Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution: Theoretical Background

Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution proposes that the conflict between male and female desires can lead to the evolution of features that benefit one sex at the expense of the other. Females, for example, may acquire characteristics that make them less vulnerable to male violence or harassment.

In contrast, males may evolve characteristics that boost their capacity to overcome female reluctance to mating. This can result in an "arms race" between the sexes, with one developing more powerful features or behaviors reacting to the other.

What is Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution?

Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution is a theoretical framework that explains how male-female interactions during reproduction might impact the evolution of features and behaviors in both sexes. The hypothesis suggests that males and females have competing reproductive objectives and that this competition can drive the development of features that benefit one sex but harm the other. Sexual selection is an essential concept in Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution.

It refers to how individuals with specific features are likelier to mate and pass those traits on to their children. Males compete for access to females in many species, while females pick males based on physical appearance, personality, or resources. Exaggerated features in males, such as bigger body size, brilliant coloration, or elaborate courting displays, might result from this.

However, sexual selection may damage females since features that benefit males may be hazardous or expensive to females. Male aggressiveness or sexual compulsion, for example, can damage females while simultaneously increasing a male's chances of mating. Similarly, characteristics that make women more appealing to men, such as bright colors or excessive sexual signals, might make them more prone to predation or harassment. The evolution of sexual dimorphism is central to the theory of Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution, as it reflects the different selective pressures acting on males and females during reproduction. In many species, males and females have conflicting interests in reproduction. This conflict can drive the evolution of traits beneficial to one sex but detrimental to the other.

Theoretical Models of Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution

Several theoretical models have been constructed to investigate the dynamics of Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution. Here are a couple of examples −

  • The Fisherian Model − This concept, created in the early twentieth century by R.A. Fisher, assumes that men and females are genetically independent and that there is genetic diversity for qualities that favor one sex but hurt the other. According to the hypothesis, sexually hostile genes will eventually achieve an equilibrium frequency where the advantages and costs to each sex are equal.

  • The "Chase-Away" Model − This concept proposes that male qualities damaging to females can persist if females acquire traits to reject or avoid these negative features. According to the model, male and female qualities will coevolve in a "chase-away" arms race, with males evolving more damaging features and females evolving higher resistance to these traits.

  • Model of "Good Genes" − According to this hypothesis, male qualities that are deleterious to females can endure if they are connected with genetic advantages that boost the fitness of their progeny. According to the concept, females will choose males with these characteristics, resulting in sexually hostile characteristics.

The Evolution of Sexual Dimorphism

Sexual dimorphism refers to physical characteristics, behavior, or other variations between men and females of the same species. These differences can originate from various sources, including genetic variations, hormone differences, and developmental differences. Sexual selection, when individuals with specific qualities are more likely to mate and pass those traits on to their offspring, frequently drives the development of sexual dimorphism.

Males evolve exaggerated characteristics employed in courting displays or rivalry with other males due to male competition. Male peacocks, for example, have evolved enormous, colorful tail feathers that they deploy in courting displays to attract females. On the other hand, male elk have acquired huge antlers that they employ to fight with other males to maintain dominance and access to mating chances.

Conversely, females may evolve features that make them more appealing to males or protect them from male violence or harassment. Female birds, for example, may develop brighter plumage or more complex courtship displays to attract males. In contrast, female insects may develop behaviors or structures that make it more difficult for males to mate without their choice.

Researchers can learn about the nature of sexual selection and the mechanisms that underpin the development of male and female features by researching the evolution of sexual dimorphism. They can also investigate how sexual conflict shapes the evolution of features and behaviors and how men and females may coevolve in reaction to one another.

Rice's work is a fundamental publication on Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution. Rice created a mathematical model to investigate how sexually hostile features evolve in a population. The model posits a genetic link between male and female fitness, with identical alleles increasing male fitness and decreasing female fitness and vice versa. Rice's research established a theoretical framework for comprehending the development of sexually hostile features and the dynamics of sexual conflict. The model has impacted our knowledge of the development of sexually dimorphic characteristics.

Rice used the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to undertake actual proof of sexually antagonistic coevolution in addition to his theoretical work. Rice's experiment involves selecting for higher or lower male or female fitness levels in distinct fruit fly populations. He discovered that female fitness fell when he selected higher male fitness, and vice versa, demonstrating a genetic link between male and female fitness. The work has been considered a classic example of sexually antagonistic coevolution in the evolution of male and female features, and it has impacted later research on the subject.


Sexually Antagonistic Coevolution is a process by which male and female features coevolve in reaction to one another, frequently resulting in the evolution of sexually dimorphic traits. The role of sexual conflict in driving the development of male and female features has been demonstrated by theoretical models and actual demonstrations. Understanding the processes of sexually antagonistic coevolution is critical for comprehending the evolution of sexual dimorphism and the role of sexual selection in sculpting Earth's biodiversity.

Updated on: 20-Apr-2023


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