Ants at work?

The title of the article published in the current issue of Animal Behavior tells the story: "Active males, reactive females: Stereotypic sex roles in sexual conflict research?"

A blog post by Jo Marchant on Nature.com draws out the main findings. Sexual conflict studies, we learn, examine "mating behaviours where males and females are at odds with each other". The species under the microscope include spiders, snails, and other unlikely candidates for full-scale projection of human gender ideologies.

And yet, there they are anyway. The Animal Behavior study, led by Lund University's Kristina Karlsson Green and Josefin Madjidian, found that a sample of 30 papers in this new field used different vocabularies to describe males and females, vocabularies that embody a binary gender ideology in which males are active and females passive. Words like "harassment", "manipulation" or "coercion" were employed in describing males; "resistance" and "avoidance", Marchant notes, were applied to females. The researchers reported almost no overlap in language used for males and females.

Marchant gives a vivid example of why this is a problem:

traits that allow male spiders to escape a cannibalistic mate - such as vigilance or long legs - were described as sexually antagonistic adaptations, rather than as a counter-adaptation to the threat of being eaten.

Even more startling, the study found that when certain male spiders cut their genitalia off to leave as a plug after mating (thus blocking other males), this was described as "manipulation" (an active, dare I say masculine behavior?).

The authors of the study argue that actions like this should be treated neutrally, which would require assessing them as "costs" of reproduction for males. Indeed, they found that only nine of 145 abstracts they examined talked about male costs at all: instead, the dominant presentation was of costs imposed on females by males (106 of the abstracts).

All this is fascinating, but might easily be dismissed by some readers as political correctness. But the issue is bigger. Gender stereotypes happen to be really obvious (and of course, quite harmful, especially if what you want to understand is sexual behaviors). But the broader question is whether we humans can let go of our fascination with ourselves long enough to actually observe how other animals act, without making them moral fables about humanity.

Indeed, this is one of the main points made by the authors of the Animal Behavior study in the abstract of their article:

Sexual selection research has always been a subject for debate. Much of the criticism has concerned the imposition of conventional sex roles based on an anthropomorphic view of animals imposed by the researcher. ...previous discussions on the use of anthropomorphic terms in sexual selection seem not to have had any impact on sexual conflict research, which is why the topic of stereotyping the sexes is still of current importance.

What I was reminded of is a wonderful, readable, thoroughly anti-anthropomophic book, Ants At Work, by Stanford's Deborah Gordon. The book follows Gordon as she explores the organization of ant work live and as it unfolds, using techniques such as painting markings on individual ants so she can observe how they change their tasks.

The work is fascinating on its own, and it is worth watching Gordon talk about it in a TED lecture.

But a thread running through the book that I found really powerful when I read it deals with the need to stop talking about ants using human metaphors. Ant colonies headed by queens, for example, conjure up fairly standard images based on human stereotypes of monarchies; and Gordon argues convincingly that these and other anthropomorphisms don't help us understand ants.

It is hard to convey just what a difference this makes: fundamentally, Gordon manages to take the reader to a point where you can think about ants as ants-- which turn out to be very exotic creatures indeed.

Anthropomorphizing household pets is unavoidable. Anthropomorphizing species as different from us, and removed from our everyday lives, as insects that fight to reproduce, whatever the cost, has obvious negative repercussions when those images of "nature", already structured according to human gender ideologies, are then used to claim that conflicts over sex are themselves inevitable-- "natural".

But there is an even greater violence done to the potential for us to understand other creatures on their own terms by our apparent inability to stop looking at everything around us as simply a mirror for Homo sapiens.

Karlsson Green and Madjidian help remind us of this.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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