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16 March 2022

“Darwin’s cultural bias was laced into his science”: Lucy Cooke on why evolutionary biology needs feminism

In her new book Bitch, the zoologist re-evaluates the myth of female submission in the animal kingdom.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The version of evolutionary biology Lucy Cooke was taught by Richard Dawkins at Oxford University makes for a compelling story. Throughout the history of animal life on Earth, males have driven the evolutionary agenda: sperm are mobile, plentiful and require little energy to produce, incentivising male animals to compete to impregnate as many females as possible, thus maximising the chances of passing on their genes. Eggs, in contrast, are large and costly to produce, relegating females to a life of passivity while they wait quietly for males to determine who fathers their offspring.

“I was taught that this apparently trivial disparity in our sex cells laid cast-iron biological foundations for sexual inequality,” Cooke writes in the introduction to her new book, Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal, published on 3 March. It’s a deceptively appealing narrative – one I remember from GCSE biology lessons. The trouble is that it’s not true.

“I had no idea that the story would be so big,” Cooke, 51, said when we spoke via Zoom. A zoologist by training and a feminist by nature, she was considering topics for the follow-up to her bestselling book The Unexpected Truth About Animals (2017) and decided to investigate how what had been drummed into her about sex in the 1980s was being overturned.

The result is Bitch, a 300-page romp through the animal kingdom and 150 years of sexist science that demonstrates that “female animals are just as promiscuous, competitive, aggressive, dominant and dynamic as males”. We meet a staggering array of females taking their reproductive destinies into their own paws: hyenas with testes and eight-inch clitorises through which they give birth, menopausal orcas leading their pods, spiders that snack on their mates, lesbian albatrosses, matriarchal lemurs, nymphomaniac bonobos, cuckolding songbirds, adulterous lionesses, and meerkat queens “who will eat their sisters’ babies for breakfast if they dare to have them”.

[See also: In Sexual Revolution, Laurie Penny wages war against bad sex]

I admit to Cooke that she has ruined meerkats for me. No more will I coo over their adorable furry faces now I know their societies are ruled by a female despot who violently keeps the males in their place and enforces “reproductive tyranny” on her kinswomen via extortion and physical abuse. “Most murderous mammal on the planet,” she laughed, “even more murderous than a homicidal human male.”

How could the myth of female submission have persisted in science for so long? The culprit is the father of evolution himself, Charles Darwin, who imposed his own attitudes about women on the animals he was studying and whose theory of sexual selection consequently revealed only half the picture. “The males of almost all species have stronger passions than the females,” according to Darwin. The female, meanwhile, “generally ‘requires to be courted’; she is coy”. Tell that to meerkats and bonobos.

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“Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was incubated in misogyny, so it’s little wonder that the female animal came out deformed; as marginalised and misunderstood as a Victorian housewife,” writes Cooke, continuing that Darwin’s “godlike reputation” has made generations of scientists unwilling – consciously or not – to challenge him. For decades, evolutionary biology has been stuck in a loop: evidence that supports Darwin’s stereotypes is publicised and championed, while examples that don’t fit the mould are ignored.

Over more than two years Cooke met and researched the scientists attempting to correct the record. Unsurprisingly, many of them are women – and just as unsurprisingly, their gender has often been used to discount their findings. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy worked out that female langurs will solicit outsider males for sex to confuse the paternity of their future offspring and protect them from aggression. Patricia Gowaty exposed the flaws of the 1948 fruit-fly experiment by Angus Bateman on which the principle of evolutionary sex roles is based. Amy Parish discovered that bonobos have female-dominated hierarchies, challenging the notion that our proto-human ancestors must have lived in patriarchal societies like chimpanzees. All have faced pushback suggesting their work is less valuable because it comes from a “feminist” position. Cooke could barely hide her indignation.

“As Darwin shows, all science is politically driven,” she said. “His cultural bias was laced into his science, and he’s one of the greatest scientists who ever walked the Earth. If Darwin can’t escape the shackles of cultural bias, who can?” In other words, perhaps we need some feminism to rebalance science’s inadvertent sexism.

One of the most egregious examples of biology’s cultural blind-spot concerns the very basics: anatomy. In a chapter entitled “Love is a battlefield: genital warfare”, Cooke explains how for years scientists fixated on the astounding variation in animal penises, but seemed uninterested in vaginas. That is, until Patricia Brennan came along, observed the corkscrewing monstrosity borne by a male duck, and wondered (in Cooke’s words) “what type of garage he parks his car in”. Brennan discovered the female duck’s correspondingly helical internal piping, which serves as a sperm obstacle course to thwart fertilisation from males she’d rather didn’t sire her chicks and casts the observable violence of duck sex (where aggressive males will pin down a struggling female) in a new light. Other species that engage in forced copulation revealed similarly convoluted female genitalia, including dolphins.

[See also: The fetishisation of “natural” childbirth has killed women and babies]

“It’s a built-in cock-blocker!” Cooke exclaimed with obvious glee. “It’s amazing, evolution’s a fantastic thing.” She then recounted her excitement at seeing a pickled dolphin clitoris in Brennan’s Massachusetts lab. But dolphin and duck anatomy has a serious message as well. “It empowers the female in the end,” Cooke said. “The female goes from being a victim, where she’s sexually coerced and loses the autonomy of who fertilises her egg, to being in control of that, which in evolutionary terms is all that matters.”

It’s a finding that contravenes Darwin and Dawkins – but then, this book is all about pushing the boundaries of how we think sex and reproduction work, from lizards that can reproduce without males to fish that change their sex up to 20 times a day. Even the title is engineered to shock. Cooke said that when she emailed her literary agent with the suggested name for her book in the subject line, “apparently she didn’t dare open it for three days because she thought I was angry with her. When she did finally open it, she said, ‘You can’t call it that! It’s really polarising.’ I can’t advertise on Facebook and Instagram because the title is a profanity. I don’t even think of it as a profanity.”

At 51, Cooke has a mischievous side, but her passion is just as evident. Her dog barked enthusiastically beside her as she told me how she grew up obsessed with zoology, documenting frogs in the garden pond. Studying under Dawkins was “an incredible privilege, he taught me how to be curious”, but she never saw herself in the evolutionary archetype of the meek, chaste and naturally maternal female. Little did she know that while she was being lectured on female passivity, pioneering scientists were uncovering a different narrative. Yet the “myths” of male dominance and female submission continue to be printed in biology textbooks.

Ask Cooke if Bitch is a feminist book and she won’t hesitate. “It’s unashamedly biased. I’m a feminist, and by that I mean I believe in equal rights, I don’t believe that females are superior.” She continued: “I don’t mind being accused of being feminist, because what I’m preaching is that we pay attention to both sexes.

“That gives us the technicolour version of life on Earth. Without that, we’re still looking through Darwin’s Victorian pinhole camera.”

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global