Sexual Selection: Its Possible Contribution to Recent Human Evolution


Darwin's appeal to sexual selection in his Descent of Man was motivated by the need to explain traits not obviously of survival value, in particular sexually dimorphic and ornamental traits. After Darwin, there was little interest in sexual selection until the 1970s. Since then there has been much progress due to what we now know about: first, sexual reproduction and human evolution in general; second, theoretical developments related to runaway processes, parental investment, mating systems, sexual conflicts and cooperation; third, new empirical data about mating preferences in humans and closely related species. Three issues have motivated the debates about sexual selection: the explanatory scope of sexual selection; the nature and existence of sexual selection; the relation between natural survival selection and sexual selection. One recent approach combines survival and sexual selection in the idea that several distinctively human capacities and behaviour are the products of sexual selection on fitness indicators.

Key Concepts

  • The explanatory scope of a theory or hypothesis is the range of phenomena it can potentially explain.
  • Fitness indicators are those traits that are possible only in highly fit individuals, and are therefore indicative of high fitness.
  • Parental investment is the amount of resources a parent devotes to the production and care of offspring, in development from the generation of gametes to birth, and to the feeding, education and support of offspring.
  • Sexual selection is a result of the struggle to reproduce, and is to be distinguished from natural selection and the struggle to survive.
  • Surplus abilities in humans are those abilities not obviously explainable in terms of natural survival selection and advantages for survival, such as we see in advanced mathematics, poetry, dancing, music and more.

Keywords: selection; sexual selection; sexual reproduction; natural selection; sexual dimorphism; human evolution


Andersson M (1994) Sexual Selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Apostolou M (2007) Sexual selection under parental choice: the role of parents in the evolution of human mating. Evolution and Human Behavior 28: 403–409.

Bajema CJ (ed) (1984) Evolution by Sexual Selection Theory prior to 1900. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. Inc.

Buller D (2005) Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Campbell BG (2007) Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Cartwright J (2000) Evolution and Human Behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cronin H (1991) The Ant and the Peacock. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Darwin C (1981) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fitzpatrick JL and Lüpold S (2014) Sexual selection and the evolution of sperm quality. Molecular Human Reproduction 20 (12): 1180–1189.

Geary DC (2005) The Origin of Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition and General Intelligence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Miller G (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Random House Inc.

Pinker S (1997) How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Rossano MJ (2003) Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Roughgarden J (2009) The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stearns SC and Hoekstra RF (2005) Evolution: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

Buss D (1994) The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books.

Buss D (2007) Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Geary DC (1998) Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ridley M (1993) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. London, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Richards, Richard A(Jun 2016) Sexual Selection: Its Possible Contribution to Recent Human Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021788.pub2]