When I first heard of Oxford-trained zoologist and best-selling author Lucy Cooke’s new book, Bitch: On the Female of the Species, I couldn’t wait to read it. When I completed it, I realized all of the praise for this landmark book―an “evolutionary reboot”―was well-deserved.1 I’m thrilled Lucy could answer a few questions about her groundbreaking book that is sure to become a classic in numerous fields including evolutionary biology, ethology, the history of science, and gender studies.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Bitch: On the Female of the Species,
Lucy Cooke: The world needs to know that our understanding of the animal kingdom has been warped by sexist bias, starting with Charles Darwin, who was an extraordinary scientist, but also a man of his time. So when he came to describing the sexes in his theory of sexual selection, the female of the species was branded in the shape of a Victorian housewife: passive, coy, and submissive by default. Males were the main event―the dominant drivers of evolution.
Because Darwin described the sexes in this way, it meant that many of the scientists who followed in his wake suffered from a chronic case of confirmation bias, or simply ignored females altogether as their behavior was considered insignificant―a feminine footnote to the macho main event . But in the last few decades a revolution has been brewing, one that has redefined the female of the species and the very forces that shape evolution.
Source: Basic Books, with permission.
This deterministic paradigm is a pervasive mythology that pollutes popular human culture today, so I felt an urgent need to tell the truth about the extraordinary diversity of female biology and behavior that exists in nature.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
LC: I studied zoology at Oxford under Richard Dawkins, focusing on evolutionary theory and animal behaviour. He taught me Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and, although I found it fascinating, I was always troubled by this neat deterministic classification. I struggled to see how something as trivial as the disparity in the size of our sex cells prescribed universal behaviours. We now know they don’t.2
As a woman, fascinated by this subject, I desperately wanted to tell the story of the animals and scientists (mostly but not exclusively female) who have fought to reframe our understanding of female animals.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
LC: The book will be of interest to anyone studying zoology, biology, or evolutionary psychology. I read thousands of scientific papers and had a number of academics read the manuscript to make sure it was rigorous and up to date for educational use. But I think the book has a much wider audience―anyone interested in feminism, gender studies, history of science, or just being female. I think the stories are hugely empowering, and shocking, and have much to teach us about the power of cultural bias to warp scientific thinking. So I wrote it in a popular style to make the stories accessible, and entertaining, for a nonscientific audience who might not normally read a book about animals.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and what are some of your major messages?
LC: There are so many, but I think one of the main themes is the power of cultural bias to obscure biological truths. This has meant that scientists proposing fresh ideas have struggled to get their data accepted if it doesn’t fit the standard paradigm.
Take Patricia Gowaty, who was one of the first scientists to challenge the idea of fidelity in female songbirds. Songbirds appear to be the very paragons of sexual monogamy. But looks can be deceiving, and Gowaty was the first to use the new technology of DNA fingerprinting to check paternity on clutches of eggs. She discovered that a single clutch did indeed have multiple fathers.
This inspired piece of detective work was an early breakthrough in a career dedicated to fearlessly questioning what Gowaty calls “the standard model” of sex differences in behaviour. It was also her first taste of being ignored by the male scientific establishment.3
Gowaty’s subject was the Eastern Bluebird, the cobalt songbird associated with happiness and featured in Disney’s “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” She is a much-loved avian superstar as wholesome and all-American as apple pie, and Gowaty was effectively calling her a Jezebel. It was never going to go down well, but Gowaty was shocked at the depth of prejudice amongst her peers.
At a meeting of the American Ornithological Society, a well-known male ethology professor voiced his skepticism by telling Gowaty that the bluebirds in her study must have been “raped.” This, she explained to me, is physically impossible. Male songbirds have no penis. Both sexes have a multipurpose hole called a cloaca that is used to transfer gametes and waste. In order for fertilization to happen, both male and female birds must evert the middle section of their cloaca so that they touch in what biologists call a “cloacal kiss.” This must be done while the male is balancing precariously on the female’s back, so the female can call a halt to any unwelcome sexual shenanigans simply by flying off.
The ensuing decade saw a flurry of bird paternity studies and a tidal wave of evidence that could no longer be ignored. Yet, somehow, female birds remained resolutely coy in the eyes of the (male) ornithological establishment. After all, zoological law stated that females had nothing to gain from multiple matings, and everything to lose. If her social partner were to catch her, it was believed an adulterous female would run the risk of being deserted or, worse, killed. So, despite the impossibility of rape, the prevailing view was that female birds must be the forced victims of the male’s biological prerogative to splurge his seed far and wide.
We now know there is a big difference between social and sexual monogamy. This revelation in birds sparked what’s been called a “polyandry revolution,” which revealed that females in species as diverse as lions to lizards to lobsters all have a sexual strategy of mating with multiple males.
MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the importance of females among social animals they will give them the credit and attention they clearly deserve?
LC: Yes. Female animals are just as varied and dynamic as males and deserve to be studied equally. Ignoring them only tells half the story.