#Biology Problems

May 21, 2015

In visiting the home screen of any popular mobile sharing platform, one is bound to discover a slew of images that plays upon the familiar trope of the disparate interests of the male and female genders, i.e., photographs of disgruntled cats surrounded by empty pizza boxes with taglines such as “when UR Man want 2 get it ON but U just there like…” For those unfamiliar with the concept, social media wishes to communicate that men are perpetually aroused ingrates, and women are husky, disinterested felines preoccupied with food and eating. Other relevant expositions include but are not limited to “1 GOOD girl is worth a thousand bitchez,” “when bae don’t text back it make U cray,” and “ROTFL.” This lucid commentary, articulated by the natural pairing of grammatically innovative text with pictures of babies holding wine bottles and/or Britney Spears with a shaved head, delivers an important message: our generation struggles with sexual conflict, and they do so… well… creatively.

In mammals, particularly the mammals who evolved opposable thumbs to capture duck-faced selfies, males and females experience uneven reproductive opportunities. This is due to the differential minimum investment required of males and females to generate successful offspring; in short, females must expend more time and energy than males to reap the same fitness benefits. This imbalance can be largely attributed to two factors. First, asymmetries in investment costs for males and females may stem from anisogamy, the idea that sperm is cheap to manufacture and relatively dispensable, while eggs are limited and therefore expensive to produce [1,2; though see 3 for challenges to this notion]. In general, sperm banks across America agree, providing compensation commensurate with what appears to be a saturated market. Second, due to extended periods of gestation, lactation, and, for some species, offspring development, female mammals must postpone their return to the mating game for some heavy investment upfront [1]. This leads to the evolutionary standoff known as sexual conflict, wherein potential mates face selection to master the art of maneuvering counterparts into investing in the reproductive process that best fits their own needs, and not necessarily the needs of their partner [2].

To translate, “1 GOOD girl” (interpreted here as chaste and/or non-confrontational), may indeed be a preferred mate in the reproductive strategy of human males, as one might expect an elevated risk of cuckoldry when cavorting with “a thousand bitchez.” Similarly, “when bae don’t text back,” thereby making females “cray,” it might be an expression of the high cost of female reproductive investment. The choosier sex, after extending an opportunity to the chosen, may experience disappointment at a male’s decline in light of his pressing mating imperatives, even though they had a beautiful night in Atlantic City where they shared their deepest fears and hopes and dreams beneath a neon billboard with Cher’s face on it and he even gave her his gold chain to hold onto for their future children and Jim if you’re reading this call me.

“ROTFL” could not be translated beyond “indiscriminate barfing sound.”

And so, evolutionary biologists and basic white girls alike struggle with the topic of animal mating systems, just in slightly different settings. Perhaps the most useful concept to be gained from sexual conflict theory is that mating systems themselves are built upon individuals, and not pairs [4]. What this means is that when males and females possess divergent reproductive interests, they are in a sense competing to skew the power of the mating interaction. Therefore, adaptations can emerge that profit one sex while damaging the other [5], and all becomes fair in love and war. Some would refer to this as a sexual evolutionary arms race [5], though you might know it better as “the Game.” But before we get carried away with genetic determinism, let us recall that our species has a derived set of cognitive processing abilities, tailored for the efficient navigation of our social environments. We are thus theoretically well-equipped with the mental toolkit for combating whatever deep-seeded biological urges we may have to lambast bad bitchez, or to believe that all women are cray for a bae. So sift through cat memes with caution, and appreciate them for representing the complicated intersection of #SocialDiscourse, #LOL and #BiologyProblems.


[1] Bateman, A. J. 1948. Intrasexual selection in Drosophila. Heredity, 2, 349-368.

[2] Trivers, R. 1972. Parental investment and sexual selection. In: Campbell B (ed.). Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man, 1871-1971, 136-179. Aldine-Atherton, Chicago, Illinois.

[3] Kokko, H., & Jennions, M. D. 2008. Sexual conflict: the battle of the sexes reversed. Current Biology,18, R121-R123.

[4] Clutton-Brock, T. H. 1989. Review lecture: mammalian mating systems. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 236, 339-372.

[5] Parker, G. A. 2006. Sexual conflict over mating and fertilization: an overview. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences,361, 235-259.

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