"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Friday, September 7, 2012

Warriors and Wimps

Color-enhanced electron micrograph of a human ovum and sperm.
Stories of fertilization are loaded with gender stereotypes, even
in modern-day textbooks.  See the artist's rendition below.

anthropomorphic 1. ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human.  2. resembling or made to resemble human form.

I've touched upon the topic of anthropomorphism before, in my post Animating the Forest, part of my series of reflections for the 2011 Andrews Forest Writers Residency.  There I talked about the tension between me-the-writer and me-the-scientist when interacting with the forest, and how my desire to avoid anthropomorphism influenced the way I write about the natural world, and the way animals were portrayed in the novel Eolyn. 
A common artist's rendition of fertilization, where
the voyage of the sperm appears as a kind of space
odyssey:  To explore strange worlds, to seek out new
life, to boldly go where no man has gone before...

As a biology professor, I run into anthropomorphisms on a a daily basis, sometimes in unexpected places.  For example, today in introductory biology we introduced the term hydrophilic, which one of the students was quick to define as "water-loving". 

Hydrophilic compounds have an affinity for water, and so "water-loving" is a catchy phrase that can help students remember what hydrophilic means and how it applies to biology and chemistry.  But -- let's face it -- molecules are not capable of "loving" anything. An innocent anthropomorphism, but an anthropomorphism nonetheless.

Women and Science this week also tackled the subject of anthropomorphism. We often use human characteristics to tell stories about the natural world, and as a result these stories, though meant to communicate scientific information, are often couched in terms that reflect and reinforce gender stereotypes.  Take this example which we looked at just yesterday:

Warriors and Wimps.  From a male's perspective, there are never enough females to go around and so, motivated by lust and sheer greed, each of them comes into serious competition with other philanderers...   (John Sparks, Battle of the Sexes: The Natural History of Sex.  London: BBC Books 1999)

I'll let you guess which non-human animal this excerpt is talking about, though in a sense, the animal referred to is irrelevant, because the story is not really about that species.  It is a high-drama conflict cast in human tones, where male "warriors" battle each other for access to passive females, who seem to be caught in the classic damsel-in-distress syndrome we so often complain about in fantasy fiction.

You guessed right!  Our lusty warriors are elephant seals.
From a biological perspective, we really cannot impose human motivations like "lust" and "sheer greed" on another animals. Nor can we qualify their behavior as "philandering", because terms like these impose moral connotations on patterns that have evolved under natural selection, and therefore have no moral implications whatsoever, not for the animals that engage in the behavior, and certainly not for the humans who study them. 

By this last statement, what I mean is that humans must judge the moral implications of our behavior within the context of our own species and societies; we cannot base our moral codes on the behavior of other animals. Yet often scientific information is communicated in a way that does just that.  Take this example, also discussed in class this week, from a story of human origins that attempts to explain pair-bonding between men and women:

The Naked Ape: Origins.  Male and female hunting apes had to fall in love and remain faithful to one another....In this way, the females were sure of their males' support and were able to devote themselves to their maternal duties.  The males were sure of their females' loyalty, were prepared to leave them for hunting, and avoided fighting over them.  And the offspring were provided with the maximum of care and attention.  (Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967.) 

An outdated reference, to be sure.  Since the publication of Morris' version of human cultural history, a lot has changed in the field of paleoanthropology, and in our understanding of the behavior of early humans.  But this still serves as an excellent example of how "scientific" information can be construed to reinforce certain stereotypes -- in this case, a cerca 1950s vision of the ideal family, where Mom stays home with the kids, Dad goes off to a collegial atmosphere at work, both are perfectly faithful to the other, and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Let me take off my scientist cap for a moment and go back to being Karin-the-storyteller, because all this has implications for the stories we tell about the natural world, and the responsiblity we assume in telling them. 

One of my all-time favorite series:
The BBC's Planet Earth

I once saw a fascinating presentation by a BBC filmaker in La Selva Biological Station, where he showed us how the BBC systematically takes unconnected snippets of wildlife footage and manages to weave it all together into an interesting and cohesive drama. 

Truth be told, none of us would watch those BBC wildlife specials if they did not deliver some interesting drama.  And yet, speaking as a professor who has used BBC productions such as Planet Earth in the classroom, a fundamental goal of those series is to communicate the reality of the natural world.  Finding the balance between achieving solid scientific content and creating the drama that will hold the interest of the non-scientist is a constant challenge.  Layer on top of this the need to craft drama in a way that avoids the trap of social stereotypes, and you have a formidable task indeed. 

I've rambled on enough about this.  Now it's your turn. 

Have you run across "scientific" stories that reinforce gender stereotypes?

If so, how would you recast these stories in a way that could avoid those stereotypes?