Animal gender stories

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Animal gender stories

A cautionary tale of how misinterpreting animal sex differences may reinforce human gender inequality

by Erin Cech on Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - 9:15am

Parallels between perceived human gender behavior and animal sex differences are deeply embedded in our popular lexicon: men “crow like roosters;” women “guard their young like lionesses.” In many cases, these parallels do not just draw colorful connections between animals and humans, they use animal behavior to explain human gender differences. In a recent talk at the Clayman Institute, ant biologist Deborah Gordon challenged a strongly-held belief about the animal world: that sex always matters.

Male Indian Peacock on display (source: Wikipedia)Gendered tales about animals

The plotline of attracting and “winning” a mate is often central to tales of animal sex differences. For example, it often guides our understanding of the visual differences between males and females of the same species. In “The Descent of Man,” Charles Darwin wrote, “The sexual struggle is … between individuals of the same sex, generally the males, in order to excite or charm those of the opposite sex, generally the females, [who]… select the most agreeable partners.”

Darwin leaves it up to us to decide what constitutes an animal’s “charm.” Even those of us with little knowledge of biology feel that we could, in a pinch, explain why male and female peacocks look so different. For example, many would claim that male peacocks “strut around” and “pridefully show off” for female peacocks. Rather than objectively explaining peacock behavior, these descriptions draw on human stereotypes to anthropomorphize (make human) that behavior. The popularity of mating ritual stories like these suggests that sex differences are always important and that males and females in every animal species wage battles of courtship and power.

antHowever, as Gordon pointed out, anthropomorphized depictions of the males and females of a species can be misguided. Take the 1998 DreamWorks film “Antz.” The animated film depicts an ant society where the workers, foremen, soldiers, and generals are all male. Romances blossom between male warriors and female princesses and queens. The female ant characters have symbolic importance but little actual power. The male warriors are the agents of power in the colony and, likewise, the central protagonists of the film.

Gordon explained that DreamWorks got it wrong. The real ants that show up uninvited to our picnics — the ones that patrol, forage, build and sometimes fight — are all female. There are no male worker ants. Male ants only live for two to three weeks, just long enough to mate with a queen. In fact, male ants have much smaller heads than female ants because they do not live long enough to need proper chewing musculature. Furthermore, Gordon explains, Hollywood movies like “Antz” often depict ant colonies with sophisticated bureaucratic structures, officers, and royalty. In real ant colonies, there is no hierarchy and no chain of command, not even from the queen.

Gordon explained that, like with ants, sex categories in the animal world are sometimes meaningless. Males don’t always fight for females’ attention. There is not always a male leader. And hierarchies, gendered or otherwise, don’t always exist.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (source: Wikipedia)The human-animal feedback loop

These animal gender stories aren’t just the purview of popular media; scientists, too, can partake in the telling of animal gender stories. As biologists work to interpret their observations about the animal world, they sometimes weave gender stories about the relations between male and female members of a species that rely heavily on human gender interpretations. For example, scientists who describe animals where the males spend more energy protecting the offspring than females (such as among penguins or Jacanas birds) sometimes refer to such behavior as “deviant.”

“The more animals look like us humans, the harder it is to decouple our stories from their stories,” Gordon said. She described how Koko, the first gorilla to learn sign language, was taught by her trainers to sit with her knees together and to gently cradle a doll in her arms. Koko, in other words, was taught the gender norms of women in western societies as a way of learning to interact with humans.

Gordon explained that most scientists do not intentionally color their science with gender stereotypes, but that they, too, may have a hard time escaping the influence of the stereotypes in their cultural milieu.

So, it is often hard to tell where our cultural assumptions about human gender relations of courtship and hierarchy end and the actual behaviors of animal species begin. Our stories about animals, Gordon says, are apt to have morals and beliefs about people embedded in them.

Human implications of animal gender stories

But what does it matter if DreamWorks spins an inaccurate tale of ant romance, or we attribute to animals the behaviors we see in humans? Gordon explains that the fascination with explaining why the males of some species put certain characteristics on display (and why females respond to those characteristics) actually limits the types of questions that scientists could be asking about animal appearance and interaction. As with Koko, biologists’ assumptions about human gender norms may narrow the hypotheses they form or the interpretations they derive for their research in ways that reinforce these gender stories.

More than that, animal gender stories might actually help reinforce gender norms as “natural,” thereby limiting the types of questions we might ask about human behavior. Because we often draw on assumptions about the animal world to make sense of our human world, the inflection of human gender stereotypes into those animal stories may help to perpetuate human gender stereotypes. For example, if a man is “strutting his stuff” in a board room, then we might use a peacock analogy to justify this behavior as “natural,” like a peacock displaying his feathers to attract attention.

By imparting human gender norms onto animals, animal gender stories naturalize those gender norms, making them seem ageless, instinctual, and unchanging. If we can, instead, intervene in the animal-human feedback loop, then we can question assumptions of “inevitable” or “natural” behavior. Perhaps a way to do this is through interdisciplinary research, where gender scholars and natural scientists work together to point out and challenge animal gender stories—and, in the process—human gender stereotypes.

Deborah Gordon headshot
Professor, Department of Biology

Deborah Gordon’s research on the collective organization of ant colonies includes studies of the long-term demography and behavior of harvester ant colonies in Arizona; the factors that determine the spread of the invasive Argentine ant in northern California; and the ecology of ant-plant mutualisms in tropical forests in Central America. She is the author of two books, Ants at Work (2000) and Ant Encounters:...

Erin Cech photo
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Rice University

Erin Cech joined the sociology department as an Assistant Professor in 2012. She was recently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and earned her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2011 from the University of California, San Diego.  She earned undergraduate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Sociology from Montana State University.

Cech’s research examines the cultural...

Responses to Animal gender stories

Steven Hamblin's picture
25 May, 2012 Steven Hamblin (not verified)

It's easy to confuse, because they were trying to steal a march on Pixar's "A Bug's Life", but it was Dreamworks that did Antz and not Pixar. And if I recall correctly, Pixar's
Movie was actually more realistic in terms of the issues raised in this article (within the bounds of Hollywood storytelling, of course).

Elissa Hirsh's picture
29 May, 2012 Elissa Hirsh (not verified)

So, why does the male peacock strut his stuff?

Sue Purdy Pelosi's picture
27 August, 2012 Sue Purdy Pelosi

There's a new development from Professor Gordon's research published in the Stanford Report today. She has been working with computer science professor Balaji Prabhakar to develop a theory about the "anternet." They observed that harvester ants communicate about foraging in much the same way that Internet protocols determine available bandwidth.