Helen’s Choice: Female Multiple Mating in the Natural World

“Helen would never have yielded herself to a man from a foreign country, if she had known that the sons of Achaeans would come after her and bring her back. Heaven put it in her heart to do wrong, and she gave no thought to that sin, which has been the source of all our sorrows.”

– Homer, The Odyssey

“[A] male’s reproductive success depends on how many females he mates with, but not vice versa; for a female, one mating per pregnancy is enough. That makes females more discriminating in their choice of sexual partners.”

– Steven Pinker, “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man”

Classical literature condemned Helen of Troy for a crime against nature. Because she chose Paris, after having children with Menelaus, one of the great cities of the ancient world was destroyed. Modern behavioral ecology, while somewhat less melodramatic, has likewise had difficulty accepting a promiscuous female strategy as a factor in evolution. Whereas male strategy has long been considered inherently virile and ardent, females are described as coy, discriminating, reluctant, and demure. In an article I wrote for Slate last week I highlighted the premiere study that upheld this dichotomy, a 1948 paper by British geneticist Angus Bateman cited in more than 2,000 journals and textbooks.

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Scientific American, December 2013