Is Zoology sexist?

Has our understanding of relationships in other animals been misinformed by outdated views on gender roles?
12 September 2022

Interview with 

Lucy Cooke




James Tytko spoke with zoologist and TV presenter Lucy Cooke about a dogma which has plagued the field of evolutionary biology dating back to the man who started it all off, Charles Darwin himself. They met at his old stomping ground, Christ’s College, in Cambridge…

James - So Lucy, thanks so much for joining us. The topic of this week's show is dogma and dogma, for people who don't know, is a belief authoritatively laid down without being questioned or scrutinized. And I wondered Lucy, if it was alright, if we started this discussion about dogma and your recent work with a bit of an activity, I've got some myths, some popular falsities, if you like, about animals that I wonder if you might have a go at debunking for us. And the first one is that you'll often hear people describe someone as being as blind as a bat. Now are bats really blind?

Lucy - No, they're not blind. No, in fact fruit bats can see better than we can. You know, you'd probably quite like to have the eyes of a fruit bat. Very handy if you were looking to lead a sort of crepuscular existence. In the 16th century, it was an Italian Catholic priest who worked out that they were actually using echolocation and he did some sort of barbaric experiments where he actually removed the eyes of bats <laugh> before letting them loose, and found that they could still navigate.

James - Ostriches burying their heads in the sand. Is that something they actually do?

Lucy - No, they don't bury their heads in the sand. And what that might come from is two things - One, they nest on the ground. So they actually have these communal nests, ostriches, that one female will look after, or it might even be a male or one ostrich will look after. And so obviously when they're putting their head down to rearrange the eggs and turn them around, that might look from a distance like they're sticking their head in the sand.

James - Thank you, Lucy. Throughout the course of that exercise, what I've been trying to get at is that sometimes we spread falsities and can be susceptible to believing untruths because it's convenient to us, because they make for a good story. But believing something because it's convenient is diametrically opposed to what we think of as science. But you've been showing that in the case of evolutionary biology, scientists have been guilty of perpetuating a theory because it's convenient, because it's what they know.

Lucy - Yes. Yeah. It was shocking for me to discover this really, but evolutionary biology turns out to be sexist. Darwin himself, here we are in the college where Darwin learnt zoology himself at Cambridge. And he's a hero of mine, you know he's the reason I studied evolutionary biology because there would be no evolutionary biology without Charles Darwin. He was an incredibly meticulous scientist, but he was also a man of his time. And that time was the Victorian era, a time when women couldn't vote and their place was in the home. And so when he came to brand the female of the species, she came out in the shape of a Victorian housewife. Passive, coy and submissive by default. And then because Darwin said it, all the scientists that followed in his wake for over a hundred years suffered from a chronic case of confirmation bias. I was amazed that science could be so vulnerable to cultural bias. You sort of think of it as being impervious and the scientific process rinsing out that kind of cultural bias, but actually no.

James - This revelation you had led you to write the book that I'm holding in my hands now, which is quite provocatively titled 'Bitch'. But I think I'm allowed to say that? So I'm going to take that opportunity. Can you give us a flavor of where this typical narrative of the plucky male overcoming the other suitors and the prize being the submissive female, where this damsel in distress isn't reflected by the actuality?

Lucy - Well, I mean, there are dozens of examples that I could choose. Probably the one that led to the idea that Darwin was perhaps wrong, <laugh> being bust open, was langurs. Langers, which are monkeys, you find in India, beautiful live creatures with these lovely sooty faces. And it was actually Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who's an American anthropologist. And she noticed that the females were anything but coy and chased. And they were actively soliciting sex with males outside of their group. She was, really the first scientist rather than to sort of go, 'oh, hang on that doesn't fit the paradigm I'm going to ignore that', which is what everybody previously had done whenever they came across sort of the promiscuity of the lioness for example, they just sort of walked away and said, 'oh, we're not gonna look at that because that doesn't fit.' And she found that it was connected with infanticide. Male langurs are infanticidal. If a new male takes over a territory, then he wants to meet with the females in that territory as soon as possible. But if they're nursing young, then they're not available. But if he kills the babies, then they're going to come into oestrus and then he can mate with them. Now as a counter strategy against infanticide, the females will have sex with every male in the neighborhood. And then the males are less likely to kill the babies of a female that they've recently mated with. These are not the coy chased females of Darwin's dreams.

James - I want to go back to something you said a bit earlier and to lift the veil on how science is susceptible to human fallibility, our confirmation bias. And I wanted to ask how much this dogma that you've been trying to unearth still hangs over evolutionary biology today. Once a dogma has taken hold, how easy is it to reverse the narrative?

Lucy - It's surprisingly hard. I mean, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who I talked about in the first instance, she first started challenging these stereotypes that were established by Darwin back in the end of the 1970s. That's 50 years ago now, right? So you'd think we would've got over it by now and the sexist stain would've been washed out of evolutionary signs, but that is not the case. So one of the sort of fundamental principles that underpins this idea that males are more variable and the dynamic drivers of evolution and females aren't is Bateman's paradigm. I won't go into it all, but it's based on an experiment on fruit flies that took place in the 1940s and that underpins these stereotypes, okay? There's another scientist, Patricia Gowaty, who has done a number of experiments in order to question that. And she's replicated the experiment, she's gone back to the original notes, et cetera, and she's found that the idea that this underpins a universal law, that males are promiscuous and females will be chased and choosy is bunkum right? It's just not true. And yet her papers are considered to be ideologically driven. So they're often not taught.Bateman's paradigm is still found in pretty much every textbook you'll find and Patty's papers will probably not be referenced alongside them. So, you know, we've still got work to do.


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