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A boom in mate choice research prompts a comprehensive look at the state of the field

Mate Choice: The Evolution of Sexual Decision Making from Microbes to Humans

Gil G. Rosenthal
Princeton University Press
646 pp.
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Great ideas can sometimes lie under-recognized for years. In the case of the science of mate choice, the waiting period was a long century after its inception in Darwin’s 1871 work, The Descent of Man. In 1983, when the first edited book about the topic was brought forth (1), it contained only a few theoretical models and a handful of empirical studies in birds and mammals. In recent years, however, research on mate choice has exploded, and publications on the topic have multiplied—so much so that no researcher has dared to attempt a new synthesis since Malte Andersson’s 1994 book Sexual Selection. Until now.

As the subtitle of Gil Rosenthal’s new 646-page opus implies, Mate Choice represents an ambitious synthesis of our current understanding of sexual selection in a broad range of life forms. Facing a vast and variegated body of literature, Rosenthal skillfully organizes his book by focusing on the integration of information, rather than on a voluminous recounting of recent developments. Conscious of the challenges of the task at hand—both for him, in writing such a wide-ranging summary, and for readers, who must digest it—he includes a section at the end of each chapter that synthesizes key information and existing problems.

Mate choice, Rosenthal shows, consists of two behavioral processes: communication and decision-making. He presents the underlying biological phenomena in a step-by-step manner, from signal production, signal transmission, and signal reception to environmental factors that influence different sensory modalities. What he does particularly well is to anchor the processes in physical laws to give readers a sense of the principles that underlie vast biological diversities.


An estimated 90% of birds, including the European bee eater (shown), are monogamous.

In addition to vertically integrating physical and biological sciences, Rosenthal also pursues a horizontal integration, tying together a range of parallel disciplines, including behavioral ecology, comparative psychology, sensory ecology, population genetics, molecular phylogenetics, neurobiology, cognitive science, and epigenetics. As such, the scientific reader can readily get a comprehensive picture of the diverse range of approaches taken by colleagues from different specialties.

Rosenthal’s syntheses lead him to many novel insights. For instance, after reviewing the existing literature, he concludes that mate choice studies in fishes, amphibians, and birds have amply shown that the mechanisms underlying female mate preference evolved independently from, and far earlier than, the traits that are today preferred in male partners. It thus appears that humans are not exceptional in this respect. Insights like this, which have implications for fields such as biology and evolutionary psychology, will likely encourage even more horizontal integration among adjacent disciplines.

While Rosenthal succeeds in synthesizing a massive and convoluted body of literature, he is explicit that his book is not all-encompassing. Indeed, many questions are yet to be answered. For instance, the research in the evolution of male ornaments and female preferences has overwhelmingly focused on Zahavi’s “good genes” hypothesis and its variants, which posit that females choose males with traits that can enhance the survival of their offspring (and, to a minor degree, on the Fisherian process, which focuses on the positive feedback between female preferences and male traits). As Rosenthal shows, this tends to be overly simplistic when detached from the physical and social environments of the parties involved.

Although we now know a lot about evolutionary trajectories driven by immediate fitness consequences, little is known about whether females of any species consider, or can predict, the fitness of generations that will come after their own offspring, a phenomenon in humans known as the “Genghis Khan effect.” More research on this topic may help solve the long-standing enigma of sexual dimorphism in recombination rate in many species. The rarely studied “sexy-son” hypothesis, in which females who choose male partners with traits that are attractive to other females reap a good fitness return on later generations by producing reproductively successful sons, may be key to future paradigm shifts in this area.

This book provides a clear synthesis of the state of affairs in the study of mate choice and related fields. As such, it is well suited for both new and experienced researchers.


  1. P. P. G. Bateson, Mate Choice (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Biological Sciences, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA 98926, USA.