What’s Really Going Down In The Shrubbery

Crude applications of evolutionary biology make out that the female strategy is quality in reproduction, while the males go for sheer quantity; that is, the males are supposed to mate with anything that moves. In fact there is a huge constraint on male promiscuity, namely the necessity of having to guard the females and protect the infants. For this reason impregnating a whole lot of strangers whose skills at raising your young are unknown, while someone else is perhaps fathering the children that you are to raise with your primary mate, is actually quite a poor strategy. This is therefore a trade-off; we see the outlines of a social compact to monogamy.

Thomas Aquinas thought that the birds were good role-models for human beings, because they formed monogamous bonds and the male helped to rear the young. Which is very rarely done among the mammals. In recent times the American fundamentalists have seized on the emperor penguin in much the same spirit. In both cases, however, the edifying moral lesson rests on bad biology. That avian childrearing is cooperative and egalitarian can hardly be doubted, but the penguins mate only for the season and partner with someone else next year, while other bird species merely pretend to mate for life.

Our understanding of what birds actually do had to wait for DNA testing, which shows that the eggs are not invariably fathered by the male bird whom the ornithologists have been watching through their binoculars. Far from it, the cuckoldry rate can – for example in the indigo bunting, hitherto thought to be monogamous – reach 40%. While the female will copulate with her lawful mate in the open for all the twitchers to see, she apparently takes care to meet her back-door man in the depths of the darkest bush.

Adulterous female birds do not conduct their affaires with unmated males, who have already been rejected by the other females and are thus obviously inferior. In the same way, middle-aged human women rarely cheat on their husbands with old bachelors, for the same reason as they do not marry them; they want a lover with the certificate of quality represented by having been once chosen by some other woman. It would be interesting, though very difficult, to find out whether the behaviour of a still partnered avian adulteress differs from that of a widowed one, and whether there is any bird analogue to the human pattern whereby a woman usually plays around with another woman’s husband rather than with a divorcé or a widower, precisely in order to prevent it getting “too serious”, that is, disruptive to her meal-ticket from her official partner.

Another way in which we are like the birds is the two-male strategy: it has been observed that the finest avian males are not at all interested in feeding the chicks for the female, but tend to gad about making eyes at the others. The less brilliant male, on the other hand, can be relied on to sit the nest. Does that sound familiar? The avian female’s optimum strategy is then obvious: partner with Mr. Reliable to hatch the eggs and bring up the kids, but have them fathered by Mr. Flashy. This is a very good deal for Mr. Flashy, because if no one sat his scattershot eggs for him, he would lose the game.

It is not such a bad deal even for the less desirable male as it might appear, at first sight because some of the eggs will be his, at least if a lot of eggs are laid. If the females were less calculating, however, followed their hearts (so to speak) and partnered only with the conceited and showy male instead, none of the eggs would be the nest-sitter’s. For the inferior male, his best bet is boring reliability, catching the crumbs that fall from the table of the superior male.

Posted on November 21, 2012 at 10:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, The Cult Of St. Joseph

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