Marlene Zuk, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002
Reviewed by Mimi Saunders, University of California Irvine
Zuk is a feminist behavioral biologist who writes to bridge the opposition between feminists and Darwinian biology. She is most successful when illustrating how feminist critiques have strengthened evolutionary biology. The volume is organized into eleven chapters, each of which treats a single myth that has prevented biologists from clearly seeing the diversity of animal behaviors. These biases range from the relatively well-known practice of favoring male animals in studies to the assumption that female animals exercise little to no influence over post-copulation fertilization. Written for a general audience, Zuk’s clear and witty treatment will also be appreciated by undergraduates.
The first section of the book traces how human ideas about gender have shaped the questions posed and the populations studied by behavioral biologists. Anthropologists outside the subdiscipline of physical anthropology will find the history of sexual selection theory fascinating. Darwin’s second theory was initially downplayed, explains Zuk, because Victorian scientists were disturbed by the possibility of a female-driven selection process (7).
The next chapter tackles the assumption that all female animal behavior is maternal. Zuk demonstrates how this bias has prevented researchers from noticing non-maternal behaviors. She reviews recent research on the control of fertility among female kangaroos and cooperative breeding in social insects to illustrate how reproductive success can also be maximized by infanticide and foregoing reproduction. Another essay describes how male-centered viewpoints have influenced research on bird mating. Once scientists stopped assuming that the costs and benefits of mating were identical for males and females, they noticed a more complex range of behaviors. Thanks to feminist critiques, animal researchers are now able to distinguish between social and genetic mating systems.
The final chapter in this section takes on the “fertilization myopia” evident in studies of reproductive behavior (87). Zuk counters the preconception that everything that happens after copulation can be reduced to male-driven sperm competition. She describes female traits, such as the complex structure of female insect genitalia, which suggest that females actively manage sperm.
Zuk’s take on ecofeminism is less persuasive. Her goal is to dissuade feminists or any another community from using animal research as “ammunition for or against the equality of the sexes” (201). Few feminists would quarrel with her position against replacing masculinist biases with essentialized ideas about women’s capacity for compassion. But Zuk faults Keller, Mies, and Merchant for characterizing science as a masculinist endeavor centrally concerned with the domination of nature. This is a non-scientist’s view of science, says the author. Before scientists can “control and predict natural phenomenon,” they must first fully understand them (42). But scientists know that “doing science ma[kes] the world seem less controllable – not more,” says Zuk (42). This is a specious argument: the impossibility of ever fully understanding nature has not prevented scientists from attempting to modify nature through genetic engineering.
The second section of the book considers a broader range of myths, including the scala naturae. This is the “old . . notion that humans are higher, more advanced, more evolved, less primitive or (if you get right down to it) better than other forms of life” (91). Zuk argues that the scala misreads historical relationships between life forms as an evolutionary ladder. When biologists give up this myth, they are more willing to learn from a broader range of animals. Feminists can also find interesting lessons. For example, studies of closely related shorebirds indicate that sex roles are not rigidly determined but evolve more flexibly depending upon environmental conditions (102).
The final portion of the book addresses human behavior. In these essays, Zuk reviews debates over gendered differences in orgasms, menstruation, and math, as well as homosexuality. Are these evolutionary adaptions or byproducts? The chapter on homosexuality shifts too easily between two very different definitions of homosexuality – same-sex orientation and same-sex sexual behavior – without underscoring the distinctions between the categories used in human and animal research.
Zuk states that “[p]art of my job as a scientist is to clear my preconceptions out of the way as much as possible so that I can see what the bluebirds are doing” (41). Her goal in this book is to sweep away the gendered biases and myths that have impaired scientists’ observations. But the author is less forthcoming about the difference an evolutionary approach makes. Like any theoretical lens, feminist evolutionary biology is also grounded in a particular set of assumptions and thus foregrounds some explanations while omitting others.
Mimi Saunders, a sociocultural anthropologist, teaches courses on gender and sexuality in the Women’s Studies program at UC Irvine. She is currently revising a manuscript on gendered and racialized citizenship practices in four immigrant school communities.