Mad Science, Or the Perils of Reporting Evo-Psych

Mad_science_39 Beth Skwarecki in Bitch Magazine:

Whether it’s lions fathering all the cubs in their pride, or human males getting a pass for cheating on their girlfriends, males sleeping around rarely make the news—it’s the natural order, after all—unless the article is happily touting the genetic advantages a male gets from spreading his dna around.

But when female cheetahs were found to do the same by a Zoological Society of London study, the study’s words about “promiscuous” felines were quickly outnumbered in Google’s index by the phrase, “cheetahs are sluts!”

Study author Dada Gottelli was quoted thus: “Mating with more than one male poses a serious threat to females, increasing the risk of exposure to parasites and diseases. Females also have to travel over large distances to find new mates, making them more vulnerable to predation.” Sounds like a cheetah-specific version of certain sex-ed curricula: Don’t sleep around, girls, or you’ll catch lots of diseases and the male cheetahs won’t respect you in the morning. Male cheetahs, however, aren’t “promiscuous”—they’re creating a healthier gene pool.

Not too surprising, then, that most of the coverage glossed over the evolutionary benefit of promiscuity for both male and female cheetahs: Multiple cubs by multiple cub daddies increases the likelihood of genetic diversity—a definite positive for a threatened species. Furthermore, the study noted that the rates of infanticide in cheetahs are much lower than in other big-cat populations, likely because male competitors don’t know which offspring might be theirs. But why let the facts slow down a good headline?