The Interview: Lucy Cooke

Zoologist Lucy Cooke talks about dismantling male scientific bias in her new book “Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution
and the Female Animal”

“Being female meant just one thing: I was a loser.” This is probably not a sentence you expect to encounter in a magazine celebrating International Women’s Day 2022. But it’s how the animal-obsessed, teenage Lucy Cooke felt when she started studying zoology at Oxford in the late 1980s – an era when Cooke’s tutor Richard Dawkins bestrode evolutionary biology like a colossus and scientific beliefs about how male animals differed from female ones seemed written in stone.

Underpinning everything was Dawkins’ pronouncement in The Selfish Gene that, “The female is exploited, and the fundamental evolutionary basis for the exploitation is the fact that eggs are larger than sperms.” Or, as the dynamic zoologist Cooke puts it when we chat over Zoom, “This [theory] was drummed into me at university and exists in popular culture and has taken on the status of universal law: sperm are small and cheap and eggs are large and expensive, so males will be active and promiscuous and females will be choosy and chaste.

What this also implies, Cooke explains, “is that males vary more than females in their reproductive success,” as there’s constant competition to pass on their genes, meaning some males will father a lot of offspring, while others won’t.

The message the student Cooke took away was, “Males lead swashbuckling lives of agency,” because all that teeming variety drives the bus of change, “which is an incredibly dispiriting message for a young woman to hear. Also, it didn’t make any sense to me. If all the males are promiscuous and all the females are chaste, who are all those males having sex with? That always really bothered me.” She pauses then adds, laughing, “Speaking as someone who’s never been naturally inclined towards chastity and has never been married.”

As Cooke pursued a high-flying career in zoology, making TV nature documentaries along the way, she kept coming across research that challenged her previous understanding of evolutionary biology. Some of this went into her acclaimed 2018 book The Unexpected Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos and Other Wild Tales, where she uncovered weird, wonderful and often confounding truths about the biology and behaviour of certain much-loved creatures.

Writing it brought home the fact that “humans are a very egocentric species, we tend to view the rest of the world through the prism of our own existence; our propensity to anthropomorphise has meant we misunderstood animals throughout history.”

One of the myths she busted was that penguins are rarely monogamous, despite reams of fanciful literature that protest they are. Instead, “Life for a penguin is brutal and the closer they live to the South Pole the higher the divorce rate. Adele penguins are wired to have sex with anything that moves, and quite a few things that don’t – like dead penguins.”

Discoveries like this made Cooke decide there was an entire volume to be written on female animals and the ways in which they defied prevailing evolutionary theory. Were we females really doomed, on account of our nutrient-rich ova, to “to play second fiddle to the sperm-shooters for all eternity”?

Was it really true, as Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, that, “Excess copulations may not actually cost a female much… but they do her no positive good.” The result is her captivating new book Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal – which should be required reading for all curious humans, male or female.

Cooke says that as she travelled for the research she found herself “shocked at how big the story is. I didn’t realise the extent to which sexist bias has shaped our understanding of female animals and how that has also restricted our understanding of evolution itself.” 

She’s had to admit the problem traces back to her hero, Charles Darwin, who defined the sexes in his theory of sexual selection: females were passive, coy and monogamous and males were active and ardent and the dominant drivers of change.

Cooke says with gusto, “Darwin was a genius – I’m an evolutionary biologist because of him,” but even so she was shocked and surprised to discover someone as brilliant as Darwin could be so blinkered by culture. “God, there were so many revelations: I just didn’t realise how insidious cultural bias has shaped the very building blocks of biology. And that it continues to do so. We now know there are female animals who mate just as promiscuously as males, but female scientists have to jump up and down and scream at the scientific patriarchy to have their research accepted.”

Perhaps the most egregious example of this concerns Patricia Gowaty, a distinguished former professor of evolutionary biology at UCLA, who was one of the first scientists to challenge the orthodoxy on the presumed monogamy of songbirds.

The advent of DNA fingerprinting gave Gowaty the opportunity to test the paternity of the eggs of the eastern bluebird, the cobalt-blue songbird associated with happiness. She duly established females were slipping away and mating with males other than their regular partners – the fellas who help them build their nests and raise their chicks, leading to dewy-eyed suppositions of fidelity.

Gowaty’s findings proved so offensive to the American Ornithological Society that a well-known male ethnology professor told her the bluebirds in her study must have been “raped”. An impossible scenario as male songbirds don’t have a penis and mating birds engage in a “cloacal kiss” while the male balances precariously on the female’s back. If she doesn’t want him there, she can simply shrug him off. It’s now established that 90 per cent of female birds routinely copulate with multiple males.   

But then sexual revolution is part of Cooke’s remit with Bitch. And since I’ve spent a good portion of the past 30 years writing about sex and sexuality, we head straight head to the thorny evolutionary topic of the female orgasm. Cooke gets splendidly revved-up on the issue, reminding me that Desmond Morris – 94-year-old author of The Naked Ape – was one of the first zoologists to state that “the female human orgasm was unique amongst primates and existed to maintain the pair bond.”

“We’re just lucky – thank god for males that we’ve even got a clit!”

According to Morris, no other primates were capable of sexual pleasure. Similarly, the evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould said the only reason human females had a clitoris and were able to experience any pleasure, “was because of our developmental blueprint with the male and that the clitoris and the penis are homologous.” Cooke says, wide-eyed but laughing: “We’re just lucky – thank god for males that we’ve even got a clit!” 

There’s strong evidence in Bitch that it can’t possibly be true only human females experience orgasms. Various species of primates have been observed rubbing themselves with evident pleasure, or making an expression that’s remarkably like human females at the point of climax (there’s even a helpful illustration in the book), while bottlenose dolphins’ anatomy and enthusiasm for sex also suggest clitoral stimulation. And apparently Danish pig breeders know that massaging their sows’ intimate anatomy will better ensure impregnation.

On top of that, there’s incredible zoological diversity in terms of clitorises, which Cooke says “have everything from bones, baculums, and spines on them.” And while some are situated “very close to the vagina, meaning it gets more stimulated during sex,” others enjoy less proximity. The author’s key point here is that there’s incredible female variety – “the grit that drives evolution forward. And female sexual pleasure exists because it’s been selected for. It’s not an accident, or something to be grateful to males for.” 

It’s easy to sense Cooke’s frustration at the persistence of the “Victorian idea that sex is only for reproduction – which also makes all forms of same-sex activity completely anomalous.” Especially when close scrutiny of the animal kingdom reveals sex has lots of functions for females. We return to our close relatives, bonobos (who, along with chimpanzees share 99 per cent of their DNA with humans), a matriarchal society where females lead and enjoy frequent sexual engagement with males and other females. Cooke declares gleefully that this mutual pleasuring enables female bonobos to avoid competition with one another. Instead, they’ve “learned to overthrow the patriarchy through ecstatic same-sex frottage – and more power to them.”

Traditional ideas of motherhood are also turned on their head in Bitch. Cooke freely admits that she’s never felt maternal nor wanted to have babies, comes from a “long line of non-maternal women”, and felt a bit of freak after learning, courtesy of Darwin, that women are “imbued with this natural maternal instinct”.

So, Cooke wrote a chapter on motherhood that challenged this orthodoxy, and that she fretted was overly “dark” – until she reflected that she sees friends who have had babies and “have really struggled with it and then feel a lot of shame.”

As someone who places myself firmly amid the ranks of the maternally clueless, I was cheered to learn females of other species struggle as much as I did with basic child-rearing. Though even I wasn’t as careless as the young baboon who held her first baby upside down, meaning the poor mite bumped its head, couldn’t nurse and perished early.

The baboon observations come courtesy of “the fiendishly clever” pioneer of zoology, Jeanne Altmann, Professor Emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton. Altmann started a long-term baboon study with her husband, after she couldn’t find a senior academic to mentor her in her original field of mathematics.

Cooke says the professor “brought her rigorous statistical analysis to zoology, which really needed someone to stop all the confirmation bias going on.” The bias meant that male baboons were overly scrutinised because their acts of dominance were more aggressively showy and attention-grabbing. The smaller, less aggressive females seemed less intriguing until close observation proved they were “doing something just as interesting in evolutionary terms.”

Altmann instigated a form of statistical analysis in which researchers watched every individual in a group for a set amount of time. Once attention was refocussed fairly, observers saw females varied wildly in their ability to mother. Some found it problematic to carry a baby while trying to feed and others couldn’t handle nursing, but what Cooke found especially fascinating was, “the impact of class and social structure on the mother.”

She explains: “Female baboons inhabit a very strict hierarchy and if you’re born into the upper echelons you’re privy to first dibs at food; you’ve also got this high-class protection racket that protects you and your baby. Whereas if you’re a low-class baboon, you don’t get that.”

“I once saw biological sex as simply binary. I now see it as more of a spectrum”

She concludes “there’s a lot to learn when a female becomes a mother and some of it’s still under investigation,” telling me researchers announced last year that they’ve uncovered “a nurturing switch in the brain”. The truly extraordinary part is it exists in both males and females, “exactly the same”. Cooke says the scientists don’t yet know exactly what triggers the switch, only that it exists, even if in a dormant state, in all of us. “Even me,” says Cooke, laughing loudly. 

This is not the only part of Bitch where the divisions between females and males feel ever harder to map. There’s an intriguing chapter on the plasticity of sex, which will give some readers pause for thought. Cooke says that when she started writing the book she thought of sex as a simple binary, but her research within the animal kingdom means “I now see sex as more of a spectrum.”

She says Darwin was aware of this because he was obsessed with barnacles, which were all thought to be hermaphrodites until he observed “teeny weeny little males” attached to the hermaphrodites. “Darwin realised that what you were seeing with barnacles was this evolution from single hermaphrodite, with both sexes, to two sexes.”

Apparently, the startled zoologist wrote a letter to a colleague saying he’d deem this discovery “el diablo” – but Darwin was sure he was seeing evolution at work (a spot-on hunch, as it turned out). This line of enquiry took Cooke to David Crews, professor of zoology and psychology at the University of Texas, who’s spent 40 years studying the field of sexual differentiation and determination in a wide variety of animals.

Cooke says Crews will tell you that sex is not a unitary phenomenon; there are actually five types of sex [or what we often now call gender?]: chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, morphological, and behavioural. “They don’t necessarily all agree with one another or even remain fixed for life. They are cumulative and emergent in nature, and can be influenced by genes or hormones, as well as the environment or even an animal’s life experience – allowing for the huge variety in sex and sexual expression that we see both within and between species.”

Few animals illustrate sexual plasticity better than the female mole, a creature long beloved of Cooke, who used to retrieve their lifeless, velvety bodies from the “barbaric metal traps” in her childhood garden. 

She goes into an intense mole-inspired reverie at this point: “They’re extraordinary creatures. It’s pretty horrible and completely dark living underground, you’ve got to find a lot of worms and burn up a lot of energy digging. So evolution has equipped the female mole with testicles. Her gonads are described as ovotestes; meaning they’ve got ovarian tissue at one end that produces eggs and the rest of it is testicular tissue, which produces testosterone that makes her dig harder. And outside of the breeding season, which is very short, the testicular size swells and dwarfs the ovarian side, pumping out lots of testosterone to power her digging. Her vagina seals up and she has a clitoris that looks like a penis. From a morphological, hormonal or even gonadal view she looks like a male. But she’s not, she’s a female.” 

We both sit for a second or two and ponder the mole’s near-alchemical level of shape-shifting. Cooke says with a mixture of frustration and admiration, “it’s a really anarchic system. You think: Evolution, gah! Could you not come up with something better than that?”

But this is hardly where the confusion ends. Most people are familiar with the X and Y chromosomes, so as Cooke puts it: “you’d think, on the surface of things, that the genes for making an ovary exist on the X, while the genes for making a testis exist on the Y.”

But, nope, the genes for these kinds of sexual characteristics aren’t sitting around neatly in a gendered fashion. Instead, Cooke says “they’re all over the genome and, not only that, they’re the same genes.” She says when David Crews first tried to explain this it blew her mind: “I had to ring him back twice and say, ‘I know we’ve gone through this before, but when you said it was the same genes, did you really mean that?’” 

I felt a similar level of incredulity and wonder when I read Bitch. Take the passages on bearded dragons, where sex is determined genetically but can still be overturned by a temperature-driven process. In other words, you can have a bearded dragon that’s genetically male, but which then becomes biologically female, while evolving characteristics that are “more aggressive and, weirdly, more fecund than the genetically female ones.”

Cooke cites this as yet another “anarchic and imperfect” demonstration of variation that could be exploited in terms of evolution. It’s also far removed from the Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest”. I wasn’t aware until reading Bitch that it was philosopher Herbert Spencer who actually originated this famous line; Darwin only incorporated it under duress into the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species. Probably because he sensed, as Cooke puts it, that it gives the incorrect impression we are evolving towards perfection. When in actual fact, “evolution is just a series of botch jobs – whatever works best in the moment.”

This sense of joyful anarchy pervades Bitch. It’s hard to sum up the cumulative power of Cooke’s puckish revelations, including passages on the mystery of female partner selection (female sage grouse are impressed by body-popping) and the incredible corkscrew vaginas of Muscovy ducks and bottlenose dolphins.

There’s solidarity for mid-life women in knowing orcas not only go through menopause, something once believed to be the sole province of humans, but also go on to lead their pods when through with reproduction. And I was fascinated to learn that male testicular size gives a good indication of female fidelity – the larger the gonads, the more faithless the female.

The chapter on cannibalistic female spiders who devour male suitors is written with the kind of exuberance that suggests Cooke has a touch of arachnid envy. When I ask her about it, she says: “You’ve got a female that’s large and predatory and a male that looks like dinner in order to get laid. He’s got to tread this terrible line, trying to manage to have sex, yet to hold on to his life.” The bits detailing a patient London zookeeper’s attempts to promote successful spider coitus, knowing the male is on a suicide mission, have enough jeopardy for a Hollywood movie. 

“Maybe you need feminist science to redress the balance, so long as the science holds up as being correct”

But the tensile strength underpinning the book is the pioneering spirit of the women scientists Cooke interviewed. Special mention must be made of the evolutionary scientists, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy “the distaff Darwin” (famed for her work with langurs) and her great friends Mary Jane West-Eberhard and Jeanne Altmann.

Then there’s Patricia Brennan whose ambition is to create the world’s first physical library of animal vaginas. It’s impossible to ignore ardent feminist Patricia Gowaty, whose songbird studies are far from her only act of iconoclasm. Gowaty also took it upon herself to disprove Bateman’s Principle, one of the bedrocks of evolutionary biology, which states variability in reproductive success is greater in males than females.

Bateman’s findings were based on his 1940s research with fruit flies, but when Gowaty faithfully reproduced the entire experiment she was able to prove his “evidence” had been woefully misinterpreted. Cooke took it upon herself to see whether Oxford University had updated its reading list accordingly, only to discover the professor emeritus’ work was considered too “ideological” and feminist to be recommended to students. The 70-something scientist said dolefully to Cooke, “Ah Lucy, I think I’m going to be famous when I’m dead.” 

This sidelining of brilliant female scientists enrages Cooke. She says the common factor with women engaged in overturning longstanding myths is, “They’ve got to be twice as diligent because they’re saying something so radical; and even then they can have their work dismissed for being ideologically driven.”

But as she points out, Darwin’s science was political too. “Maybe you need feminist science to redress the balance, so long as the science holds up as being correct.” Cooke hopes that if one thing comes out of the book it will be that these fine women’s names are given wider renown and their work ends up on syllabuses. I’d like to add the ambition that someone asks Cooke to make an unexpurgated documentary of Bitch, female gonads and all. 

Lucy Cooke is a New York Times best-selling author, award-winning documentary filmmaker and broadcaster, National Geographic explorer and TED talker with a Masters in zoology from Oxford university. Her latest book BITCH: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal is out March 3rd in the UK. Visit lucycooke.tv for more info

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