The Sunday Magazine

Busting sexist myths about female creatures in the animal world

In her latest book, Bitch: On the Female of the Species, British zoologist Lucy Cooke challenges, debunks and then reconstructs common narratives about female animals.

'Both males and females have the capacity to nurture': zoologist Lucy Cooke

In her latest book, Bitch: On the Female of the Species, British zoologist Lucy Cooke challenges, debunks and then reconstructs common narratives about female animals. (David Dunkerley)

For zoologist Lucy Cooke, years of wildlife research has proven that — at least some of the time  — even the most beloved nature documentaries fail to show us the full picture of the intricate lives of wild creatures.

In her latest book, Bitch: On the Female of the Species, the London, U.K., author argues that narratives of chaste females resisting virile male seduction, and of mothers protecting their young, are grounded in centuries of sexist science that have given us misguided myths on female animals. 

Cooke spoke with The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay about why she wanted to reset the narrative and bust stereotypes that suggest female animals are hard-wired for things like motherhood and monogamy — tropes that have also impacted how we see gender roles in humans.

Here is part of their conversation.

Your book begins with reflections on being a zoology student and feeling like a misfit. And you felt that way because of your gender. You write, "being female meant just one thing. I was a loser." Now, I suspect that was somewhat in jest but still, what do you mean by that?

Well, I was taught at Oxford, by Richard Dawkins, who's a pretty well-known evolutionary biologist. And I was taught that females were exploited. The fact that we produce a few nutrient rich ova, and males produce lots of mobile sperm, has basically meant the we drew the short straw in the primeval lottery of life, and our sex cells that we produce define our behaviour.

Males will be ardent, aggressive, competitive and promiscuous, whereas females will be passive, coy, chaste and submissive. So yeah, that's why I felt like a loser. Because hearing that was pretty depressing, actually.

Charles Darwin was a 'brilliant and meticulous scientist,' said Cooke, but his science was also shaped by the 'cultural lens through which he viewed the world.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

You mentioned Dawkins, obviously, a very modern-day prolific, smart human being, but it wasn't just him, right? This goes way back to Charles Darwin, one of your heroes. And you point out that even though he's one of the greatest scientists of all time, his work was deeply impacted by cultural bias. Explain that.

Charles Darwin, who is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and meticulous scientist, but fascinating to me, was also a man of his time, and that cultural lens through which he viewed the world impacted his science. And this is really what my book is about, essentially, the power of cultural bias to obscure biological truth. 

He was a Victorian, so he branded the female of the species in the shape of a Victorian housewife, because that was what was seemly. And then, because Darwin said it, it meant that generations of scientists that followed in his wake, just suffered from confirmation bias, and just looked for what fitted Darwin's paradigm and ignored everything that didn't. 

And really, it took a bunch of fierce feminist, female scientists in America to start challenging these misogynistic stereotypes, essentially. 

Okay, let's talk about another stereotype. Your writing shows how it's been hardwired into our beliefs that males are promiscuous. Females, on the other hand, are chaste and coy. What are your favourite examples or evidence that you can point to to debunk this?

This is a very pervasive idea, that females are seeking monogamy and males are wired for promiscuity and it still gets routinely trotted out by evolutionary psychologists even today, rubber stamped by Darwin. But it's not true. And one of the first people to challenge this was Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who is this amazing American anthropologist. She was studying langurs in India, and she noticed that the females were not coy in the slightest. They would go up and solicit males from outside the group for sex, really quite aggressively. 

By confusing paternity, males are less likely to kill babies, if they've recently copulated with the female that's had them- Lucy Cooke

She was really the first person to, rather than ignore this and write it off and say, 'Well, we're just going to ignore what doesn't fit in with the paradigm,' she actually investigated. And she worked out that the reason why the females are doing this was to confuse paternity. Males are often infanticidal in quite a few primate species. And so by confusing paternity, males are less likely to kill babies, if they've recently copulated with the female that's had them. Multiple mating is useful for manipulating males, as it were, whether it's into caring for offspring or not, but it also just increases the chances of hitting the genetic lottery and finding a good match. 

So in primates, there's something astonishing. I can't remember if it's macaques, but during season, the females have been observed having sex every 17 minutes with every male in the group. This is another one of the myths that only males derive pleasure from sex. So Patricia Brennan, who's this amazing scientist out of Boston, has done a lot of work on the clitoris and recently, she just did a thing with dolphins which have a lot of sex, and she found that the clitoris in the dolphin has all the same nerve endings and is remarkably similar to our own.

I also want you to tell us about orca whales, because as we rethink what we know about animals, there are some lessons to be learned from other societies, animal societies, and orca whales are turning our views on patriarchal animal societies, turning them right upside down.

So orcas, also known as killer whales, live in family pods. And it was always thought that the males were the leaders. But it turns out, not only are the females the leaders of orca society, but it's the post-menopausal grannies that are the leaders of their hunting community. So menopause is really rare in the animal kingdom. It's just humans and four species of toothed whale that naturally go through menopause. And it would seem that in the case of orcas, the reason why is if the females stop reproducing halfway through their life, and instead invest in their existing offspring, and leading the group, then their genetic legacy is greater. 

Orca whales live in pods, but it is the grandmothers of these groups that are the leaders, said Cooke. (NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

They're competing with their daughters basically into old age. But basically, orcas have got these extraordinary brains; they're like, seven kilos. And they even have this paralimbic lobe that we don't have, and it suggests that they experience emotion in a way that we can't comprehend. And they are incredibly, socially cohesive. 

There's the orcas that I went and visited in the Salish Sea of Washington State. There was a member of their community that had scoliosis, and they cared for it. And you could see the fin was bent, but they were sharing fish with it, and it was cared for in the community. So I found this story of these empathetic, wise old lady whales that were leading their community post-menopause to be a real beacon of hope.

Written by Samraweet Yohannes. Produced by Andrea Hoang. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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