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The ‘Bitch’ Book I’m Not Requiring You To Read…

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…even though you damn well better, if you ever want to make any pronouncement about sex/gender and behavior in the animal kingdom.

Department Of I Am Woman Hear Me Roar    [1]

 

 

The book club moiself  is hosting – so unprecedentedly named, “Book Club” – is reading a book that, despite being entertaining in and of itself, has some of the more enthusiastic and engaging reviews I’ve run across in years.

But there is one adjective (most of) the reviews have left out.  Time and time again they mention how educational and entertaining the book is – you’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll shake your head and say WTF?!?!? – but they left out the anger part.  As in, for all readers with an IQ above their shoe size, this book should also, IMO, make you angry.  Angry in that the information contained in it is considered new and/or controversial to some people; angry that, even in the sciences, in fields of (supposedly) open inquiry, so many minds were closed for so many years and so many prejudices and social mores were passed along as biological realities.

 From what I’ve written, and from the review excerpts (my emphases) which follow, can you guess the subject of the book?   [2]

 

“I know you can, girls and boys.”

 

“Fun, informative and revolutionary all at once…should be required reading in school. After reading this book one will never look at an orca, an albatross, or a human the same way again. And the world will be better for it.”
( Agustin Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton University)

“….blows two centuries of sexist myths right out of biology. Prepare to learn a lot -and laugh out loud. A beautifully written, very funny and deeply important book.”
( Alice Roberts, author of Evolution )

“astonishing, wildly entertaining, and massively important.” 
 (Mary Roach, American popular science author )

“An important corrective to the ‘accidental sexism’ baked into so many biological studies… [and] a clarion call that the remaining terra incognita of female biology merits far more comprehensive mapping.”
(  Financial Times )

“[An] effervescent exposé… [A] playful, enlightening tour of the vanguard of evolutionary biology.”
( Scientific American )

“… shows what a difference women make to scientific inquiry, asking questions and proposing studies their male colleagues didn’t think of — or didn’t bother with.”
( Bethanne Patrick, LA Times )

“By analyzing numerous animals, this sparkling attack on scientific sexism draws on many scientists — of multiple genders — to correct stereotypes of the active male versus passive female.”
( Nature )

 

“Who you callin’ passive?”

 

“In compelling and often hilarious prose, using the scientific authority she has earned as a trained biologist…(the author) confronts the long history of androcentric assumptions baked into evolutionary biology and begins to set the record straight.”
( Jessie Rack, Science )

“…demolishes much of what you probably learned about the sexes in biology class. This may be disconcerting, even confronting for those who feel comfortable in the warm embrace of Darwinian order. But it’s also exciting, and fascinating, and very well might change the way you see the world.”
 ( Science News )

“…dives into sex and gender across the animal kingdom, dispelling all the misogynist notions of females being the weaker sex…This book elevates not just the science itself but the scientists that have been marginalized for too long.”
 ( Lucy Roehrig, Booklist )

“In this delightful, revelatory survey of cross-species sexism, (the author) treats readers to an information-dense reframing of the many misunderstandings around sex and sexuality that burden ‘girls’ of all kinds. Come for the promise of some really neat nature facts. Stay for Cooke picking apart the misogynistic underpinnings of Charles Darwin’s fundamentally flawed theory of evolution.
( AV Club )

“A dazzling, funny and elegantly angry demolition of our preconceptions about female behaviour and sex in the animal kingdom… I read it, my jaw sagging in astonishment, jotting down favourite parts to send to friends and reading out snippets gleefully.”
( The Observer )

 

The male sage grouse’s mating dance has got to be one of those snippets.

 

“The author has a charmingly irreverent style that, among other things, pokes holes in the sexist scientific research of old that used cherry-picked data to conclude females weren’t worth studying.
( Publishers Weekly )

“A top-notch book of natural science that busts myths as it entertains.”
 ( Kirkus )

“Brilliant… readers will never see the world the same way again… inspires awe in the breathtaking diversity of nature and the evolutionary roots of our behaviour.”
 ( Times Literary Supplement )

 “A glorious rebuttal of everything we have believed about gender since Charles Darwin got it all wrong.”
( Daily Mirror )

*   *   *

The book is Bitch: On The Female of the Species, by Lucy Cooke.   [3]

 

 

Since 99% of us have had a least some exposure to Darwin’s works on evolution (On The Origin of the Species; The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex), we owe it to ourselves to read the scientific updates/corrections that have been over 160 years in the making.

In other words, if you *think* you know at least something about natural selection and animal behavior, you need to read this book.

“…since Charles Darwin got it all wrong.”

Pay close attention to that review fragment.

Darwin didn’t get it *all* wrong.  He and his peers,   [4]  whose work led us to the beginning of understanding evolutionary biology, were able to challenge the substantial religious barriers of their time and publish their findings. But when it came to sex and species, they were still men of their times, emphasis on both men and times.  They were unable to shed, nor even recognize, their blinkered, Victorian male mindset when it came to observations of pronouncements about the females of the species they studied – any and all species which used sexual reproduction.   [5]

Except that they mostly *didn’t* study the females of the species.

One of the most encouraging aspects of science is that, being science, it progresses.  Contemporatry scientists add on to the knowledge of the past, and correct the errors.  Still, this progress is often glacial, as science was done and continues to be done by human beings, with their flawed assumptions and hidden (even –  especially – to themselves) biases. Broadening the scope of knowledge and correcting errors can takes many years, and in the case of Victorian male scientists projecting their cultural assumptions and male privilege onto that of their theories and observations (or lack thereof) re females, it has taken tens of decades – approaching two centuries – for the “phallocracy of evolutionary biology” to be challenged in theory and overturned by the evidence.

Closing in on 200 years after Darwin and Wallace began organizing their theories of evolution, the old boys network many contemporary male scientists still hold on to the past.  Even when presented with the DNA analysis confirming what ethologists and biologists observed in the field – that, for example, in the nest of the assumedly monogamous/pair-bonded songbirds, only two of the clutch of the female’s six eggs are actually fathered by the male of the pair – some scientists still cling to the myth that only the males of a species are promiscuous.  The lower their blinders; they protest and bluster and try to explain away the evidence right under their prudish noses.  [6]

 

“Close your eyes and think of England.”

 

“Even the most original and meticulous scientists are not immune to the influence of culture….  The leading academic minds of the Victorian era considered the sexes to be radically different creatures – essentially polar opposites of one another. females were believed to experience  arrested development; they resembled the young of their species by being smaller and less colorful…. Essentially, males were considered to be more evolved than females.

These sentiments were all incorporate by Darwin into The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which, as the title suggests, used sexual and natural selection to explain human evolution and the sex differences 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.

….because of (Darwin’s) 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.”
( excerpts iv-xv, Introduction, Bitch: On The Female of the Species )

 

 

Moiself’s   summary/teaser for the book.  In Bitch… you will learn how the sexist scientific research of old

* projected their cultural assumptions and male privilege on to that of their theories and observations

* ignored and/or marginalized the science (and scientists) which contradicted their inherited stereotypes of the active male versus passive female

*used cherry-picked data to conclude females weren’t worth studying, and ultimately defined the females of species in terms of the males   [7]

*drew conclusions from studying male animals’ behaviors – and even anatomies – which they applied to females

These points cannot be emphasized enough.  Thus, I intend to do so, at least 23 times per post, in every blog of mine from here on out.

 

Just kidding.

*   *   *

Department Of Moiself’s Favorite Story From This Book Full of Favorite Stories

From Bitch’s Chapter Four: Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover: the conundrum of sexual cannibalism.

“Most people don’t think of the word flamboyant when describing a spider… (however) the male peacock spider is the Liberace of the arachnid world – an outrageous peformer who just like his avian namesake, employs an estraordinary iridescent tail-fan to win his mate….
When approaching a female…this fuzzy little four millimetre wonder stages an unexpectedly elaborate dance routine by abruptly lifting his furry abdomen into a vertical position and unfurling two shimmering flaps decorated with graphic blues, oranges and reds that could have been designed by Gianni Versace. This peacock arachnid wagles his gaudy butt-fan whilst bobbing his body up and down, stomping his feet and waving a pair of oversize legs in the air. This exhuberant toutine, part Fred Astaire and part Village People, can go on for up to an hour until he’s close enough to make his move.

It is an undeniably charming spectacle, made all the more endearing by the fact that the peacock male is, of course, dancing for his life. Up to three quarters of peacock suitors are terminally dispatched by an unimpressed female.”

 

Betcha I’d be the spider who survived the odds.

 

*   *   *

Punz For The Day
Biology and Evolution Edition

Some people don’t believe in evolution.
They’re primate change deniers.

If evolution’s really a thing,
why haven’t hummingbirds learned the words yet?

How do you identify a male bald eagle?
All his feathers are combed over to one side.

 

Oh, honey, don’t be so sensitive.”

 

*   *   *

May we always be willing to question the conventional wisdom;
May we continue to update our knowledge base;
May we enjoy watching footage of the ludicrous sage grouse booty call dance;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

[1] And if I am a woman lion hear me roar as I mate with every male lion I encounter…much to the distress of many male biologists….

[2] Yeah, I’m going to make you read further before I give the title.  Such a tease.

[3] In the running for Best Book Title Ever. ®

[4] In particular, British naturalist Alfred Wallace.

[5] As opposed to asexual reproduction.

[6] “The female songbird must have been raped!”  Cool story, bro, except that, like most birds (97%), male songbirds do not have a penis, and cannot rape their mates.  Both genders have a cloaca and must cooperate to share their genetic material, mating with what ornithologists call a “cloacal kiss.”

[7] Male lions are the default; females are the afterthought, the “-ess”es.

The Super Power I’m Not Flaunting

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Department Of Before I Go Any Further….

Happy Star Wars Day, y’all.

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Justice Served Cold

While the “Klingon” proverb declares that Revenge is a dish best served cold, I think that justice is best served steaming from the oven. But as that great philosopher Mick Jagger Simone de Beauvoir said, you can’t always get what you want. Keeping that in mind, last week provided quite the celebration for fans of hot dishes.

Backstory.  Dateline: a long time ago in a galaxy far far away (read: Davis, California, summer, 1978). I am a student at UC Davis, and it’s a muggy eve with not much to do after my summer job shift at the library has ended. Friend and fellow student RM invites me to go with him to visit his friend, MH.  MH and his girlfriend (real life working people, not students) share a studio apartment in Davis.  For reasons unclear to me, RM thinks I might enjoy watching MH and his girlfriend practice for an upcoming backgammon tournament.

The apartment is small; as MH and his girlfriend set up the backgammon board they gesture to RM and I to take a seat on their bed.  We do, and my heel bumps against the hard, metallic edge of something under the bed. I reach down and remove – an axe? Yep, that’s what it is – from under the bed, and tentatively hoist the rather hefty chopper over my shoulders.

“Uh…expecting lumberjacks?” I ask.

“No,” MH replies, “But if the East Area Rapist shows up, we’ll be ready.”

 

 

 

 

Frontstory. Dateline: last week. Two days in a row, while driving On My Way To Somewhere ® and listening to the radio, I found moiself pounding my car’s steering wheel and yelling YEEEEEEEEESSSSSS !!!!!   as I heard

Day 1: on an NPR newscast that authorities in California had arrested the suspect known as the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer, and then on

Day 2: on a BBC World News program announcer crisply and dryly   [1] broadcasting the news of the conviction of Bill Cosby for sexual assault.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Worlds Yet To Be Discovered

While listening to a Planet Money podcast, titled The Blue Pallet, I was once again struck by a sense of perspective-inducing humility vis-à-vis my knowledge of the universe and my place in it.

I do try to keep up with the latest discoveries in astronomy, and give a hearty cheer whenever I hear the announcement that another NASA satellite has discovered another exoplanet. But I found myself floored when I tuned in to what I expected was just another podcast, and heard the following:

We are going to bring you deep inside the pallet world…..

Why is this the first time I am hearing about a world of which I hitherto had no knowledge?

 

 

Yeah, fine, more planets, but can they find a new (and blue) pallet?

 

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Pot, Meet Kettle

Surely, IMHO, there are few books with a more apt title than the one I just finished re-reading:  And the Band Played On  (20th-Anniversary Edition). Award-winning journalist Randy Shilts’ classic, hailed by many as a “masterpiece of investigative reporting,” is subtitled, Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. As for the band that played on…and on…and on…what a frustrating story, so magnificently told.

IMHO there are very few heroes in the book, other than family and friends carrying for the desperately ill and dying in such trying and confusing circumstances, and also those compassionate physicians and research scientists searching desperately for a cure.  [2]

As for far too many of the gay rights “advocates” and almost all of the politicians and religious “leaders” back then…. Here’s my cheer for y’all:

Gimme an I, gimme a C Gimme a K, what’s that spell?

Both of those “sides” were the proverbial opposite sides of the same coin when it came to tactics of blame and denial. Time and time again, the gay rights advocates and the Christian Right  [3]   reminded me of each other, as they both clung to their ideology/party line in the face of the facts, and with seemingly little willingness to look at the faces of suffering/dying human beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certain business interests,   [4]   political conservatives (read: the Reagan administration) heavily influenced by (and politically beholden to) the fear- and hate-mongering rhetoric of Jerry Falwell and his ilk, and the growing ranks of politically active Evangelicals – all ignored the alarms raised by scientists and epidemiologists (and in some cases even their own family members, who knew someone affected by AIDS or were themselves at risk).

Conservative politicians targeted public health agencies for budget cuts, and in effect stuck their fingers in their ears and sang la la la we can’t hear you at any mention of anything related to (what was considered then to be an exclusively) a health crisis affecting homosexuals. Reagan even forbid his Surgeon General from answering reporter’s questions about the epidemic.

Any concern about individual human health, as well as that of the society at large, was suffocated under a blanket of shaming/bigoted rhetoric about how AIDS was a “gay disease,” and that gays had brought “the wrath of ______( insert name of favorite deity)” down upon themselves by abandoning “traditional family values.” Meanwhile, traditional values of compassion and empathy, of caring for the weak and vulnerable – and of listening to the scientists and doctors talking about the treatment and transmission of disease – were nowhere to be found.

Imagine something, anything – a disease, or a natural disaster or a series of coal mine explosions or terrorist attacks – taking the lives of over 20,000 Americans, and the President of the USA saying nothing about it[5]  And meanwhile, people were dying.

 

 

 

 

Then and now, the rhetoric and actions (or lack thereof) of the conservative political, business and religious communities came as little surprise to moiself. But I expected more of others.

On the other side, there were a growing number of (both gay and straight) physicians who, before they began putting the pieces together of the puzzling array of symptoms and illnesses which would come to be known as AIDS, had been saying that “something is going on/something must be done” about the alarming increase in the number and variety of diseases infecting sexually active gay men – diseases about which doctors found the afflicted to be alarmingly casual (Gonorrhea? Syphilis? Shigellosis? Hepatitis? Salmonella? And amoebic dysentery and amebiasis and giardiasis and campylobacteriosis and a variety of intestinal parasites and …? Just give me my pill/penicillin injection and I’ll see you later….).

And yet far too many gay rights advocates would broke no criticism of either the industries marketing the commodification of anonymous/promiscuous/unprotected sex (e.g., the sex clubs and bathhouses) – which were fertile grounds for both the transmission of existing diseases and the “breeding” of new ones – nor the patrons of such businesses.  Those who pointed out both the psychologically numbing and physiologically deadly dangers of bathhouse-type hook ups   [6]   were seen as betrayers, and were often isolated and vilified, even (or especially) when the warnings came from those of “their own kind” (e.g. playwright and activist Larry Kramer).  And meanwhile, people were dying. 

 

“This is going to be a world-class disaster. And no one is paying attention.”
Dr. Marcus Conant, dermatologist, founder of the San Francisco AIDS project, and one of the first physicians to diagnose and treat AIDS , as quoted in And the Band Played On)

*   *   *

 

Department Of Since That Was Not Exactly The Feel-Good Post Of The Year…

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Reasons To Keep Your Superpowers Hidden

Dateline: a recent evening, at the dinner table, discussing with MH the Superhero movies we have yet to see.  I confessed that, unbeknownst to him, my dear spouse, I have hidden something all these years: I am a Superhero.

MH (flashing a prove-it smirk) “And what is your superpower?”
Moiself: “I can smell fear.”
MH: ???
Moiself: “The problem is, it smells like farts.”

 

 

 

 

She who smelt it, dealt it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*   *   *

May your super power be socially acceptable if not impressive;
May you relish the occasion when justice is (finally) served;
May the 4th be with you;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

 

[1] You know the conviction is real when you hear it from the mouth of a Brit.

[2] When some of them weren’t fighting over “first discovery” credits.

[3] Whose ascendency to political power – something evangelicals had long eschewed and/or held in suspicion – was  in large part fueled by appeals to homophobia.

[4] E.g., for-profit blood banks.

[5] Ronald Reagan infamously refused to say the word AIDS or even publicly acknowledge the epidemic’s existence until late in his second term. By that time over 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, almost 21,000 had died, and the disease had a reported 50,000 plus cases over 100 countries.

[6] The promiscuity so prevalent in many 19702-80s era gay (male) communities, often presented as  an in-your-face reaction to the repression and stigmatization of gay relationships, reminded me of a five year old’s tantrum – a tactic admittedly effective at attention-getting, but ultimately self-defeating (“You callin’ me a perv? I’ll show you some perversion that’ll curl your hair….).