Animal Sex: Jared Diamond vs Bob MacDonald

A few years ago we went through a Jared Diamond phase.  After Collapse, I read his book Why Sex is Fun.

I didn’t like it.  Not only was it not about why sex is fun, but it seemed poorly researched.  For example, he stated with awe that hyenas give birth through the clitoris but did not mention that human females do as well. (It is wish-bone shaped and mostly internal fyi).  He also used it to promote his theory of the battle between the sexes.

His premise was that each sex is trying to get the other to give more of its resources in caring for the young.  The sex which is most selfish wins.   Thus, female birds which cheat on their mates and leave the nest full of young for the males to feed while they go and start another nest with a new mate are the clear winners.  Male animals which mate and never come back win.

Ergo, sex differentiation happened when the biggest of the species forced the smaller ones to become female and carry the brunt of reproduction. 

Well, no, that isn’t true.

Bob MacDonald and his science program “Quirks and Quarks” often feature biologists talking about the sex lives of animals.

Recently a man who studies the penises of barnacles was describing how these hermaphrodites decide when to be male or female.  They are all ready to be male when one of them decides to be female.  The one acting as a female is the one making the choice.  ‘She’ isn’t forced, and the rest of the barnacles act as males only after the signal from the one acting as a female.

In a sense, the one acting as female has more control.

Also, male animals can give more or less to the offspring and/or mother depending on circumstances.  The brown spotted butterfly wet season male gives hardly any “nuptial gifts” to the females he mates with.  As a result, those males aggressively pursue females since they can mate with as many as they want with little consequence. 

The females, however, actively pursue the male butterflies born in the dry season.  Those males give a large nuptial gift which lengthens the females’ lives at the expense of their own.   Those males can only mate a few times and are in high demand.Buckeye

In conclusion: Bob MacDonald is a better authority on animal sex than Jared Diamond. 

Also, my lab tutorial leader was studying beetle penises.  There seem to be a lot of those studies, but the only people studying clitorises are sex educators.  Why is that?

6 thoughts on “Animal Sex: Jared Diamond vs Bob MacDonald

  1. Astasia says:

    In general, female sexuality has suffered from being under-studied. It’s only in the past half-century that women have been encouraged to know and understand their own bodies – both sexually and non. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy some of the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” books.

  2. theo(il)logical says:

    Here’s another way of looking at things (à la “critical discourse analysis” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_discourse_analysis). Leaving aside the question of whether Diamond or MacDonald’s guests are the better researchers, ask yourself the question why one is more popular (that is accessible and appealing to the masses) than the other. Why do publishers pick up Diamonds’ research over that of one of MacDonald’s guests for public consumption? I suspect that Diamond’s research has more appeal on the basis that it provides what people want to hear about the “battle of the sexes” and connects with certain currents in popular culture (the disconnect between the name of Diamond’s book and its content highlight this situation, no?); MacDonald’s guests are perhaps less willing to go where Diamond is willing to take his research in terms of pronouncing on human sexuality and wading into a sociocultural discussion. More bluntly, Diamond’s books are easily marketed and make more money for publishers catering to the general public. Publishers care less about whether or not its good research, and more about if it sells copy.

    • prairienymph says:

      I think Bob MacDonald’s radio show is more appealing to the masses. Diamond’s book about sex was hard to find and didn’t have any glowing reviews, unlike _Collapse_ or _Guns, Germs and Steel_.

      • theo(il)logical says:

        Quirks and Quarks is scientific journalism. The show is publicly funded and a part of CBC’s journalistic mandate. MacDonald is a journalist (whatever his formal scientific training is or is not). Fact of the matter is that most of MacDonald’s guests — the real scientific researchers — generally do not get book deals outside academic presses. Certainly Quirks and Quarks has some reach and its fans (I love Bob MacDonald!), but it is MacDonald who has “mass appeal.” His guests — in and of themselves — generally do not have much appeal past the show. MacDonald is the vessel through which a general public approaches science as science.

        After all, we’re talking about what scientific research here has the mass appeal (saleability), not who’s publisher has a greater audience, no?

        By contrast, Diamond is (supposedly) a scientist whose work is seen as profitable to a publishing company. His publisher (in the context of marketing Diamond’s books among the general population) isn’t in the business of scientific journalism (i.e., reporting the latest scientific discoveries in plain language for a general population) or publishing scientific discoveries for scientists (i.e., reporting scientific discoveries in peer-reviewed, specialist journals). Diamond’s publishers are there to satisfy a need in the market. Those publishers engage in much more aggressive marketing tactics to turn profits (this means probably not publishing a book about barnacle penises for the general population, because the general population doesn’t really care that much about barnacle penises . . . unless that book pronounces on human sexual politics for the “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”-book-reading types).

        Whether or not Diamond’s book on sex was a bestseller or not, or did better or worst than his other books, or the critics like it more or less is beside the point. The point is, Diamond gets the book deals (nevermind the biologist who specializes in human sexual biology, whose manuscript isn’t a one off foray into the field, or elaborate literature review of others’ research in the field, or doesn’t makes intellectually irresponsible claims beyond what his studies actually propose to explain, and who MacDonald invites on to his show because his/her discovery is truly an advancement in human knowledge and understanding of the environment around us). Publishers invest in Diamond’s manuscripts, expecting profitable returns. (I would even venture to say that Diamond and his ilk are the vessel through which the pubic approaches science not so much as science but as self-help.)

        What do you think?

      • prairienymph says:

        Are you saying there is a need for the market to be reassured that males still dominate in the battle of the sexes? And to shore up gender roles? And to ok infidelity?
        But not a need to learn about other creatures? Or why the theory of gravity doesn’t always work?
        Basically, that people are self-centred specieists that want to have their opinions validated instead of challenged?

        I think that is part of the genius of the Republican’s communication- they don’t try and educate but to reinforce existing anxieties and stereotypes.

  3. theo(il)logical says:

    I’m not saying that there is a need in the market for reassurance of male dominance in the sense that I believe male superiority needs to be reinforced. I am saying that consumer demand or choice reinforces the demand for particular texts that “shore up gender roles” in ways that consumers are largely familiar (and dare I say, comfortable) with. Supply doesn’t create demand; publishers aren’t going to start printing books that their market researchers tell them consumers by and large aren’t going to buy en masse.

    Are humans “self-interested specieists that want to have their opinions validated instead of challenged?” I don’t know. But my guess is that we like to think we aren’t, but on the whole act as we are. You’re example of Republicans is a case in point. Of course, the same can be said of the left as well. I’ve met plenty a “open mind” that can’t hold a respectful conversation with/about a conservative or apprehend the other-side of an argument.

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