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Sexual Selections

Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals

Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 250
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    Sexual Selections
    Book Description:

    Scientific discoveries about the animal kingdom fuel ideological battles on many fronts, especially battles about sex and gender. We now know that male marmosets help take care of their offspring. Is this heartening news for today's stay-at-home dads? Recent studies show that many female birds once thought to be monogamous actually have chicks that are fathered outside the primary breeding pair. Does this information spell doom for traditional marriages? And bonobo apes take part in female-female sexual encounters. Does this mean that human homosexuality is natural? This highly provocative book clearly shows that these are the wrong kinds of questions to ask about animal behavior. Marlene Zuk, a respected biologist and a feminist, gives an eye-opening tour of some of the latest developments in our knowledge of animal sexuality and evolutionary biology.Sexual Selectionsexposes the anthropomorphism and gender politics that have colored our understanding of the natural world and shows how feminism can help move us away from our ideological biases. As she tells many amazing stories about animal behavior--whether of birds and apes or of rats and cockroaches--Zuk takes us to the places where our ideas about nature, gender, and culture collide. Writing in an engaging, conversational style, she discusses such politically charged topics as motherhood, the genetic basis for adultery, the female orgasm, menstruation, and homosexuality. She shows how feminism can give us the tools to examine sensitive issues such as these and to enhance our understanding of the natural world if we avoid using research to champion a feminist agenda and avoid using animals as ideological weapons. Zuk passionately asks us to learn to see the animal world on its own terms, with its splendid array of diversity and variation. This knowledge will give us a better understanding of animals and can ultimately change our assumptions about what is natural, normal, and even possible.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93767-3
    Subjects: Zoology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-x)
  4. NOTE ON SPECIES NAMES (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Introduction: AN ODE TO WITLESSNESS (pp. 1-18)

    Shortly after i entered graduate school at the University of Michigan, a fellow student came into my office and flung himself into the chair opposite mine. “I don’t understand,” he said, “how you can have feminist politics and still be interested in all that stuff over in the museum.” The museum was the Museum of Zoology, and the “stuff” to which he referred was the burgeoning field of sociobiology, the study of the evolution of social behavior. It had become a flashpoint for vitriolic debate about the ability of science to draw conclusions about animal behavior in general and and...

    • One SEX AND THE DEATH OF A LOON (pp. 21-33)

      He stood outside the door of the museum, barefoot, very tan, and wearing only a faded pair of denim cut-offs. He was clutching a large bird to his chest. The bird was barely alive, eyes shut, its black and white feathers moving slightly. “Can you help him?” asked the young man, staring hopefully at me. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I worked in the small vertebrate museum on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and such requests were not uncommon. Birds frequently washed up on the beaches covered in oil or otherwise hurt, and sometimes we...

    • Two SUBSTITUTE STEREOTYPES The Myth of the Ecofeminist Animal (pp. 34-46)

      Discoveries in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology that inform us about what the sexes are like can potentially change our ideas about what it means to be male and female. Information about what particular animals really do exposes some stereotypes that, I have argued, scientists’ own biases about the role of females in general and women in particular have sometimes prevented us from recognizing. A feminist viewpoint that is aware of those biases can be very valuable in understanding animal (and human) behavior. But there is a danger in rejecting stereotypes, namely, the risk of simply substituting a new, perhaps...


      Now that we are on guard against various sorts of stereotyping, and have dispensed with the need to use other animals as role models for our own behavior, let us move on to a consideration of one of the most basic characteristics of female organisms: motherhood. This is a sensitive topic, entwined with our notions of selfishness, sacrifice, and femininity, and one in which misconceptions abound. One of those misconceptions is that caring for one’s offspring is synonymous with being female, a view that has constricted our ideas both about what else females do and about how offspring care occurs....

    • Four DNA AND THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE (pp. 61-75)

      At first glance one might not think that the need to prevent birds from eating farmers’ crops has a great deal to do with the genetic basis of adultery or with male biases concerning animal behavior. It turns out, however, that a study undertaken over thirty years ago ended up paving the way for just such a connection.

      Red-winged blackbirds(Agelaius phoeniceus)are familiar harbingers of spring in many parts of North America. The species gets its name from the red shoulder patches, snappily trimmed with yellow, that adorn the otherwise glossy black males. Females are drab in comparison, a...


      Even the most hard-core depictions of human sexual activity stop being graphic after ejaculation and/or orgasm. The rest of the behavior—having cigarettes, rolling over and going to sleep, the afterglow—simply does not receive the same kind of prurient attention as the events leading up to the release of sperm. The little guys are in there, it will be ages before we know if she is pregnant, and there is no point in going on about sticky spots on the sheets or the withered appearance of a flaccid organ. With animals, too, scientists used to assume that copulation was...


      What is our place in nature, anyway? A recent lecture on the evolutionary basis of human mate choice at my university was titled “Sex, Evolution, and Dynamical Systems: Lying in the Gutter Looking Up at the Stars.” The catchy subtitle comes from Oscar Wilde, who said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The lecturer used this image in claiming that “though searching around in the gutter, examining sex and aggression and comparing humans to dogs and baboons, evolutionary psychologists keep one eye on the stars—working towards an integrated conceptual paradigm...

    • Seven BONOBOS Dolphins of the New Millennium (pp. 107-120)

      Our predilection for ranking animals in terms of their similarity to us, for looking at them seeking reflection and maybe affirmation of our own behavior, for turning some into role models, not only prevents us from seeing what the animals are actually doing. It also leads us to use some species as mythical figures, forms that serve as symbols and totems. An animal with which we identify can come to stand in for our values and desires, and then to validate the mysteries of nature to us in return. Some of us are “cat people,” some “dog people.” We want...

    • Eight THE ALPHA CHICKEN (pp. 121-136)

      It would seem that we have come full circle when a feminist author gives advice to a male presidential candidate on how to act more like a chicken. In the fall of 1999, the media was atwitter with the news that Naomi Wolf, author ofThe Beauty Myth and Promiscuities,had advised Democratic hopeful Al Gore on how to dress and act. But it was not just fashion advice or image-shaping, both of which are routine to modern politicians. Apparently Wolf was counseling Vice President Gore on how to be an Alpha Male. His position as the second-in-command, the columnists...

    • Nine SOCCER, ADAPTATION, AND ORGASMS (pp. 139-152)

      If our human bodies evolved, with their opposable thumb and atavistic appendix, what about our behavior, especially our sex roles? As I discussed at the outset, the sociobiology controversy raged, not about the selfish genes of clams or carnations, but about our own genetic tendencies to love or war. I have been arguing throughout this book against the simplistic use of animals as role models and also against the assumption that we are like the animals we see. But what about humans? Are some of the same dangers and biases apparent in examining ourselves? In the chapters that follow, I...

    • Ten SACRED OR CELLULAR The Meaning of Menstruation (pp. 153-167)

      In what has to be one of the most amusing uses of “man” as a false generic, Colin Finn begins a 1987 article on the function of menstruation with, “The phenomenon of menstruation must have puzzled man since time immemorial.” Just nine years later, mere puzzlement seems to have escalated; the first sentence of a paper Finn published in 1996 declares, “The significance of menstruation cannot be overstated and questions about its function have worried man since early times.” Of course man—or men—may be concerned about menstruation, but it is women who actually do it, as Finn makes...


      There is a “gay gene.” There is not a “gay gene.” Homosexuals are born that way, homosexuals choose to be that way, we are all basically bisexual but societal pressure forces most of us to choose a single polar sexual orientation. It is natural, so we cannot blame those who are homosexual because they simply are born to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex. It is natural, but it is sick, and so we should love the sinner but hate the sin. It is not natural, and those who are homosexual are exhibiting an aberration, a pathology,...

    • Twelve CAN VOLES DO MATH? (pp. 184-199)

      One of the major battlegrounds in arguments over the existence of sex differences is mathematics ability and performance. Are boys better than girls? If so, what caused the difference? Here is an area where the strands I have been following can be seen to knot themselves almost impenetrably. What has sexual selection to do with calculus? If we are looking at a real trait here, is it adaptive, or a by-product? Should we look to evolutionary psychology for an explanation? Or are the questions being asked somehow biased? Boys and girls are different “biologically,” whatever that means. They are also...

  9. Conclusion: UNNATURAL BOUNDARIES (pp. 200-212)

    I have spent most of this book—and a reasonable part of my career—speaking simultaneously to feminists and scientists, in the hope that the connection between the two can become more illuminating and less fractious. I will conclude with the same hope, first voiced by Patty Gowaty, that “Darwinian feminism is an oxymoron no longer.” Steering a course between two sometimes hostile entities is fraught with risk, but the opportunities for cross-fertilization, to use yet another biologically sexual metaphor, are too great to pass up. I have tried in the previous chapters to see how views of gender in...

  10. SELECTED READINGS (pp. 213-218)
  11. REFERENCES (pp. 219-228)
  12. INDEX (pp. 229-239)
  13. Back Matter (pp. 240-240)