Sex – a matter of perspective


I am sure that many readers have already concluded that I do not understand the role of sex in either organic or biotic evolution. At least I can claim, on the basis of the conflicting views in the recent literature, the consolation of abundant company.

– George C. Williams, Sex and Evolution, 1975

What’s sex all about? This question has been exercising biologists since well before Williams’s time, but in the 1970’s, with the rise of ‘gene-centrism’ and the related controversy over group selection, a succession of prominent authors grappled with the problem, trying to fit it with current evolutionary theory to no-one’s particular satisfaction. Males were deemed an impediment to a female’s efforts to maximise her reproductive output, time wasted on these feckless types resulting in her only passing on 50% of her genes per offspring. From the perspective of a ‘selfish gene’, meanwhile, getting into every offspring seems a preferable fate to only getting into half of them. On the basis of these apparent large costs, a cryptic offsetting benefit of corresponding magnitude was assumed. Like Godot, it is yet to appear.

Yet sex is widespread. All eukaryotes either do it now, or possess tell-tale signs that their recent ancestors did. Given that it appears costly to individuals, and genes, how did it evolve and why does it persist?