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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Sexist Pseudoscience at the Heart of Biology

This story is adapted from Bitch: On the Female of the Species, by Lucy Cooke.

For years, studying zoology made me feel like a sad misfit. Not because I loved spiders, enjoyed cutting up dead things I’d found by the side of the road, or would gladly root around in animal feces for clues as to what their owner had eaten. No, the source of my disquiet was my sex. Being female meant just one thing: I was a loser.

“The female is exploited, and the fundamental evolutionary basis for the exploitation is the fact that eggs are larger than sperms,” wrote my college tutor Richard Dawkins in his bestselling evolutionary bible, The Selfish Gene.

According to zoological law, we egg-makers had been betrayed by our bulky gametes. By investing our genetic legacy in a few nutrient-rich ova, rather than millions of mobile sperm, our forebears had pulled the short straw in the primeval lottery of life. Now we were doomed to play second fiddle to the sperm-shooters for all eternity, a feminine footnote to the macho main event. I was taught that this apparently trivial disparity in our sex cells laid cast-iron biological foundations for sexual inequality. “It is possible to interpret all other differences between the sexes as stemming from this one basic difference,” Dawkins told us. “Female exploitation begins here.”

Male animals led swashbuckling lives of thrusting agency. They fought one another over leadership or possession of females. They shagged around indiscriminately, propelled by a biological imperative to spread their seed far and wide. And they were socially dominant; where males led, females meekly followed. A female’s role was as selfless mother, naturally; as such, maternal efforts were deemed all alike: We had zero competitive edge. Sex was a duty rather than a drive.

And as far as evolution was concerned, it was males who drove the bus of change. We females could hop on for a ride, thanks to shared DNA, as long as we promised to keep nice and quiet. As an egg-making student of evolution, I couldn’t see my reflection in this ’50s sitcom of sex roles. Was I some kind of female aberration?

The answer, thankfully, is no.

In the natural world, female form and role vary wildly to encompass a fascinating spectrum of anatomies and behaviors. Yes, the doting mother is among them, but so is the jacana bird that abandons her eggs and leaves them to a harem of cuckolded males to raise. Females can be faithful, but only 7 percent of birds are sexually monogamous, which leaves a lot of philandering females seeking sex with multiple partners. Not all animal societies are dominated by males by any means; alpha females have evolved across a variety of classes, and their authority ranges from benevolent (bonobos) to brutal (bees). Females can compete with each other as viciously as males: Topi antelope engage in fierce battles with huge horns for access to the best males, and meerkat matriarchs are the most murderous mammals on the planet, killing their competitors’ babies and suppressing their reproduction. Then there are the femme fatales: cannibalistic female spiders that consume their lovers as post- or even pre-coital snacks and “lesbian” lizards that have lost the need for males altogether and reproduce solely by cloning.

A sexist mythology has been baked into biology, and it distorts the way we perceive female animals. But fortunately, in the last few decades there has been a revolution in our understanding of what it means to be female.

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In Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, the famed biologist used sexual and natural selection to explain human evolution and the sex differences that were already upheld by Victorian society. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands,” explained Darwin. “Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman.”

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was incubated in misogyny, so it is little wonder that the female animal came out deformed, as marginalized and misunderstood as a Victorian housewife. What is perhaps more surprising, and damaging, is how tough it has been to wash this sexist stain out of science, and how far it has bled.

Darwin’s genius has not helped. Because of his godlike reputation, biologists who followed in his wake have suffered from a chronic case of confirmation bias. They looked for evidence in support of the passive female prototype, and saw only what they wanted to see. When faced with anomalies, like the licentious promiscuity of the female lioness that enthusiastically mates scores of times a day during oestrus with multiple males, they studiously looked the other way. Or worse, experimental results that didn’t conform were manipulated with a statistical sleight of hand to conjure sideways support for “the correct” scientific model.

A central tenet of science is the parsimonious principle, also known as Ockham’s razor, which teaches scientists to trust in the evidence and choose the simplest explanation for it, as it will probably be the best. Darwin’s strict sex roles have forced an abandonment of this fundamental scientific process as researchers are compelled to dream up ever more tortuous excuses to explain away female behaviors that deviate from the standard stereotype.

Take the pinyon jay. These cobalt-blue members of the crow family live in noisy flocks of 50 to 500 birds in the western states of North America. Highly intelligent creatures with such active social lives are likely to have some means of ordering their busy society—a dominance network—otherwise there would be chaos. The ornithologists John Marzluff and Russell Balda, who studied the jays for more than 20 years and published an authoritative book on them in the 1990s, were interested in decoding the pinyon jay’s social hierarchy. So they went in search of the “alpha male.”

This took some ingenuity. It transpired that male pinyon jays are committed pacifists and rarely ever fight. So the enterprising ornithologists built feeding stations loaded with tasty treats to try to incite some kind of territorial war. But still the jays refused to engage in battle. The researchers were forced to base their scale of combat on some fairly subtle cues, like sideways glances. If the dominant male gave the submissive male what amounted to a dirty look, then the submissive would leave the feeder. It wasn’t exactly Game of Thrones stuff, but the researchers sat and diligently recorded around 2,500 of these “aggressive” encounters nevertheless.

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When they came to run the statistics, they were further confused. Only 14 of 200 flock members qualified for a place in the dominance network, and there was no linear hierarchy. Males reversed their dominance and subordinates “aggressed” their superiors. Despite the puzzling results and general lack of macho hostility, the scientists still felt confident in declaring, “There is little doubt that adult males are in aggressive control.”

The curious thing is, the researchers had seen jays behaving with significantly more antagonism than a few annoyed looks. They documented birds in dramatic airborne battles where dueling pairs became locked in combat mid-air and “flap vigorously as they fall to the ground,” where they “peck at each other with forceful stabs.” These encounters were “the most aggressive behavior observed during the year,” but they were not included in any dominance network. The perpetrators were all female. The authors concluded that this “testy” feminine behavior must be hormonally driven. They proposed that a spring hormone surge had given these female jays “the avian equivalent of PMS which we call PBS (pre-breeding syndrome)”!

There is no such thing as avian PBS. If Marzluff and Balda had had their minds open to the female birds’ aggressive behavior and used Ockham’s razor to shave the fluff from their conjecture, they would have gotten close to figuring out the pinyon jay’s complex social system. The clues that females are in fact highly competitive and play an instrumental role in the jay’s hierarchy are all there in their meticulously recorded data, but they were blind to them. There is no conspiracy here, just blinkered science. Marzluff and Balda illustrate how good scientists can suffer bad biases. Science, it transpires, is soaked in accidental sexism.

It hasn’t helped that the academic establishment was, and in many areas still is, dominated by men who naturally view the animal kingdom from their standpoint. Many simply weren’t curious about females. Males were the main event and became the model organism—the default from which the female deviated. Female animals, with their “messy hormones,” were the outliers, distracting tangents to the leading narrative, and didn’t warrant the same level of scientific scrutiny. Their bodies and behaviors were left unexamined. The resulting data gap then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Females are seen as the invariant and inert sidekicks to male endeavor, because there’s no data to sell them as anything otherwise.

The most dangerous thing about sexist bias is its boomerang nature. What started as chauvinist Victorian culture was incubated by a century of science and then spat back into society as political weaponry, rubber-stamped by Darwin. It gave a handful of, notably male, devotees of the new science of evolutionary psychology the ideological authority to claim that a host of grim male behaviors—from rape to compulsive skirt-chasing to male supremacy—were “only natural” for humans, because Darwin said so. They told women they had dysfunctional orgasms, that they could never break through the glass ceiling, thanks to an innate lack of ambition, and should stick to mothering.

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This turn-of-the-century evolutionary psychobabble was gobbled up by a new breed of men’s magazines that shunted this sexist “science” into the mainstream. In bestselling books and high-profile columns in the popular press, journalists like Robert Wright crowed that feminism was doomed because it refuses to acknowledge these scientific truths. From his ideological pedestal, Wright penned imperious articles with titles like “Feminists, Meet Mr Darwin” and awarded his critics “a C in Evolutionary Biology 101,” claiming that “not a single well-known feminist has learned enough about modern Darwinism to pass judgement on it.”

But they had. The second wave of feminism at the turn of the century opened once-closed laboratory doors, and women began walking the halls of top universities and studying Darwin for themselves. They were heading into the field and observing female animals with the same curiosity as male animals. They discovered sexually precocious female monkeys and, instead of ignoring them like their male predecessors had, they questioned why they might be behaving in this way. They developed standardized techniques for measuring behavior that forced equal attention on both sexes. They harnessed new technologies to spy on female birds and reveal that far from being victims of male sexual dominance, they were in fact running the show. And they repeated experiments that empirically underpinned Darwin’s sexual stereotypes and discovered the results had been skewed.

Their work has enabled a new wave of biologists to look at the female of the species as fascinating in her own right, by examining female bodies and behavior and asking questions about how selection works from the perspective of a daughter, sister, mother, and competitor.

Since the time of Aesop, humans have looked to animals as models of human behavior. Many believe, somewhat misguidedly, that nature teaches human societies what is good and correct—the naturalistic fallacy. But survival is an unsentimental sport, and animal behavior encompasses female narratives that range from the fabulously empowered to the terrifyingly oppressed. Scientific discoveries about female animals can be used to fuel battles on both sides of the feminist fence; wielding animals as ideological weapons is a dangerous game. But understanding what it means to be a female animal can help counter tired androcentric stereotypes; it can challenge our assumptions about what is natural, normal, and even possible. If womanhood is going to be defined by one thing, rather than strict, outdated rules and expectations, it is its dynamic and varied nature.


Adapted from Bitch: On the Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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