Sex, wild-style

A new exhibit displays the freaky side of animal sex and suggests an alternative to sexual selection

By | July 25, 2008

An aroused male Bonobo holding sugar cane sex bribes greets visitors to linkurl:__The Sex Lives of Animals__,; the newest exhibition at New York City's Museum of Sex. Don't be fooled, though, by his inviting grin. Behind his spiky-erect penis lies an attempt to topple a long-held theory that forms one of the pillars of linkurl:Charles Darwin's; theory of evolution. Darwin and his predecessor, linkurl:Carl Linnaeus,; do make an appearance in the exhibit, but only as two brief biographies tacked onto a side wall near the entrance to the show.
__Artist: Rune Olsen__
There's good reason to dispense with these architects of biology and get to the juicy stuff early on in the __Sex Lives__ experience. The main thrust of the exhibit is that linkurl:sexual selection; - a key component of Darwin's theory of evolution - is flat out wrong and needs to be re-thought in light of the curious sexual proclivities held by a number of our fellow animals. That idea comes courtesy of the exhibit's main scientific advisor, linkurl:Joan Roughgarden,; the controversial Stanford University ecologist who for years has linkurl:called for replacing; the theory of sexual selection, and the male-male conflict and female mate choice it entails, with one that more accurately depicts what she sees as a gentler, more inclusive animal sexuality. "We have to rethink sex and sexuality," she told me at the exhibit's opening. "I've tried to redirect the focus of thinking about sexual selection to offspring rearing, not mating." Roughgarden said that the abundance of behaviors such as linkurl:homosexuality,; linkurl:hermaphroditism,; and self-stimulation seen in the animal kingdom necessitate a shift from the simplified view of the promiscuous male and the choosy female upon which Darwin's well-trodden theory is based. "It's not sexual selection, it's social selection," she said, adding that even the classic Darwinian example of the peacock's tail as an indicator of genetic fitness for the peahen's perusal is wrong. Instead, Roughgarden views the peacock tails as "admission tickets to male power-holding cliques," which relate to a bird's ability to maintain social bonds and thus function as a successful chick rearer in peafowl society.
__Artist: Rune Olsen__
Around the perimeter of the exhibit's creme-colored walls are examples - in text, video, and audio - of just how unexpected animal sexual behavior can get. A sampling of the titles of these multimedia vignettes include linkurl:"Panda; porn," "Sexual linkurl:cannibalism,"; "linkurl:Masculinized; females," and my personal favorite, "Homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck." There were videos of linkurl:primates; masturbating, kangaroos performing autofelatio, and sound recordings of everything from hyenas and wolves to llamas and mosquitoes answering nature's call. "I feel like a little kid," the Museum of Sex's curator, Sarah Jacobs, told me amid the sights and sounds. "I'm so excited to learn about animals again. They do anything and everything that humans do and beyond. We don't appreciate the diversity." Roughgarden agreed that the kaleidoscopic nature of animal sex (and her own idea about overturning sexual selection) is underappreciated. "This needs to be brought to the general public," she said. Jacobs said that her initial inspiration for the exhibition came from reading Roughgarden's 2004 book, linkurl:__Evolution's Rainbow__,; which contained many of the intriguing animal sexual behaviors that made their way into __Sex Lives__. While the exhibit's message centers on Roughgarden's scientific agenda, its aesthetic focus is on five sculptures similar to the amorous Bonobo - life-sized sculptures of various animal species captured mid-coitus. The sculptures might be the stuff seen in natural history museums, but for their masking tape and pencil-scribbled exteriors, their humanistic eyes, and of course their interesting postures.
__The artist__
Norweigian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Rune Olsen created all the sculptures in a mere ten weeks. Though the sculptures didn't feel intimately connected to the media papering the walls ringing the exhibit, the figures did at least have the common denominator of showing various animal species locked in intimate embrace. There was a deer threesome, a lesbian Bonobo tryst, a pretty standard panda coupling, and a pair of adventurous Amazon River dolphins engaged in what Olson succinctly described as "blowhole sex." One of the most interesting features of Rune's sculptures is that he placed glass eyes fashioned after human eyes in the otherwise realistic animals' orbits. "One of the things that scientists can't do is linkurl:anthropomorphize,"; he said. "As an artist, you're allowed to do that." His aim, Olsen said, was to establish a connection with the viewer. "I was really interested in trying to conjure up some kind of emotion," he said, "I'm still intrigued in art as a medium for dialogue." ____The Sex Lives of Animals__ will be on view at the Museum of Sex through next spring. The museum is located at 233 Fifth Avenue in New York, New York. Roughgarden has laid out her alternative to sexual selection in __The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness__, her new book which will hit shelves sometime in early 2009.__


Avatar of: Bradley Andresen

Bradley Andresen

Posts: 34

July 25, 2008

I believe this article will get a lot of attention. Be it from traditional Darwinists, to political liberals and conservatives debating the basis of sexuality. \n\nThe challenge to Darwin's theory makes a lot of sense. In our society, don't we try to marry up? We also wish to have a partner that can afford the lifestyle/family life we wish to have. Of course this begs the socail anthropomorphized question, are we really that different from animals?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

July 25, 2008

This strikes me as another bit of propaganda by Roughgarden -- the bad-boy-turned-girl of sexual selection theory -- to deceive and confuse the public into thinking that classic sexual selection theory is inherently flawed. She tried to spread her message in the scientific realm through her 2006 review paper in Science, and was thoroughly rebuked by the scientific community. I fear that the good folks of mid-town Manhattan might not be as perceptive to see through her agenda. Perhaps a better curator might have been Olivia Judson, the author of the fantastic and titillatingly book, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation.
Avatar of: Ted Howard

Ted Howard

Posts: 2

July 25, 2008

It doesn't appear to be any sort of challenge to Darwin, just a misunderstanding of the levels at which Darwin's theory operates. Any modality, which is capable of being inherited, and can confer advantage, will survive.\nThe animal world, and human society, is replete with all manner of examples of differing strategies, from co-operative to exploitive.\n\nSeems to me to be a political rather than a scientific paper.\n\nThe science says - yeah - they're all out there, and has done since I was a school - over 4 decades ago.
Avatar of: Gil Lawton

Gil Lawton

Posts: 42

July 25, 2008

Bravo for an article challenging still another commonly held presumption about natural selection that strikes me as overly simplistic, and as overly-interpretive of scarce specific empirical evidence. \n\nTHANK YOU!\n\nand preservation... or prognostication of advantage... or any advance planning? \n\nPlease understand that I am NOT ADVERSE to embracing any demonstration that such a capacity exists, or that random mutation and natural selection provide it. There just seems to me to be something blatantly missing in the current evolutionary theory models, to connect all the dots. I enthusiastically and open-mindedly welcome any model grounded on specific, hard, empirical evidence, and any rationale whereby it might be explained (provided it does not over-interpret from scant circumstantial evidence, alone. \n\nWorking hypotheses are valuable. Empirical testing is valuable. But it takes an enormous amount of credulity, it seems to me, to call a post facto rationale -- constructed for the explicit purpose of attempting to explain a phenomenon in nature -- to be presented as PROOF that the rationale is correct. That, of course, is a familiar logical fallacy. (Simply because, IF one's fabrication of a POSSIBLE scenario that, if it be true, would explain a given phenomenon does NOT rule out any and every alternative rationalization of what MIGHT have caused it.\n\nThe history of science is rife with offerings of explanations for phenomena that later discoveries disallowed. \n\nSo, you see, for me, no empirical evidence of competitive mating, no empirical evidence of competition for scarce food, and no empirical evidence from molecular biological research have provided a falsifiable, and unambiguous model establishing any cause and effect accounting for how complex physiological systems in flora or fauna went from stage A to completion stage Z, other than to intimate that they may have, must have, or probably, passed through theoretical stages B, C, D... etc., through natural selection gates that conserved them every step of the way, without aborting the incomplete job because it was taking too long (as in millions or billions of years to fulfill its manifest destiny.\n\nWith an abundantly open mind, I invite information from you -- not speculative opinion, please, but hard empirical evidence, or information as to what studies currently are under way to connect the dots of circumstantial evidence so much debated (and so emotionally, and so illogically...) into a form that deserves to be called "scientific."\n\n(I am not merely willing but enthusiastically eager to embrace such hard, unequivocal empirical evidence. With all due respect, I have no time for broad sweeping generalizations or repeatings of the kinds of unscientific speculation most often found in blogs. Serious, scientifically sound information and argumentation, on the other hand, are cordially and respectfully solicited, and shall be sincerely appreciated. And, please do not be deterred by an automated spamblocker message. Any scientifically sound message will be read, automated message notwithstanding.\n\nCompetition over sex could only act as a filter between EXISTING gene code and existing gene code. The same is true of competition for a place in a food chain, or any other niche. Natural selection (and artificial selection, alike) filter only the same. What I would deeply appreciate is information about a mechanism that provides for complex systems to be constructed, where they would require an enormous number of individual mutations, all in concert, with interstitial stages conserved... to produce a systme of the kind of many that function in, say, the human body, today.\n\nRandom mutations tend to be erratic and -- at a remarkable ratio -- deleterious rather than constructive. They do not, so far as I have been able to determine, align themselves and work in linear direction and succession toward an ultimate system format. Or, if they do, I would be glad to learn how. \n\nThe general rule is (is it not) that mutations, and useless partially-completed gene constellations require the expenditure of energy to sustain them, in the absence of their providing any immediate fitness advantage. What good are any gland pumpings, reception gates at an organ level,signal transductions that dead end somewhere along the way... UNTIL AND UNLESS they result in a specific, present fitness advantage at any given interstice of the construction job.\n\nWhat mechanism, if any, has been demonstrated empirically to see to the conservation of interstitial stages of complex physiological system construction -- by any method of detection or prognostication whereby the construction of a gene sequence in route to turn key stage (and any protein shapings that might result from them) job would not be jettisoned by natural selection as an energy-wasting nuisance, he incremental genetic coding for an, as yet, incomplete physiological process which, until complete and in operation, will yield any fitness advantage. \n\nIf my understanding of evolutionary DEVELOPMENT is correct, a phenotype expending energy to conserve a prospective set of tentative gene codings -- which must take what? -- hundreds or thousands of generations to complete -- would be at a fitness disadvantage (energywise), would it no?\n\nMy mind is open on this issue,so please do not think me biased by any agenda, whatsoever.\n \nResponses of requested nature, only... please. \ \n\n
Avatar of: Chris Davis

Chris Davis

Posts: 3

July 25, 2008

...they mate. People have sex. Some people make love.\n\nAn exhibition "displaying the freaky side of animal sex" is at best misleading the public by focusing on strange, rare, or even contrived circumstances.\n\nAt worst, it is morally corrupt to compare strange animal behavior to human sexuality as an attempt to "appreciate the diversity of animal sex."\n\nI can't speak for the curator of the Museum of Sex, but we humans are in most behavioral ways very different from other animals. At least I am, Ms. Jacobs!\n
Avatar of: Mike Brennan

Mike Brennan

Posts: 11

July 26, 2008

The evidence is conclusive that different species engage in mate selection differently, and to say that all animals base their choice on primary or secondary sexual characteristics is as clearly wrong as saying than none of them do. The idea that selection of a mate based on perceived ability to help raise offspring doesn?t fit into ?sexual selection? is made by being overly narrow in defining ?sexual selection?. \n\nAltering the tail feathers of a peacock is like taking the letterman?s jacket of the high school football star: the fact that the female of his species still finds him attractive doesn?t mean the attraction isn?t sexual, it just means you haven?t identified all the sexually linked factors. \n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 55

July 28, 2008

Could someone please explain what Joan Roughgarden is getting at? She seems to be concerned with overthrowing sexual selection, but exactly how her proposal differs from previous concepts is not explained. Saying that male peacock feathers are signals for something different than previously suspected doesn't change them from being signals on which females base choices. There doesn't seem to be any difference between what is being called "social selection" and sexual selection. I'm suspicious that some social ideology is at work trying to insert itself into biology.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 29, 2008

how come that only a few comments are shown? What happened to all the coments already posted???
Avatar of: Herb Ruhs

Herb Ruhs

Posts: 9

July 29, 2008

Real life, unlike the many tidy scientific theories about it, is messy. I think future scientist will be much less tightly wound than our current crop of hard nosed rule finders and be more open to the open-endedness of biological processes. Life is very invested in maintaining the greatest array of diversity as a hedge against an unpredictable world. Fitness of life in general, as opposed to individual and species fitness, is furthered by a lot of rule breaking, a lot of contradictions and complexity, so as to enclose within it the greatest adaptive potential. Salvation in the face of environmental catastrophe (such as the one we humans have launched) is in the hands of the rule breakers, not the main stream standard organisms that starched shirt academics so identify with. The future is found at the ends of the distribution. If humans manage to come out the other side of our self induced crisis, their ancestors will be amongst the seemingly least fit and non-standard individuals now living. Restriction to a form of tidy, victorian sex is just not biologically sound approach to species survival.\n\nI am glad that this article is willing to poke fun at the moralist, prudes and social conformist among us. Loosen up folks.

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