Joan Roughgarden and Social Selection

Joan Roughgarden, courtesy of Stanford University Profiles 

LGBTQ+ Pride month is celebrated every June in remembrance of the Stonewall riots to champion the dignity and visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals. It is estimated that LGBT people are around  20% less represented in STEM fields than expected.1 Therefore, it is important we champion the inclusivity of LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM. Joan Roughgarden is an example of this, a 74 year old evolutionary biologist and ecologist. 2 She is also a trans woman.3

She is known mostly for her “Social Selection” theory which aims to rival Darwin’s Sexual Selection.4 Darwin’s originally proposed theory of sexual selection suggests that “…when the males and females of any animal have the same general habits of life, but differ in structure, colour, or ornament, such differences have been mainly caused by sexual selection; that is, individual males have had, in successive generations, some slight advantage over other males, in their weapons, means of defence, or charms, and have transmitted these advantages to their male offspring.5 An example of this sexual selection at play is in peacocks. It is female-driven due to their higher investment in reproduction. Female gametes store food for the embryo and consequently are bigger than the male gamete and in most species, she has to look after the offspring until they are mature. Males, however, make a lot of sperm, very quickly and once a male has successfully got his sperm near the egg for fertilisation, his obligations to the offspring is often over. The outcome of this imbalance of investment is a differing reproduction strategy between the two sexes. Females have evolved a behaviour where they select a mate who demonstrates that he is the ‘fittest’ before she will invest in reproduction with him. Whereas most males, due to their low investment, are not actively selecting and aim to impress the females to engage in many matings to produce as much offspring. A male peacock’s tail has no benefit for its survival and is a hindrance. It takes a lot of energy to produce and then it has to be carried around behind him everywhere. A male peacock who is still able to not be eaten by a predator, shows that he must have ‘good’ genes for attributes like strength and health. The female pick these male peacocks out.

Roughgarden details that there are many exceptions to the assumptions that come with the theory of sexual selection including sexual monomorphism(species which show no difference between the sexes besides genitalia), species which reverse standard sex roles, species with transgender presentation(species in which some individuals of one sex resemble the majority of individuals in the other sex) and homosexual mating.6  Her remedy to this, social selection, states that: “[it] starts with offspring production and works back to mating, and starts with behavioural dynamics and works up to gene pool dynamics. In social selection, courtship can potentially be deduced as a negotiation, leading to an optimal allocation of tasks during offspring rearing. Ornaments facilitate this negotiation and also comprise ‘admission tickets’ to cliques. Mating pairs may form ‘teams’ based on the reciprocal sharing of pleasure. The parent–offspring relation can be managed by the parent considered as the owner of a ‘family firm’ whose product is offspring. The cooperation in reproductive social behaviour evolves as a mutual direct benefit through individual selection rather than as some form of altruism requiring kin[the evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to the organism’s own survival and reproduction]7 or multi-level selection[selection occurring on the group level]8.”4 Social selection is a mode of natural selection relying on reproductive transaction in which one organism offers assistance to another in exchange for reproductive opportunity. An illustration of this is the chop salmon that have two types of males 9 – one has biological ornaments that hold territories in the lek(males gathered to engage in competitive displays, lekking, to entice females for mating)10 and the other who intrudes to find mates.


Hopefully you have gained a deeper appreciation of the importance of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM sectors and the value they can produce. Including diversifying the school of thoughts in evolutionary biology.



  1. Cech, Erin, and Michelle Pham. “Queer In STEM Organizations: Workplace Disadvantages For LGBT Employees In STEM Related Federal Agencies”. Social Sciences, vol 6, no. 1, 2017, p. 12. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/socsci6010012. Accessed 9 June 2004.
  2. “Joan Roughgarden’s Profile | Stanford Profiles”. 2020. Profiles.Stanford.Edu. https://profiles.stanford.edu/joan-roughgarden?tab=bio.
  3. Kaesuk Yoon, Carol. 2000. “SCIENTIST AT WORK: Joan Roughgarden; A Theorist With Personal Experience Of The Divide Between The Sexes”. The New York Times, , 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/17/science/scientist-work-joan-roughgarden-theorist-with-personal-experience-divide-between.html.
  4. Roughgarden, Joan. 2012. “The Social Selection Alternative To Sexual Selection”. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367 (1600): 2294-2303. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0282.
  5. Darwin, Charles. 1998. The Descent Of Man. 2nd ed. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  6. Roughgarden, Joan. 2009. The Genial Gene. 1st ed. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  7. “Kin Selection | Behaviour”. 2020. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/kin-selection.
  8. Wilson, David Sloan, and Elliott Sober. 1994. “Reintroducing Group Selection To The Human Behavioral Sciences”. Behavioral And Brain Sciences 17 (4): 585-608. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00036104.
  9. Gross, Mart R. 1985. “Disruptive Selection For Alternative Life Histories In Salmon”. Nature 313 (5997): 47-48. doi:10.1038/313047a0.
  10. Fiske, Peder, Pekka T. Rintamäki, and Eevi Karvonen. 1998. “Mating Success In Lekking Males: A Meta-Analysis”. Behavioral Ecology 9 (4): 328-338. doi:10.1093/beheco/9.4.328.

About The Author 

Omodolapo – or Dolapo – is 15 years old and a member of the Young Scientists Journal team as outreach for England. She takes an interest in all areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

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