When Laura Bush visited Hawaii in 2007, the First Lady approvingly noted that the state’s Laysan albatrosses mate for life. The birds usually return to the same nest with the same partner year after year and have one of the avian world’s lowest “divorce rates.” But, unbeknownst to Bush and everyone else, as Lucy Cooke writes in her new book Bitch: On the Female of the Species, about a third of Laysan albatross couples are same-sex pairings made up of female birds. Researchers, tipped off by the discovery that some nests regularly contained two eggs each year though the birds are only capable of laying one at a time, later discovered that some females mated with males but partnered with each other to raise their young.
Cooke’s profile of the birds is just one of many in Bitch, which was released in the U.S. on Tuesday and finds the British zoologist on a stereotype-busting, globe-hopping tour of the animal kingdom. The book examines creatures who defy long-held preconceptions of animal world females as submissive, instinctively maternal, and sexually docile—from bonobos to bush crickets.
“If you’re going to define being female, it’s by its varied nature,” Cooke told Jezebel via Zoom. “It’s not about fitting in this particular pigeonhole or these particular stereotypes.”
Cooke, who’s a zoologist and TV broadcaster as well as an author, was taught during her student years that “female animals had very specific roles, and that our roles were defined by our sex, and that we were passive, coy creatures that were second-rate players in the evolutionary story, and that males were the main event,” she said.
It was a belief system that owes a lot to the work of Charles Darwin. Because ova are large, energetically high-priced to create, and in limited supply while sperm are small and ample, Darwinian thinking goes, females are supposedly sexually restrained and males are promiscuous. As the controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, with whom Cooke studied in college, wrote in The Selfish Gene, “The female is exploited, and the fundamental evolutionary basis for the exploitation is the fact that eggs are larger than sperms.” From these asymmetrical gametes all sex-based oppression supposedly follows, as males are free to be roving adventurers while females tend their few, precious offspring.
But thankfully, the story isn’t quite that simple, nor is exploitation that inevitable. In recent years, researchers—many of whom are women themselves—have revealed that the females of the animal kingdom vary widely, and it’s these stories that Cooke highlights in Bitch. “I thought it was about time to tell the truth about female animals,” she said, “and what a kind of extraordinary, diverse, dominant, aggressive, competitive, promiscuous bunch of creatures we are.”
The examples Cooke uses are numerous and colorful: Far from playing second fiddle to males, colonies of naked mole rats (whom one expert describes to Cooke in Bitch as resembling “a penis with teeth”) are ruled by queens who maintain power in part by preventing their subordinates from reaching sexual maturity—possibly by bullying them into reproductive submission—which allows the queens to hold a monopoly on breeding rights in the community.
While we humans often describe a doting “maternal instinct” as being a biological imperative across species, Cooke goes on to illustrate that animal motherhood takes on all kinds of forms. The working parents of the giraffe world (work, in their case, is foraging for food) leave their calves in nursery groups tended by a guard. And far from instantly switching into mommy mode, primate mothers actually navigate a parental learning curve. Their firstborns are 60 percent more likely to die than infants born to more experienced mothers. Primatologist Jeanne Altmann tells Cooke of one baboon mom she observed who spent much of the first day of her firstborn’s life “dragging her and bumping her on the ground” until she got the hang of properly carrying her offspring. (The infant later died.)
In some species, female animals’ bodies are skilled enough to do some pretty complicated maternal calculus and can even end pregnancies via abortion. When a new male takes over a group of gelada baboons, females terminate existing pregnancies 80 percent of the time, to avoid further investment in offspring who would likely fall victim to an infanticidal alpha male. “The idea of a female taking such brutal command of her reproductive destiny may not be welcomed by the pro-life brigade,” Cooke writes. “The uncomfortable truth, however, is that nature is decidedly pro-choice. Abortion, at every stage of pregnancy, is an unconscious adaptive strategy for many animal mothers facing unfavorable situations that place themselves, or their offspring, in peril.”
“Motherhood is a high-stakes gambler’s game,” Cooke said in our interview. “Female animals do things that may seem shocking to humans, but that is what nature allows for. That’s what makes them good mothers.”
Then there’s sex itself, and Bitch outlines countless ways in which animal biology shatters ideas of the gender binary. There are species in which both sexes sport similar-looking genitalia, such as hyenas, who are the proud owners of lengthy clitorises that can have erections. (All female mammals have clitorises, and females in some species have been found to have orgasms, too.) Female moles aren’t just gardeners’ worst enemies—they’ve also got a set of what looks like “bulging male gonads.”
“Outside of the breeding season, the testicular tissue swells and produces huge amounts of testosterone,” Cooke said. “Her vagina seals up, and it means that she can dig really, really hard.”
Then there are the creatures that change their sex, like chalk bass, which can switch between male and female as many as 20 times in a single day. Clownfish live in monogamous pairs in which the female is dominant, but if she dies, her mate switches sexes to become the new female, who then takes one of her own offspring as her new mate. That means that a “biologically accurate” version of Finding Nemo “would therefore have seen Nemo’s father, Marlin, transition into a female and then start having sex with her son,” Cooke writes.
Among the researchers whose work Cooke profiles are internationally renowned scientists like Altmann, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Yet many describe having their data-driven findings initially dismissed by peers. When Patricia Gowaty used DNA testing to reveal that female songbirds, who’d long been believed to be monogamous, were tending their nest with one male while mating with and being impregnated by others, she told Cooke, “It was as though I’d discovered something, but it offended so many people that it was unbelievable... They couldn’t imagine that females were anything but benign.”
“I think for whatever reason, we are very invested in these ideas that there are huge differences between males and females,” Cooke said during our interview. “But also, in a lot of cases the scientists that were first putting forward these alternative ideas were women. And—there’s been plenty that’s been written about this—there’s an authority gap. Women are not taken as seriously as men.”
It’s hard not to learn the stories of all these stereotype-defying female creatures without thinking of humans. But Cooke warns against using animals to read into human nature, in part because it’s a knife that cuts both ways. After all, some animal communities truly are violently patriarchal—a fact that’s long been used to justify the oppression of human women. “A lot of us probably believe that patriarchy is burned into our DNA and males are dominant to females, and that’s just the way that it is,” said Cooke. “Well, it just isn’t the case.”
But it doesn’t require any cross-species reaching to marvel at the sheer diversity of the female experience across the natural world, and to appreciate that even the most entrenched beliefs about what it means to be male or female are by no means the universal law of the jungle.