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Experiencing feminism in science


The essential difference between male and female gametes
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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The essential difference is that if a female gamete is very expensive, male gametes are really rather cheap. Consequently, a female will not benefit by mating lots of times, because her fecundity is limited by how many eggs she can produce. A male will benefit by mating with lots of females, because his fecundity is not limited by his ability to produce gametes. And in the beast that I worked with, Drosophila subobscura, it was very striking, that the female mated once in her life, a male could mate five times a day. And their attitudes, if I can put it that way, towards mating, were very different. The male... female is extremely choosy and selective, not only would she only mate with members of her own species, but they had to be the right age, they had to be fit and healthy, and she had methods of discovering whether they were fit and healthy though the courtship dance. The males were... you could get a male to attempt to mate with a blob of wax on the end of a bristle that you moved in the right way, he'd dance with it, and when you held it still, he'd try and mount it. I mean, he just wasn't a very discriminating organism. I'm afraid, it's what's to be expected. But once you get the formation of a pair bond, and... which lasts through a breeding season, or through life, and you get both parents investing in the offspring, then, of course, it is as important to the male as the female to select an appropriate mate. And you get these very elaborate mutual courtships in many birds, for example, where both parents are feeding the young and making equivalent contributions; except, always, of course, the female has to lay the eggs, but otherwise the male may be doing as much, to make the nest, to look after the kids. Going back to the very early ethology that Julian Huxley did on grebes, for example, where you can't tell the male and female apart by looking at them, and they have this extremely elaborate courtship in which they're both having to perform to convince the other. So it really does depend how much investment you put into your kids.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Drosophila Subobscura, Julian Huxley

Duration: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008