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Can We Learn about Sex from Animals?

Can We Learn about Sex from Animals?

(May 14, 2002)

Scientific discoveries about the animal kingdom are often used, even by biologists, to elucidate human behavior, especially our behaviors that pertain to sex and gender. For example, some people argue that male marmosets helping take care of their offspring helps us understand today's stay-at-home fathers. Or that the high divorce rate in recent years can be explained by invoking the fact that many female birds have chicks fathered outside the primary breeding pair.

But in her new book 'Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn about Sex from Animals' (University of California Press, 2002), Marlene Zuk, professor of biology at UC Riverside, argues that while animals do display a lot of interesting variation, not all of it can be extrapolated to explain human behavior. She thinks some researchers have been too quick to ignore vital information from the animal kingdom, and have instead hustled "evidence" they believe is supportive of their ideas.

"I am not saying we should never try to draw conclusions about human behavior from animals," says Zuk. "But people who already have social or political agendas sometimes see science as automatically deterministic about our behavior, as though we are programmed to behave in only a certain way. Then again, we have scientists who sometimes completely ignore the social or political biases that can affect our work."

Zuk wrote the bulk of her book in 1999-2001. 'Sexual Selections' addresses several politically charged topics including motherhood, the genetic basis for adultery, the female orgasm, menstruation, and homosexuality. "Writing the book was suprisingly easy and enjoyable," she says. "It also got me reading a good number of marvellous books related to the topic, many of which were in the fields of anthropology, sociology and psychology. I sought to write a popular book that also edges into several of these fields."

Zuk's motivation to write the book stemmed also from her desire to respond to the general population's interest in the subject. "Animal behavior intrigues many of us because of what it means for our own lives," she says. "My research shows that we really should not be taking examples from animals to support the way we understand, treat or relate to people."

In her next book, Zuk plans to examine how scientists are exploring the relationship between genes and behavior, not just with respect to sex or animal behavior. She contends that people tend to have a somewhat schizophrenic view of genes and their effects. "It fascinates me that people are capable sometimes of holding two extremely contradictory ideas. For example, on the one hand, people think children are completely shaped by their upbringing, but on the other hand, they are fully convinced genetic relationships are automatically strong and influential, 'blood being thicker than water.'" In her next book, Zuk hopes to examine this apparent paradox.

At UCR, besides doing research, Zuk teaches a class on animal behavior, a seminar called 'Biology of Human Problems,' and a class in scientific writing for graduate students in biology. She is coeditor, with Jenella E. Loye, of 'Bird-Parasite Interactions: Ecology, Evolution, and Behaviour' (Oxford University Press, 1991), and frequently reviews scientific books for the journal Science.

A native of Los Angeles, Zuk got her undergraduate degree from UC Santa Barbara and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Subsequently, she held a postdoctoral appointment at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She joined UCR as a faculty member in 1989, being drawn to the university by the academic strength of the department of biology.

She can't pinpoint exactly when she got interested in studying animals. "I suspect I have always been attracted to the subject," she says. "I find it interesting, too, to see how people don't know much about the natural world, but once they learn about it through, say, a class, it impacts the way they think, forcing them to observe the natural world differently. This is primarily why I like teaching; a thought-provoking class can significantly affect students and make a positive difference to their lives."

Book excerpt:

... If we always see males as the norm, a society in which males are dominant also becomes normal. We may miss what females do in our own culture and in those of animals.

Many people in recent years have seen these biases and objected to them. Perhaps in reaction to such restricted viewpoints about females, more recent work on animal behavior promotes the discovery that many supposedly feminist relationships and behaviors are much more common among animals than had previously been believed. It turns out, for example, that sexually aggressive females and sexual behavior outside a pair bond are common, which means that sex roles are not defined as narrowly as some would have us think. Males can be excellent caregivers, and females want sex as much as males. We can take our inspiration from bonobos, which show female-female sexual interactions. Or we can look to several species of butterflies, in which females mate with several males in succession and seem to actively manage the sperm of each of them when fertilizing their eggs, instead of to the domineering male baboons that herd females with the threat of violence.

I greet these discoveries, and their emphasis in the media, with mixed emotions. Is this really where we want to go? Do we want an escalating argument in which opponents cite examples that support their ideologies? We could have an endless debate in which one side points out that male elephant seals may crush pups (conclusion: females are at the mercy of the larger, more powerful sex), to be countered by the finding that female bonobos are sexual in a variety of contexts (conclusion: female sexuality is a flexible behavior). Next round: with few exceptions, males are physically larger and behaviorally dominant, at least in many vertebrates, followed by the "yes, but" statement that in many animal social interactions, size, at least body size, doesn't matter. Presumably the feminists could triumphantly put an end to the discussion by pointing out that female praying mantids often consume their mates.

Ultimately, though, what is the point of these arguments? Using animals to inspire or support our ideas about social justice is bound to fail. It also has a great danger of backfiring; what if, for example, we find that we were mistaken about female control of paternity, or female sexual aggressiveness? Does that mean that women should attempt to be passive and subservient? One hopes not. I like to think we are perfectly capable of choosing our own visions of an ideal society without the help of snow geese or gorillas. We do not need a new model system, even one with a more pluralistic bent. Yes, recognizing diversity is good. We do want to make sure the actions of females are not ignored. More important, however, we need to stop confusing model systems with role models.

Excerpted from 'Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn about Sex from Animals' by Marlene Zuk. Copyright © 2002 by Marlene Zuk. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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