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Our Expert Voices conversation on why sex exists.

Charles Darwin famously asked why organisms should be produced by combining two sexual elements, instead of by cloning: "The whole subject is as yet hidden in darkness." Evolutionary biologists are still asking this question, but some progress has been made. One idea — with empirical support from studies of New Zealand snails that have sexual and asexual females and lots of virulent parasites — is that sexual reproduction protects populations from disease. That depends on reciprocal evolution between hosts and parasites. The basic idea is that cloning is very good when rare. The clones are all female, and this gives them a massive reproductive advantage. But, once the clone becomes common, it can become the target of rapidly evolving parasites. If these parasites are common and virulent, they could drive the clone back down in frequency, and thus prevent it from replacing the outcrossing females (and males). In contrast, outbred sexual populations can be highly diverse for disease-resistance genes, which reduces the spread of infection among offspring. The bottom line: Sexual reproduction produces genetically variable offspring, which may give sexual females an advantage over asexual females in the face of rapidly evolving parasites. Other voices in the conversation: Sarah Otto, theoretical biologist, University of British Columbia: Sex is evolution's answer to an ever-changing world Joan Roughgarden, evolutionary biologist, University of Hawai'i: Male, female: it goes back to size

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
Dave Lawler, author of World
4 hours ago - World

Alexey Navalny detained after landing back in Moscow

Navalny and his wife shortly before he was detained. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained upon his return to Moscow on Sunday, which came five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He returned despite being warned that he would be arrested.

The latest: Navalny was stopped at a customs checkpoint and led away alone by officers. He appeared to hug his wife goodbye, and his spokesman reports that his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

Mike Allen, author of AM
7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

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