Sex, Gender, and Evolution Beyond Genes

Part of the Crossroads of Knowledge book series (CROKNOW, volume 1)


Gene-centered explanations of (a) how traits develop in individuals and (b) why traits evolve by natural selection have led to a view of the sexes that is equally deterministic and inflexible. Biologists now recognize that “nature” versus “nurture” is a false dichotomy, and similarly, feminist biologists have debunked many stereotyped views of sex by shedding light on the vast amount of variation in sex, sex determination, sex hormones, primary and secondary sex traits, and sex roles. However, while biologists have begun to move past gene-centric views of evolution, response to deterministic views of the evolution of sex and gender has been less pronounced. Furthermore, the idea that the sexes act in such a way as to get their genes into the next generation has led some scientists and many media outlets to paint a picture of a human nature where evolution has shaped promiscuous, sex-hungry males and coy, resource-vying females. Can the new tools that have challenged the gene-centric view of evolution also apply to evolution of sex and gender? In this article I will take on this question and outline how a perspective encompassing adaptive flexibility provides a nuanced and less deterministic view of sexual selection in nonhuman organisms and humans.


Natural Selection Reproductive Success Female Genital Mutilation Neck Length Helper Male 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Thanks to R. Bowen, E. Padgett, and M. Ah-King for several interesting conversations that led to this article. Thanks also to R. Bowen, A. Lau, M. Ah-King, A. Lee, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on the manuscript. The author received funding from an NSF Pre-doctoral Fellowship while writing this article.


Biological determinism

is the idea that any trait can be traced to either a single underlying gene or network of genes and that variation in such genes is the only target of natural selection.

Genetic accommodation

is an evolutionary process resulting from natural selection modifying the relative importance of environmental and/or genetic input to the production of a trait. Sometimes this results from an increase in genetic control of a trait, while other times this results from a decrease in genetic control of a trait.

Mechanisms of heredity

are ways in which traits are passed from parents to their offspring. Genes are one mechanism of heredity, but other, not genetic mechanisms include genomic imprinting and social behavior.

Natural selection

is a process that results in evolution wherein individuals with some trait variant survive more and/or leave more offspring than individuals with a different trait variant.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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