Friday, March 28, 2008

Human Oestrus

Iris and I are reading Jared Diamond's book on the evolution of human sexuality, "Why is sex fun?" An interesting read, and in many ways a good introduction to the science of behavioral ecology, except that Diamond falls into his usual habit of making the same point many times and many ways, as if to beat you into agreeing with him. Since I generally start out agreeing with him, this gets tiring. The chapter we were reading last night was primarily his speculations on the evolutionary basis of the lack of obvious oestrus in humans. I was therefore very interested when this evening, browsing the table of contents of ProcRoySoc B, I cam across an article titled "Human Oestrus"

Here is the abstract:

For several decades, scholars of human sexuality have almost uniformly assumed that women evolutionarily lost oestrus—a phase of female sexuality occurring near ovulation and distinct from other phases of the ovarian cycle in terms of female sexual motivations and attractivity. In fact, we argue, this long-standing assumption is wrong. We review evidence that women's fertile-phase sexuality differs in a variety of ways from their sexuality during infertile phases of their cycles. In particular, when fertile in their cycles, women are particularly sexually attracted to a variety of features that likely are (or, ancestrally, were) indicators of genetic quality. As women's fertile-phase sexuality shares with other vertebrate females' fertile-phase sexuality a variety of functional and physiological features, we propose that the term oestrus appropriately applies to this phase in women. We discuss the function of women's non-fertile or extended sexuality and, based on empirical findings, suggest ways that fertile-phase sexuality in women has been shaped to partly function in the context of extra-pair mating. Men are particularly attracted to some features of fertile-phase women, but probably based on by-products of physiological changes males have been selected to detect, not because women signal their cycle-based fertility status.

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