Tim Birkhead
Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition

"It is a curious paradox that reproductive biologists, so obsessed with the mechanics of reproduction, have rarely considered why so much variation exists in the copulation frequency of different species. It has fallen to those with an evolutionary interest in reproduction to try to make sense of this variation." (p. 150)
They say that from a biological perspective the purpose of life is to survive and to reproduce. But after reading this book you will see that survival is only worthwhile as it pertains to reproduction. Indeed, some species give up their life just to reproduce.

In one of the most riveting books dealing with evolution I have ever read, Tim Birkhead writes well on a fascinating topic that is near and dear to the hearts of all living things. He is funny, informative, and clear in his presentation.

Before beginning this book, last month, I was sitting at the duck pond near my house on a spring morning. It was going to be a warm day like any good spring day should. The trees were blossoming and the earth was seemingly coming back to life. For the first time I witnessed the "mating" of mallard ducks. I put the word mating in quotes because I called it rape to my wife when I got home and told her what I saw. She didn't believe me, but sure enough it was rape. And this book verified that fact for her. It includes more than a page description of this annual ritual which female mallards unwillingly participate in and color pictures to boot.

I spent much time by the duck pond reading this book. It seemed like an "inspirational" place to be while reading about such a topic. The flowering trees were heavy with pollen, the ducks were going crazy, the fish performed maneuvers out of the ordinary, and the birds and bees were doing their thing.

The book is filled with sex wars and battles of the sexes on various levels and includes example after example in a wide variety of species. Seldom will a book of non-fiction, dealing with biology, be such a page turner. But sometimes fact is stranger than fiction--especially those facts which are frequently difficult to observe and rarely spoken of.

Read about the gonads in some starfish which constitute over one-third of their body weight in both males and females. Or the sexes of the Bermuda fireworm which simultaneously end their lives by exploding and releasing their sperm and eggs into the sea. Or the Samoans who have a celebrated a festival annually for centuries which centers on the spawning of the Palolo worm and gorging themselves on the sperm and egg discharges the worms' reproduction entails. And who can resist a detailed account of how certain female spiders eat their mates? Now you'll get to find out why too.

Birkhead covers it all. And the novel experiments which have been devised to find out the whys and hows make this book far more than a work of speculation. Learning how we know is, to me, better than just hearing "facts" or someone's beliefs. From sexual selection, paternity, protection, genitalia, insemination, sperm, and sperm competition to polyandry, ova, copulation, and sperm choice. That's right--sperm choice. Males aren't the only ones putting up a fight in the battle for reproduction. Females do it too and not just by being selective in choosing a mate.

The idea that there exists a battle between the sexes implies that there are winners and losers, but if we think about sexual interactions as part of a co-evolutionary process, it is not obvious that either sex can ever be a clear winner. At any moment in time one sex may have slightly more control than the other, but the battle between the sexes is an evolutionary see-saw -- subtle, sophisticated and inevitable. (p. 233)
I highly recommend Promiscuity (the book that is). It will undoubtedly change the way you look at life's most important goal. Becoming a sex expert on the animal kingdom is not nearly as perverse as it sounds.

from the publisher:
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.

"By viewing males and females as each having their own agenda, the choices underlying reproduction become far more complex than previously thought. Tim Birkhead offers a highly readable account of the decisions involved, and the many adaptations found in nature. He also presents a sober-minded evaluation of sperm competition, which is a relief after the hype and exaggeration by others."
--Frans de Waal, author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

"Tim Birkhead's excellent book tells us almost everything we always wanted to know about the evolution of sex. It also gives us a fascinating account of the sometimes tortuous paths that have led to scientific discoveries of sexual strategies."
--Bert Hölldobler, University of Würzburg, Germany

"Birds do it, bees do it, and they mostly do it more than once. Female promiscuity and male sperm competition are rife in the animal kingdom. Tim Birkhead guides us through the unseen side of the battle of the sexes. He has complete authority within the literature produced by earnest research, and an easy style that conveys his own fascination with what really determines whose genes make it into the next generation. Whether you read this book as a work of science or as a late night excursion into the wild world of a fruit fly with sperm 38 times the length of its body and scientists wading knee-deep in mating garter snakes, it is likely to give you a whole new view of the facts of life."
--Alison Jolly, author of Lucy's Legacy