Choosing a mate is the single most important thing that most animals will do for the continuation of their species. In this lesson, we look at what goes into mate selection, as well as how that biology may influence who we fall for.
Selecting a mate is one of the most important decisions that an animal, whether it’s a lab mouse or a human being, will make over the course of its lifetime. Granted, not every animal mates for life, but the act of mating is a considerable investment. Essentially, it is a proclamation that there are desirable enough traits about this individual that should be passed on to the next generation.
In this lesson, we’re going to look at a very generalized overview of how animals behave when they are in the market for a mate. When appropriate, we’ll be making reference back to human behavior, but rest assured, everything we talk about in this lesson applies to pretty much the whole animal kingdom.
What Makes a Great Mate?
Let’s start by answering one of the most fundamental questions of all – what makes a mate great? Sure, you could take the really romantic approach and ask your grandparents how they fell in love. If they succeeded in raising a family, then in the human species, that is a pretty successful mating combination. But let’s say that your grandparents say something almost cheesy, like the way he was so funny and charming or the fact that your grandfather just thought your grandmother was beautiful. Are they giving you useless information?
Actually, no. What your grandparents are essentially saying is that they chose each other based on their genes. Take anyone that society considers attractive, and you’ll see that their face is really a cheat-sheet to their genetic code. Everything we think of as attractive about someone is actually nature saying that they have good genes. Even down to a sense of humor, but more about that in a minute. The important thing here is that, overwhelmingly, in the animal kingdom, there is a desire to only pass along the best genes.
Selecting a Mate & Being Selected
Therefore, if we want our genes to be passed on, it is best that we put our best genes forward on display. If you were a bear, that may be the ability to reach the highest limb or roar the loudest. For us, that means showing off. However, beauty isn’t skin deep, and this isn’t going to turn into a lesson on how to groom yourself. Instead, when you’re at your best, you are confident. Now, I don’t mean to sound like a self-help book, but our manifestation of confidence is really when we show off our best genes.
Speaking of confidence and showing off, let’s take a look at the peacock. They truly are the showboats of the animal kingdom. All of those blue and green feathers serve no purpose except to gain the eye of a female. It is the ultimate measure of confidence – almost as if the bird is screaming, ‘Hey look at me, I’m not afraid of that tiger that’s lurking in the bushes!’ In short, confidence is attractive at a genetic level.
The peacock doesn’t just have to worry about the tiger in the bushes but also all those other male peacocks. Herein lies a major difference between males and females in the animal kingdom and one that human society has, to a great degree, transformed away from. Raising young takes a lot of investment, and that investment largely comes from the female. As such, females tend to look for the best set of genes to pass down. That female peacock only wants attention from the most flamboyant peacock around and doesn’t have time for any that doesn’t have the genetic makeup to be that confident. Meanwhile, males in many species don’t have to make a big investment to raise their young, so instead, they are looking to mate with as many females as possible.
There are some very notable exceptions. Obviously, many humans tend to value the idea of marriage, but my personal favorite example of this in the animal kingdom is the penguin. Penguins mate for life, and this is in no small part because the males have an enormous duty in raising the young. As such, it is in the male’s best interest to make sure that the penguin chick survives.
In this lesson, we looked at animal mating habits, comparing them to human habits when appropriate. We saw that the main goal of mating is to make sure that the best set of genes is passed on to the next generation. Animals tend to show off their genetics in a variety of ways, from humans dressing up for a party to peacocks showing their tail feathers. That confidence in one’s genetic abilities is a strong marker in the wild for having those good genes in the first place.
Still, there are differences. Females tend to look for quality over quantity, while males, without the investment in giving birth and raising young, focus on quantity. That said, there are a number of exceptions, ranging from humans to penguins.