The cover of Bitch by Lucy Cooke (Doubleday 2022)
- Bitch gives myths about the female of the species short shrift. The author, Lucy Cooke, debunks each one with impeccable references and scathing logic.
- In her foreword, Cooke writes that her “book intends to demonstrate that sex is wildly variable and that gendered ideas based on assumptions of binary sex are nonsense.”
- She writes about the ‘monogamy myth’ with wry humour, “if you want to know how promiscuous the female of the species is, there are a couple of big bulging physical clues which are known to provide a reliable metric.”
- Bitch is in effect the latest in a long line of books, and longer line of thought and action, on removing the male gaze from biology, such as it is.
Recently, I got into a conversation with a fellow wildlife biology student about the Bateman-Trivers hypothesis. By experimenting on mutated fruit flies in the 1940s, Angus John Bateman suggested that when male flies mate with more female flies, they have more offspring. On the other hand, there appeared to be little or no offspring benefit to female flies mating with more males.
Through the study, Bateman concluded that male fruit flies were indiscriminate whereas female fruit flies were choosy. “It makes sense,” my friend said. “After all, males have plenty of sperm, and females only have one egg at a time.” Naturally, males should be promiscuous while females should hold out for the best possible mate.
That makes sense, right? In her new book, Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal, Lucy Cooke explains why this isn’t the whole story.
At the dawn of modern-day biology, there was Charles Darwin. His ideas of evolution served, and serve, as the foundation of an intricate network of biological fields. Along with Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin imagined that the breathtaking variety of life around us descended from a single common ancestor, with organisms adapting to different surroundings and passing those adaptations on to their offspring, leading to the creation of species through natural selection.
More strikingly, he envisioned the idea of sexual selection – in which males developed flamboyant traits, like the stag’s antlers and the peacock’s feathers, for the purpose of attracting mates. This would lead to the sexes not just looking different from each other but behaving differently, too.
Darwin theorised that it is the male of every species that competes with other males and dominates females, while the females are coy, passive and, most of all, chaste. He also said that if the males were trying to woo females, then there had to be an element of female choice – but this idea didn’t sit well with the social mores of his time. So he downplayed the aspect of female mate choice, described the females explicitly as “comparatively passive” spectators and forced “the female of the species into an ill-fitting chastity belt”, in Cooke’s words.
This way, his findings aligned neatly with Victorian society’s ideas of womanhood and femininity. But even then, many of his peers vehemently attacked the idea of sexual selection because they thought mate choice still gave the females a bit too much power.
Bateman’s experiments provided critical support for Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Bateman also believed his observations on fruit flies could be generalised to more complex organisms, such as human beings, pitting the “indiscriminating eagerness” of the male against the “discriminating passivity” of the female.
Harvard University professor Robert Trivers popularised the implications of Bateman’s work in a 1972 paper, which has now been cited nearly 17,000 times (one of the highest in evolutionary biology). These ideas subsequently spread far and wide through primatology, ethology, ecology and other fields.
But as Cooke’s book lays out, the Darwin-Bateman-Trivers paradigm, as it is called, is only a small part of a complicated story, even as attempts to repeat Bateman’s experiment have found very different results. It is, in effect, that familiar contest between the weight of history and the contradictions thrown up by modern science and society.
Bitch gives this and other similar myths about the female of the species short shrift. Cooke debunks each one with impeccable references and scathing logic. She describes how scientists tried in the 1970s to reduce the red-winged blackbird’s population by sterilising the males – only to discover that the vasectomised males had harems laying fertile eggs because the females were nowhere near as chaste as they were thought to be. In fact, we now know that 90% of female birds mate with multiple males.
When it comes to the “monogamy myth”, she writes with wry humour, “if you want to know how promiscuous the female of the species is, there are a couple of big bulging physical clues which are known to provide a reliable metric.”
The ‘unfaithful’ females have excellent reasons for having multiple mates that aren’t limited to getting the best possible sperm for their offspring. In many species, including langurs and lions, females try to confuse the paternity of their offspring. This discourages the males from killing the infants of other males, because the little ones might just as well be their own, and even encourages them to take care of unrelated children.
Overturning a hypothesis with new evidence is trivial compared to overturning an idea rooted in science as well as societal beliefs. In Bitch, Cooke also introduces us to the scientists who brought new evidence of the behaviour of females to light and the challenges they faced along the way.
There were the straightforward barriers. When Bridget Stutchbury of York University, Toronto, found that female hooded warblers solicit sex with males who aren’t their mates, reviewer after reviewer of the paper said her results must be wrong.
Then there were the absurd defences. When Patricia Gowaty, formerly of the University of California, Los Angeles, presented her findings that the female eastern bluebird was not a faithful mate, a well-known male ethologist told her that her subjects must have been “raped”.
And then there was the downright offense. When Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discussed her ideas about female promiscuity, a male colleague replied, “So, Sarah, put it another way – you’re horny, right?”
In her foreword, Cooke writes that her “book intends to demonstrate that sex is wildly variable and that gendered ideas based on assumptions of binary sex are nonsense.” She covers research that challenges our very ideas of what it means to be male or female. In some species of frogs, for example, which sexual organs develop is decided in one of three ways: sometimes genetic, sometimes environmental and sometimes both.
At the same time, many fish are hermaphrodites, adopting both male and female roles and switching through their adult lives. As anemonefish transition from male to female, their shrivelled genitalia are still male – even though their brains are not.
These narratives engender the idea that what we might think are exceptions to strict people-created binaries are in fact points along a magnificently complicated continuum.
Bitch is in effect the latest in a long line of books, and longer line of thought and action, on removing the male gaze from biology, such as it is. Angela Saini’s 2017 book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, was a very popular book in the same line. It similarly described research that debunked myths around human females based on androcentric biases in biology.
Cooke goes further by stepping out of the anthropocentric and even mammal-centric viewpoint altogether, and exploring life in all its vibrant, messy glory, together with accessible explanations of complicated biological concepts for a non-scientific audience.
Nature doesn’t understand the biases of societies, people and researchers. “People forget that the majority of traits in males and females are similar,” a scientist interviewed by Cooke notes. “We all have brains, we all have hearts, we all have our bodies. There are more similarities between the sexes than there are differences.”
In our deeply polarised world, Cooke’s treatise seems to say, let’s not forget that science has the potential to bring us together.
Priyanjana Pramanik is an MSc student of wildlife biology and conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.