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Sexual harassment across all species and other bullshit

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I read P Burns’ blog, Terrierman’s Daily Dose, and although I don’t agree with everything that Burns says, I still find it an entertaining place to stop on my daily rambles around the internet. In a recent post entitled “Mother Nature and Sexual Harassment”, he linked to a Vice article from March 2016, entitled Female Animals Make Themselves Look Ugly to Avoid Sexual Harassment by a Gabby Bess:

We talked to an evolutionary biologist and author of a new paper, “Why aren’t signals of female quality more common?,” [sic] that suggests female animals have adapted their appearance to avoid them.

Let’s leave that clumsy title paragraph to one side. It seems that Professor David Hosken from the University of Exeter wonders, “Why do females not signal their sexual quality via ornamental secondary sexual traits like males do?“, following on with “it is very likely that the costs of male harassment could also select against ornaments that positively signal female quality“.

Oh good grief.

Firstly, I haven’t written much at this blog for the past few months because I’ve been busy gathering information for the book’s second edition. And I’ll preface that statement by saying that if you didn’t much care for my snark in the first edition, I’d suggest you stay away from the second.

Secondly, I want to state that I love science. We’re encouraging our children to take up tertiary studies in one of the STEM fields (as my readers would know). I have been at pains to emphasise the Scientific Method during homeschooling. But this, this pap is beyond reason. Hosken quite rightly says on the Science Direct site that:

Highlights
• In most species females are less ornamented than males.
We suggest a novel reason for this pattern. [my emphasis. “Novel”? No shit.]
• If females signal their sexual quality, they may suffer increased sexual harassment.
• Ornaments could therefore be especially costly for females.

I have been noticing, with dismay, a lot of anti-male rhetoric emerging from Anglo countries over the past few years, and this kind of “science” merely reinforces that view. Further, evolutionary biologists hold an interesting and fairly unique niche in a hard science such as biology, in that they can basically say whatever the hell they like and won’t be found out for decades, if at all.

Let’s break down what Hosken et al. say (and I’ll readily admit that all I can access is the first page preview because I refuse to pay any money to read this drivel). He starts off with some standard text:

One of the most striking patterns in nature is the sexual dimorphism in animal sexual ornaments… Exaggerated ornamental traits are far more common in males than females…

followed by one interesting observation:

[W]e know that males do make reproductive decisions based on direct indicators of female quality (such as body size)…and even refuse to mate with low-quality females…

Then we come to the nub of the paper:

If we accept the premise that males, while not as choosy as females, still exert some choice of mates, then the question arises: why do females not signal their sexual quality via ornamental secondary sexual traits like males do?

Hosken et al. go on to posit that this is due to females being scared of sexual harassment.

Problems

Hosken et al. quite rightly point out that there are already two accepted “classical” explanations for the lack of female ornamentation. One has to do with the need for camouflage of the female, especially considering that she will be spending most of the time static in the nest, with not much chance of escaping a predator (Wallace, 1889). The second reason is that, essentially, fertility is a better bet for species propagation than fancy clothing (Gwynne, 2001).

What dismays me about their “novel” third suggestion of sexual harassment is that two of the paper’s co-authors are female: Professor Suzanne H Alonzo from the University of Santa Cruz and Professor Nina Wedell from the University of Exeter. Maybe they’re bimbos. Maybe they’re not mothers. Because if they were smart and biological parents, they could very easily and simply explain to Professor David Hosken, a gentleman who looks like he’s barely past using a razor for the first time, that being pregnant/producing eggs takes a lot of energy. A LOT of energy. And it could just be—bear with me here for my own “novel” take that didn’t require three professors’ salaries—that evolution has decided that the female is drab, not because of all those pesky males, but because energy has to be conserved for the production and rearing of young. This is a metabolic cost that the male of the species doesn’t have to bear. And which, to be quite honest with you, a male of any species viscerally knows little about.

Yet this little band of three, with a convenient excuse of not having to come up with anything that can be, you know, proven, has decided that females of species are drab because, males.

And then, after putting together a paper that they probably had to produce in order to (a) attend a conference at some exotic location so they could get pissed every night, or (b) get their paper count up so their department’s budget wouldn’t get cut, or (c) both, that ball of tripe gets repeated by so-called journalists like Gabby Bess from VICE. It’s obvious from Bess’s other articles that she likes to think of herself as hip and cutting-edge, but pass a clumsy plate of spaghetti logic through the immature digestive system of a clumsy “journalist” and you get the kind of crap that blames males of every goddamned species of harassing females of every goddamned species.

The other thing (yes, yet another) that bothers me about all this is how passive the female is portrayed. Females have anti-male odours, or they band together in communities. Let’s take the second paragraph from Bess’s article:

Just like human women who walk innocuously down the street on two legs, female animals also endure unwanted catcalls (or worse) from their male counterparts. And while other animals haven’t developed pepper spray or the vocalization “fuck off,” they have their own defenses against unwanted sexual attention.

  1. Do you like that “innocuously”? Why is that adjective even there? Unless there’s a set-up that’s about to become evident a phrase or two down the road. In lawyer terms, this is called “leading the witness”.
  2. And it’s followed by “on two legs”. Why? How else are human females supposed to “innocuously” walk? On all fours? On their hands? What is this clause even supposed to mean?
  3. “Female animals also endure unwanted catcalls”. I mean, seriously? We know that all male animals catcall females? And how do we define a “catcall” anyway? Is it an exhibition to draw attention? Does it signal bowing to peer pressure? Is it an initiation of a mating ritual? (If, for example, German Shepherd Dogs were somehow to morph into a desirable object for male construction workers, would we see such males “catcall” GSDs instead? How about if the group of construction workers was female? Would we see females “catcalling” males? In fact, I’ve worked in the construction industry, with female-only accounting departments, and that’s exactly what happens (female catcalling of men), so that theory is already busted.) But don’t let me prick Bess’s lighter-than-air bubble just yet. Let’s continue.
  4. “…while other animals haven’t developed pepper spray or the vocalization “fuck off,…” Ooooh, how daring! She used *gasp* “fuck off” in an article. How edgy! How outré! How hip she must be! So it’s “fuck off” or the pepper spray, is it? Overreaction much? Low self-esteem much? Victim mentality much?
  5. “…have their own defenses against unwanted sexual attention.” Get that? “Defenses” [sic]. A defence is more passive than an offence, so the subliminal message of low self-esteem is reinforced.

And so it goes.

This is not science. And it’s not writing about science. The original paper is bullshit, probably cobbled together to meet some quota, and the article is an exploitation of a paper that should never have been written in order to push a propaganda line that all men are aggressors and all women are victims.

If that’s how you feel—if you think that the world, with all its beautiful and intriguing intricacies, can be reduced to “men bad, women cry”, then there is no hope for you. I will continue to teach my children to be scientific but, as things currently go, I’m not holding out much hope for the existence of the Scientific Method within the sciences themselves. And it’s not just down to evolutionary biology. More details when the second edition of The Dog Ate My Experiment! hits the shelves in late 2018/early 2019.

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