TV Programs Probe Parallels in Animal, Human Mating

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 14, 2003
It's Valentine's Day, a day when the age-old questions naturally arise: "What do women really want?" "Who's in charge of the mating game?" and "Is beauty really only skin deep?"

A special two-hour presentation tonight on the National Geographic Channel (airing in the United States, see below for more details) might surprise you. When it comes to courtship and mating, it's all a matter of biology, the experts say.

Animal magnetism, it seems is fundamentally not that different across species. It's the male's job to persuade, and it's the female's job to make the best mate choice she can.

Age-Old Questions

For many years, mate choice was seen as a male prerogative. The guy who could best defend his territory, or win the annual head-butting contests, or display the most gorgeous feathers, won the girl—or girls as the case may be. The females were perceived as passive prizes.

That viewpoint has changed as the role of female choice has become more recognized: Quality of mate is far more important to the female than the male.

Motherhood is costly, and sperm is cheap, said John Maynard Smith, a biologist at the University of Sussex.

Take fruit flies, for instance.

"The males are not really concerned with who they mate with. After all, he can mate five times a day. The female is only going to mate once in her life, so she really cares."

The answer to the question—what do females really want—is symmetry, said Randy Thornhill, a biologist at the University of New Mexico. And that also cuts across species. Symmetry in nature is shorthand for quality, according to Thornhill. The more symmetrical a person's features are, the more likely he or she is to be perceived as attractive. The female scorpion fly is quite picky; she's looking for a mate with matched wings—a signal to the female that he's a good hunter.

There are two theories on how such a thing might dictate female choice. A beautiful tail on a peacock could mean that he's strong and healthy, because only a very fit male could afford to support such an extravagance. Alternatively, said Smith, a female could think that if other females like beautiful tails, she better mate with a male who has a beautiful tail so that her male offspring will be sexier and more successful at mating, which would extend her genes to future generations.

It's tougher on the males than the females, said William Eberhard, while acknowledging his admittedly biased male point of view. A biologist at the University of Costa Rico, Eberhard said that in many species, males have to develop elaborate techniques to convince the female to let him copulate with her, and even then, he's not assured of success. She could go off and mate with another, she could expel his sperm, she could store it but not use it, and all his efforts could have gone for naught.

And is beauty only skin deep? No, said Thornhill. In many cases, beauty goes along with strength and vigor, and is a certification of health.

Social Climbing

When it comes to great apes, the resemblance to human behavior can be quite startling; it all comes down to how to make friends, get a date, win favors, and form alliances.

Richard Wrangham, a biologist who has worked for many years in Africa studying chimpanzees, is interested in how human social behavior evolved. It's not surprising that the social behavior of humans and chimps is similar, he said.

"The thing we evolved from about 5 million years ago was very like a chimpanzee; it was big and black and hairy, it was the size of a chimp," and chimpanzees today have many of the primitive characteristics of early hominids, he said.

Success in life isn't that different for apes than it is for humans; it's all a matter of winning friends and influencing your peers, said Harvard biologist Mark Hauser.

Each individual has to figure out how to read facial expressions to tell the difference between a friend and an enemy, distinguish the wimps from the bullies, and determine what's good behavior and what's bad, said Frans de Waal, primatologist and director of the Living Links Center, Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Atlanta. Among primates, each individual has its own personality, some more aggressive, some more social, and its own unique ability to navigate the social complexities of group living, he said.

And many of the problems they face are the same; leaving home, finding a mate, and making one's way in the world.

It's a constant battle.

To learn more about animal magnetism, tune in tonight to the National Geographic Channel (available on United States cable television networks) to:

Who's Aping Who: Social Climbing 8:00 PM ET/PT
In the complex worlds of apes and humans, the rules of social survival seem eerily similar. For apes, it's all about life, politics, and the mating game, just like in a human community. Are we really that different from apes after all?

Animal Behavior 9:00 PM ET/PT
In the game of courtship, are females the real power players? Are monogamy and promiscuity behaviors only instinctive in humans? The National Geographic Channel investigates the nature of animal attraction, and how communication plays a dominant role in any relationship.

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