Why do female animals select certain mates, and how do scientists determine the answer? In considering these questions, Erika Lorraine Milam explores the fascinating patterns of experiment and interpretation that emerged as twentieth-century researchers studied sexual selection and female choice. Approaching the topic from both biological and animal-studies perspectives, Milam not only presents a broad history of sexual selection – from Darwin to sociobiology – but also analyzes the animal-human continuum from the perspectives of sex, evolution, and behaviour. She asks how social and cultural assumptions influence human-animal research and wonders about the implications of gender on scientific outcomes.
Although female choice appears to be a straightforward theoretical concept, the study of sexual selection has been anything but simple. Scientists in the early twentieth century investigated female choice in animals but did so with human social and sexual behaviour as their ultimate objective. By the 1940s, evolutionary biologists and population geneticists shifted their focus, studying instead how evolution affected natural animal populations.
Two decades later, organismal biologists once again redefined the investigation of sexual selection as sociobiology came to dominate the discipline. Outlining the ever-changing history of this field of study, Milam uncovers lost mid-century research programs and finds that the discipline did not languish in the decades between Darwin's theory of sexual selection and sociobiology, as observers commonly believed. Rather, population geneticists, ethologists, and organismal biologists alike continued to investigate this important theory throughout the twentieth century.
1. Beauty and the Beast: Darwin, Wallace, and the Animal-Human Boundary
2. Progressive Desire: Rational Evolution after the Great War
3. Branching Out, Scaling Up: American Experiments on Behavior
4. Courtly Behavior: The Rituals of British Zoologists
5. A Science of Rare Males: The Genetics of Populations in the Long 1960s
6. Selective History: Writing Female Choice into Organismal Biology
Essay on Sources
Erika Lorraine Milam is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland.
"In Milam's hands, the issue of female choice becomes a useful sampling device for revealing the distinctive methods and values of biologists of different stripes as they contended for intellectual jurisdiction over evolutionary theory and what came to be called 'organismal biology.' This is a fresh and fascinating book."
– Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University
"Milam uses the topic of female choice as a lens through which to view intellectual, disciplinary, and social developments in the life sciences [...] An invaluable synthesis for historians of biology, scientists, and those with a popular interest in animal studies."
– Karen A. Rader, Science
"The discussion of how female choice in humans was treated throughout this time period is especially illuminating, as is the contention that there has never been a lull in interest on this topic. Highly recommended."
"Excellent and fascinating history [...] Anyone interested in our ambivalence over the degree to which humanity's roots lay in its animal nature will benefit from reading this book."
– Margery Lucas, PsycCRITIQUES
"Milam demonstrates that sexual selection has been contentious and politically loaded ever since Charles Darwin first proposed it [...] An accessible and important contribution to the history of an active topic of biological research today."
– Joan Roughgarden, American Scientist
"By taking on the historical relationship between gender and evolution, humans and animals, and science and social analysis, Milam's study makes an important and fascinating contribution to numerous historical sub-disciplines."
– Kirsten Leng, Gender and History
"A carefully researched, fascinating history of rich detail on a part of evolutionary biology that has so far garnered little attention among historians, scientists, and the public. This is a thoughtful book that appeals to anyone with an interest in animal behavior or the uneasy relationship between evolution science and the study of human social relationships."
– Elen Oneal, Wilson Journal of Ornithology
"An essential read for anyone interested in the rigorous treatment of evolutionary sexual behavior and its implications."
– Mara Flannery, Cosmos
"Milam's detailed attention to the different ways in which sexual selection was conceptualized and the diverse research programs that it motivated, as well as to the disciplinary disputes about the research and its history, reveals a fascinating and complex world."
– Marga Vicedo, Isis