Darwin the prude, sexual selection, and sperm competition

February 8, 2009 • 10:16 am

Last Thursday’s Times Higher Education Supplement (the UK one) has a series of short pieces on Darwin and his legacy.  Perhaps the most interesting is by Tim Birkhead, the noted evolutionist who works on sperm competition in birds and has written a number of academic and popular books on the topic.  Birkhead claims that Darwin was reluctant to publish work on sexual selection—and missed entirely the topics of sperm competition between males as well as the relative promiscuity of females—because of the prudishness of his Victorian milieu as well as of his daughter Henrietta.  I’m not a historian of science and so can’t evaluate these claims, but Birkhead’s piece is provocative and well worth reading, as are the other pieces in this supplement.