There’s a new Scientific American article that presents some interesting biology, but does it tendentiously, for its aim is to show, by citing a few cherry-picked examples of odd biology, that interest in the penis among biologists, and the relative neglect of the vagina, reflects the patriarchy. It’s time, says author Rachel Gross to take the penis off its pedestal.
Now I freely admit that males often have an obsession with penises and their size, but I don’t think that the study of animal penises, as opposed to vaginas, reflects the patriarchy, despite a Vox Magazine article called “How a pseudo-penis packing hyena smashes the patriarchy’s assumptions.” (Read Steve Gould’s explanation of the spotted hyena female’s “pseudopenis”, a modified clitoris, though Gould’s hormone-based explanation is probably wrong.)
Gross’s article is loaded with examples of the naturalistic fallacy (or should I say “phallusy”?)—the idea that we can derive lessons about what is “good” or “moral” in humans from observing the behavior other species that lack our kind of culture (i.e., all other species). We may learn something about the evolutionary roots of our behavior, but not its lessons for sexual equality.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here’s one example from the article, which begins by discussing two new books, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis, by Emily Willingham, and GUYnecology: The Missing Science of Men’s Reproductive Health, by Rene Almeling:
. . . the flashy focus on the male member serves as a Trojan horse (pun intended) for a very different message: that a culture of phallus-worship has slanted the science in crucial and sometimes unexpected ways. On the one hand, we’ve inflated the role of the penis in genital evolution; on the other, we’ve left the male contribution to infertility, genetic abnormalities and other reproductive consequences unexamined. The result is stunted, lopsided science that shows only one side of the story.
But if this all be motivated by the patriarchy, why are medical problems with male genitalia neglected and “unexamined”? But here’s one example:
Consider that myriad beetle species are classified solely by their penis shape, while the true breadth of vaginal diversity has yet to be explored. This tradition has deep roots: Going back to Charles Darwin, who waxed poetic on the wonders of barnacle dongs, biologists have trained their lens on the penis while remaining largely uninterested in what vaginas were doing. Yet penises don’t evolve in a vacuum. All those traits we ooh and aah over—length, girth, bristles—are shaped by vaginal evolution, and the mutual dance between the two that plays out over generations.
Now this is a straw insect. The reason why many species of insects (not just beetles) are identified by their penis shape is because that is the structure that is most likely to be clearly different between species. It’s not because biologists have an obsession with penises. In many Drosophila, for example, you can tell closely related species apart only by examining the male genitalia (even dissecting the female ones show no difference). As all entomologists know, “if there is only one trait differentiating closely related species, it is almost surely the shape of the male genitalia or genital apparatus.”
Now the reason for this probably reflects the action of sexual selection during the origin of new species, just as in many species of birds it is the male ornamentation and color and not the appearance of the female that is the most obvious species-distinguishing trait.
In insects, for example, the females of an isolated population may come, for reasons I won’t discuss, to prefer a slightly different genital shape in their mates, perhaps because it “feels better”. (We just don’t know the reason for this; I’m speculating here.) Eventually, because of this preference difference, you may get a snowballing difference in the shape of male genitals, and with it a big change in the female preference.
In the end, the two populations, via the action of sexual selection, come to differ from one another in both male genitalia and in female preference for the conspecific male genitalia—up to the point that females from one population will no longer mate with males from the other. We then have two reproductively isolated populations: new biological species.
Note that both sexes of the new species differ profoundly, but it’s dead easy to tell the species apart by the male genitalia, while it’s impossible to tell the species apart by looking at female genitalia. (Note: female genitalia may differ in some species, but to see that you’d have to do very elaborate dissections.)
You can tell the species apart by simply using a microscope to examine the male genitalia, but not the females. In fact, the females may differ in a way impossible to tell apart by looking at them, for their difference in preference may reflect how the different genitalia “feel” during copulation, and “tactile feeling” is a preference impossible to see because it’s coded in the female’s neurons.
I’ve made this point repeatedly, most notably in my book Speciation with Allen Orr, and others have as well, especially William Eberhard in his unjustly neglected book Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia. This concentration on male rather than female genitals does not reflect sexism at all: it reflects both the way that sexual selection works and the fact that the selection manifests itself as morphological differences between species in male but not in female genitalia.
(A side note: in groups like squid in which sperm is transferred not through a penis but through another organ, it is those organs that tend to differ among species. This again supports the idea that during speciation, male morphology changes but what changes in females is often neuronally-based “feeling preference”.)
The idea that female preference is unduly neglected because of the patriarchy is not a fair charge because nearly every theory of sexual selection involves a concomitant change in both male trait and female preference for that trait. It is a hell of a lot easier to see trait differences than preference differences, which can be tested only by behavioral studies exposing females to males of different morphologies or of different species.
Author Rachel Gross emphasizes that it’s only the new activity of women scientists and LGBTQ scientists (!) that has led to an interest in female vaginal evolution. This simply isn’t true (well, it may be 2% true): many of the discoveries she emphasizes below were made by men, including the fascinating “pseudopenis” of the spotted hyena, repeatedly used as an example of a species whose females are “empowered” (another example of the Naturalistic Phallusy). The author says this:
Today, as more women and LGBTQ scientists enter the field, we’re finding that vaginas, far from passive tubes for ejaculate, are active organs that sort, store and reject sperm. Kangaroos have three vaginas (two for sperm reception, one for joey ejection); swallowtail butterflies see out of theirs; and duck vaginas spiral and curve in a penis-repelling labyrinth. Even for non-vagina-lovers, these facts help us understand how genitals evolve as a whole. Both are part of the same unified story—a much richer tapestry than just one body part can tell. Leaving one out, whichever one, blinds us to the fuller picture of sex and sexuality.
This is, I think, a gross distortion of the history of genital evolution. There’s more, and here her ideological lesson comes into view:
Both examples [JAC: the presence of multiple vaginas in kangaroos and “the neglect of guys in gynecology] reflect a deeper flaw in science’s approach to sex: the assumption that sex can only be either/or, two trains that run along separate, parallel tracks. Again and again, biology has proved this not to be the case—chromosomally, hormonally or genetically. For instance, we usually consider the presence of a penis to indicate a male, yet the hyena famously gives birth through her clitoris, which is so large that she can use it to mount the male. The female seahorse wields a long tube that looks an awful lot like a penis, which she uses to deposit eggs in the male’s pouch. So much for the penis as “the throbbing center of masculinity,” as Willingham puts it.
The lesson seems to be that sex is not binary IN HUMANS because of weird genitalic differences in other species. But sex is indeed binary in humans as defined biologically: males are the group that produce small, motile gametes (sperm) or have the potential to do so, while females are the group that produces large, immotile gametes (eggs) or have the potential to do so. THAT is the way, not penis shape or egg-delivering tubes, that biologists tell males from females, and the reason is because evolution forged sex that way: in animals, largely onto two tracks. The fact that a female seahorse deposits her eggs in the male’s pouch, and that he gestates the eggs and gives birth, says nothing about what obtains in humans, nor does it even say that “sex is not binary in seahorses.” No, sex IS binary in seahorses:a male seahorse makes sperm and a female makes eggs. What differs from most animals is which sex carries the fertilized eggs. But we’ve known that forever.
Finally, Gross gives us this message (my emphasis):
Here’s why: because human biases shape scientific knowledge, and much of what we know about our nether regions has been shaped by lazy, antiquated stereotypes about what men and women are. Looking past the penis and beyond the binary categories of male/female, penis/vagina (or, more accurately, penis/clitoris) opens our eyes to the full spectrum of gender and genitalia in all its glorious permutations. It makes for better science, and a deeper understanding of genital evolution and reproductive health.
Well, I’m not sure that Gross realizes that she’s given the game away by admitting flat out that yes, male/female is indeed a binary in humans. Sex is binary. But yes, its manifestations, its twists and turns—like a duck’s penis—are fascinating to the biologist. Yet this does not mean either that the study of female genitalia have been of interest only to LGBTQ+ or female scientists, nor that we should draw any kind of lessons about how to best treat human males and females based on observing other species.
For another argument of the same stripe—that the diversity of nature tells us how patriarchal and sexist humans have been—see the article below from The Guardian. It, too, relies on a combination of anecdotes and the Naturalistic Phallusy, completely neglecting the great generalizations about the sexes first noted by Darwin. Once again the bonobos (who aren’t as nice as everyone thinks) are trotted out as an example of how females can be dominant in humans:
Ah yes, bonobos: these peaceable primates use sex toys, practise oral sex and establish and maintain female-led social structures through “genito-genital rubbing”. That’s entertaining, but it also matters: as Cooke says, it challenges the clichéd narrative on sex roles in primates, our closest animal relatives.
But why doesn’t the fact that the rest of the primate species show male aggression and “patriarchy” buttress the idea that males are the “dominant sex” in humans? Once again, it’s ludicrous to tell humans to right way to behave towards the sexes by pointing at other species. Nature is what it is, but human society, because of culture, can be made to abrogate what we see in nature—to circumvent evolution. The invention of contraception is one example.
As the biologist said who sent me the link below (a woman, by the way), “I suppose a more balanced account wouldn’t sell many books or warrant a big splash in a Sunday.”
(Lucy Cooke has a new book of “female myth-busting female-centered” stories, Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal).