Lucy Cooke’s revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal dares to question the science we canonise, writes Abi Andrews.
If you have also been waiting for someone clever to speak back to the smugness of Richard Dawkins where the biology of the female sex is concerned, to counter the hegemonic acceptance of her grim destiny as ‘nature’ dictates it — then this is your book. Especially fantastic is that it comes from his understudy: Dawkins taught zoologist Lucy Cooke evolutionary biology at Oxford. In Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal, published in March by Doubleday, Cooke brings in a cast of disobedient female animals and the incendiary women and non-binary biologists studying them, to counter a deeply set misogyny that pervades the natural sciences.
Cooke wants to question the myth that biological sex (rather than gender: not the topic of this book) necessarily means certain deterministic behaviours, roles and evolutionary outcomes. This is of course important because the things that science tells us about the ‘truth’ of the world go on to shape the very fabric of our societies, and the effect of this is a lingering cynicism around the inevitability of male violence and dominance; ergo, the patriarchy.
Darwin has a lot to answer for. Cooke gives him a needed shakedown, although never berating him completely, speaking of him with a fondness reminiscent of a sexist but excusably of-his-time grandfather figure. Not wanting to throw the proverbial paradigm-changing-heretical-baby out with the misogyny-bathwater, for Cooke, Darwin is not so much incorrect as incomplete, a victim of the chauvinistic biases at play in the world of the Victorian men hashing out zoology at that time.
In Darwin’s The Descent of Man, the male human is understood to be superior to the female because more evolved, dominant because physically stronger and mentally superior. This story goes all the way down to the gametes — the passive egg waiting for the industrious male sperm, demure females acted on by the male animal, the female a backstage character to the male’s starring role in evolution.
The natural sciences since Darwin have been a huge game of confirmation-bias bingo, anything deviating from his laws explained away in ever more complicated terms. For example, in some jays female aggression has been observed and then elucidated not as intentional on the part of the female jay, but as the effect of a spring hormone, “the avian equivalent to PMS which we call PBS (pre breeding syndrome)” (these are the actual words of scientists). In other contexts, observed female dominance in animals is explained away as male chivalry — the grown up equivalent of the playground I’m just letting you win.
In fact, Darwin himself gleaned closer to the truth of things, but was censored by his prudish contemporaries. He acknowledged the power of female choice and intention to drive evolution in The Descent of Man, but this part of his theory was less readily accepted. Too many heresies in too little time, Victorian men needed at least part of their world to still be reconisable.
Thankfully, there is a contemporary paradigm shift happening in the science of sexual selection. It took 1970s feminism to revive Darwin’s forgotten ideas on female choice, as Cooke puts it, the ‘mad aunt in the attic of Darwinian theory’. New experiments led by female and nonbinary scientists are questioning the dogma of the experiments thought to be fundamental to how we understand the world, showing that far from impartial, they are in fact extremely biased.
We believe what we do about male promiscuity vs female passivity thanks to a handful of deformed fruit flies. This famous experiment, although now proven to be unreliable in its methods and skewed in its conclusions, underpins a lot of what we think about human sex. But Cooke finds examples of pretty much any sexual dynamic you could imagine. Look closely at the Old World Monkeys, for example and you will find females having sex 30-50 times a day with no reproductive outcome. Look further, and you will find apparently monogamous female birds cheating on their nestmate, termites doing away with males altogether, and everywhere, females as active, creative agents of evolutionary change.
This book troubles the stories we have chosen to tell, and the science we have chosen to canonise. In the words of pioneering biologist Patricia Gotway, who picked apart Bateman’s famous experiment on fruit flies: “there must be something about the powers that be that depend on these profound differences between females and males.” As our closest relatives, we look to the primates to understand more about human social life, but it is important which narratives we attach ourselves to; will it be brutish chimps or peaceable bonobos (the promiscuous, matriachal, bisexual ‘gift to the feminist movement’)? Genetically speaking, we are equally related to both.
Cooke gives us new lenses to look through — ones that account for the important evolutionary function of diversity — and much armoury to counter the ‘it’s not natural’ of normative values. Lesbian albatosses and sex-changing fish give us a much broader understanding of life. But the invisible biases she throws a torch on are still writhing in the corners, creepy and undead. Even Darwin had contemporary self-educated female critics that remain unheard of, and the further depressing fact is that the leading voices in these pages — Sarah Hardy, Patricia Gotway, Jeanne Altmann, Mary Jane West-Eberhard — still aren’t as well known as men like Richard Dawkins and their bestselling tomes.
So get this book; it’s fascinating, infuriating, hilarious and highly readable. Regale everyone you meet with facts about the impressive dolphin clitoris and its newly discovered pleasurable function. Share it with your friends. And importantly, throw it at the head of your neo-Darwinist uncle.