females. Their motivation, however, may be less attributable
to a desire for offspring at any cost than to frustration and
hostility toward a female they perceive as otherwise unat-
Admittedly, this book portrays some harsh biologi-
cal realities. None, however, is more frightening than the
implications inherent in modern human competition for
wealth and power. Males who succeed in the ruthless arenas
of business or war may attract more females, yet society as a
whole suffers the results of such conflict. Mary Batten con-
cludes with a plea for women to begin choosing mates with
attributes likely to ensure the survival of our species in this
turbulent age. As a male friend recently stated, women
should choose men not for their ability to feed, fight and for-
nicate, but for their ability to help, hope and heal.
––Cathy Czapla
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