Through a series of (fortunate) events, I’m teaching Animal Behavior this semester at Spelman. It’s a very good school and a different environment from Michigan State and Georgia Tech, which has been enlightening and reinvigorating (Writing… and only writing… all day, every day gets old. Trust me). In particular, it has been fun to work with a new population of students studying behavior, particularly as the classes are all female. This is a new experience for me, and it has been extremely interesting to see the differences in perspectives on sexual selection that are expressed in a single- vs. multiple-sex environment.
When students begin to think about behavior, they often think about it in the terms of “If I were you, I would…”. With both males and females in the classroom, it can be hard for students to articulate what might be the best evolutionary strategy, for fear of judgment by classmates. It can be difficult to bluntly tell a bunch of your fellow early-20-something classmates that sometimes, males and females will have an advantage if they mate indiscriminately. Classes may laugh at you. At worst, they label you a harlot or a sleezeball (or whatever kids might be calling the things these days). So, it becomes better to stay silent or let (antiquated) social norms in humans dictate what organisms should do, and anyone who deviates… well gosh, they are just darn impure!
I wouldn’t have noticed the degree to which restriction on discussing animal sexuality happens without the comparative experience I’m getting now at Spelman. Even though strategies differ across animal species (including our own), vocalizing the differences and navigating the logic behind favorable strategies can prove difficult when it abuts what we have (intimately) experienced within our own lives. Even still, our culture doesn’t necessarily always reflect what is evolutionarily most advantageous in terms of reproductive behavior. So how do you go about avoiding adding complication by imposing human values, but tap into the intuition of putting yourself in another’s shoes?
Anthropomorphizing (basically, viewing other species from a too-human lens) is damaging to uncovering what behaviors actually are, versus inferring from human experience what we assume them to be. As we teach the next generation of behavioral ecologists (or even behavior enthusiasts), we are tasked to develop those behavioral observation skills in our students, while supporting the development of both mechanistic and evolutionary thinking as to how behaviors function and came to be. Whether our questions be proximate or ultimate, it can be a challenge to get our students to ask questions about and express the realities of how a sexual system works. Removing the human bias from our observations is a good first step, but using logic to generate hypotheses and predictions for experiments must follow.
I feel we must encourage students to take the position of a male bed bug, or female mantis, for example, and ask, “How will I be most successful in surviving and leaving the most healthy offspring I can? What can my mate do to help or hurt this process?”. I have seen that my Spelman students are much more willing to throw strategies out there from this perspective, particularly when they are tasked with coming up with what males should do, despite not have a human experience as a male to influence their response. In contrast, my Michigan State co-ed classes are often able to more easily debunk human-biased reasoning, as each sex revels in retorting back to the other why a strategy may be favored, particularly when we discuss reproductive conflicts between the sexes. Already, I have had Spelman students echo my MSU students in saying that they understand human sexual strategies a bit better when they view them from an animal lens. At their core, they have realized viewing humans from a evolutionary perspective, as the animals we are, helps to explain what makes us, us.
Animals have an enjoyably diverse array of reproductive behaviors, far more shocking and wonderful than the variation we see within humans alone. In addition to various levels of hierarchy who mates (or who is chemically or physically suppressed not to), you’ve got systems where sperm gift-giving and mate cannibalism are the norm, where animals shed their sex cells into the seas to travel thousands of miles to meet a mate. You’ve got systems where the sperm can dwarf the male in size, or where ‘cloning’ for millions of years is interrupted, just for a day, for sex. Their are tons of cool things going on with sexual behavior and reproductive investment, and I encourage you to explore animal sexuality further. You never know what you’ll learn about them, and us.