Toward a New Sexual Selection Paradigm: Polyandry, Conflict and Incompatibility (Invited Article)


Jeanne A. Zeh, Department of Biology and Program in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557, USA. E-mail:


Darwin's recognition that male–male competition and female choice could favor the evolution of exaggerated male traits detrimental to survival set the stage for more than a century of theoretical and empirical work on sexual selection. While this Darwinian paradigm represents one of the most profound insights in biology, its preoccupation with sexual selection as a directional evolutionary force acting on males has diverted attention away from the selective processes acting on females. Our understanding of female reproduction has been further confounded by discreet female mating tactics that have perpetuated the illusion of the monogamous female and masked the potential for conflict between the sexes. With advances in molecular techniques leading to the discovery that polyandry is a pervasive mating strategy, recognition of these shortcomings has brought the study of sexual selection to its current state of flux. In this paper, we suggest that progress in two key areas is critical to formulation of a more inclusive, sexual selection paradigm that adequately incorporates selection from the female perspective. First, we need to develop a better understanding of male × female and maternal × paternal genome interactions and the role that polyandry plays in providing females with non-additive genetic benefits such as incompatibility avoidance. Consideration of these interaction effects influencing natural selection on females is important because they can complicate and even undermine directional sexual selection on males. Secondly, because antagonistic coevolution maintains a balance between opposing sides that obscures the conflict itself, many more experimental evolution studies and interventionist investigations (e.g. gene knockouts) are needed to tease apart male manipulative adaptations and female counter-adaptations. It seems evident that the divisiveness and controversy that has plagued sexual selection theory since Darwin first proposed the idea has often stalled progress in this important field of evolutionary biology. What is now needed is a more pluralistic and integrative approach that considers natural as well as sexual selection acting on females, incorporates multiple sexual selection mechanisms, and exploits advances in physiology and molecular biology to understand the mechanisms through which males and females achieve reproductive success.