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Animal gender stories
A cautionary tale of how misinterpreting animal sex differences may reinforce human gender inequality
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.
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.
However, 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.
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, Professor of Biology at Stanford, studies the collective organization of ant colonies and is the author of two books, "Ants at Work" (2000) and "Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior" (2010). She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences and is currently a Faculty Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Gordon is working on a book the science of animal behavior and how it is linked with human relations with other animals.
Erin Cech received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California at San Diego. She is a Postdoctoral Scholar with Stanford University's Clayman Institute, where her research examines the cultural mechanisms of inequality reproduction.