Nautilus

Evolution Is Really Not That Into Sex

What is sex for? When I regularly queried students at the beginning of my course in evolutionary biology, most responded that it was for reproducing. Reasonable enough, but wrong. In fact, lots of living things reproduce without sex: Asexual reproduction is found not only in many forms of archaea and bacteria, but also in numerous plants and protists, as well as in fully one half of all animal phyla.

Baker’s yeast reproduce by budding, as do hydra and parasites such as tapeworms. Other creatures, including fungi and some algae, make spores without sex. Some reproduce when pieces of themselves generate new individuals—that is, by fragmentation—as among planarians and a number of annelid worms and marine oligochaetes. Then there is parthenogenesis, literally from the Greek partheno (virgin) plus genesis (creation). Such virgin birthing is the norm among water fleas and rotifers. It has been found in at least two species of sharks (hammerheads and blacktips), and is regularly employed by New Mexico whiptail lizards and occasionally by boa constrictors, although it has not—yet—been reported for any birds or mammals. (Or humans, except

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