Animal Crackers

Michael Neve

  • Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia by William Eberhard
    Harvard, 244 pp, £21.25, January 1986, ISBN 0 674 80283 7
  • Females of the Species by Bettyann Kevles
    Harvard, 270 pp, £16.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 674 29865 9
  • A Concise History of the Sex Manual by Alan Rusbridger and Posy Simmonds
    Faber, 204 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13519 6

Along the beautiful coastline of California live the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). When the females are ready, they emerge from the waters of the Pacific to nurse their newly-born youngsters, on land. They are then surveyed by several enormous bulls, one of whom comes to dominate during subsequent copulation-time, which starts about a month after the birth of their young. During copulation, the females utter a kind of snarl: this is thought to be a way of encouraging other males to intervene and compete among each other. How do we know this? Because on hand, in California, watching the struggle for ‘viable sperm’ is a mammalogist. Name? Burney Le Boeuf.

Elsewhere, on the battered planet, there are elephants. Elephants take things slowly. Once a fertilised ovum has been successfully planted in the uterus of the female, she will carry the fetus for a year and a half, and then nurse it for five years or more after birth. Elephants, in their sad wisdom, can as a result only face the cumbersome task of sexual intercourse once every four years. Watching this Schopenhauerian scene of massive resignation is an ethologist. Name? Holly Dublin.

Then there are these books. They are all, in their different ways, products of the time. Two of them re-examine the received views of female behaviour and female sexual choice in the history of animal life, and one of them attempts to recount the history of sexual advice-giving, in recent times, to humans. Each of them, in that sense, is concerned with the issue of sexual science, or at least the systematic study of sexuality as a feature of the natural history of men and animals. And each of them seems imprisoned in a clapped-out language of description, a variety of flat American academic prose or, in Alan Rusbridger’s case, of tedious schoolboy prurience. This makes Rusbridger’s non-event of a book easily forgotten. In the case of William Eberhard and Bettyann Kevles, the sense of linguistic imprisonment is more important, raises much more interesting questions. For what their books are about, as against how they talk about it, matters. And particularly in Eberhard’s case, entombed in the sunless world of academic ‘scientific’ description lies a detailed study of foreplay, copulation, fighting, surviving and screaming with pleasure that is (almost) worthy of Erasmus Darwin.

Eberhard and Kevles are both studying the ways in which females, in the animal kingdoms, perpetuate their own species, and the criteria by which they choose to proceed. In that sense their books display the influence of feminist and sexual-political thinking within biology, and within the biological discussion of reproduction, genitalic form and function, and domestic life. The interest of both books is related to the deep question of how far we are still eager to have news from the animals and how it’s meant to affect us. To put it another way, sociobiology may now take on a modish garb: homosexual lizards are suddenly ‘discovered’ in the South-Western United States; some females in nature turn out to be, rather briefly, nice to each other. Do we care?

This is of course unfair, since both writers might argue that they are simply looking at animals and are not speaking of human capacities, let alone sociobiology. But we’ve been through that one, and every ethological text carries implications for humans, because it’s us reading and writing them. Think Burney Le Boeuf. With a surname like that, who wouldn’t check out the seal sex situation? Think Holly Dublin. And Bettyann Kevles, anxious to be up to date and write without humour, who also dedicates a book about females, sex and the family to her husband Dan, a distinguished historian of genetics. To Dan, whose help at ‘every stage in every way was immeasurable’. Jesus, Bettyann, that big?

The place of female sexual choice in the received account of animal evolution is, without a doubt, in need of revision. And it isn’t only a question of thinking further than the idea that the centre of evolutionary attention should be male-male competition. The ideologically-loaded nature of that view can now seem pretty obvious, making ‘females’ into mere audience, or passive receptors. The big boys beat it out, and then biggest boy comes across and has his way with the adoring (female) fans. Now both Kevles and Eberhard acknowledge the amount of Libyan bombing there is in the natural order, but want to look at other things. In this standard male-male model, the place of ‘females’ as mere conduits of reproduction silences the ‘female’, in terms of active life. To be female here is simply to get fucked, willy-nilly. Indeed, female = silence, outside the issue of gamete (mature sex cell) reception. In the male-male model, all the action is boy-based, and females aspire (when included at all) to the condition of television’s version of British Caledonian stewardesses.

It is customary to begin the revisionist, female-oriented account by paying lip-service to Darwin, who at least attended to female sexual choice in his Descent of Man of 1871. Both authors attempt this, and it seems to me that they are too generous in so doing. Not because Darwin does not give an important place to female choice as part of his explanation of the evolution of certain secondary sexual characters in animals: he does. But part of the problem, which these books share in, is the actual implication for human culture. And Darwin did not, in his own life or in the lives of which he approved, give human females any claim to equality, did not think that female sexual choice should translate into the legal, familial or political fabric of the culture of which he formed such an impressive part. In its journey from biological theory to society, female choice is dispersed, into the no doubt ‘nicer’, no doubt ‘quieter’, but no doubt less powerful niches chosen by patriarchy. These are profound matters, and Darwin was a great man. However, the ideological sleight-of-hand remains: that a dilution, even a disappearance, occurs in the translation of perceived female sexual choice in ‘nature’ to its manifestation in ‘society’. For many human cultures and certainly in 19th-century European biology, men gave a name to this reduced agent: the name is women.

That Kevles and Eberhard can both be chastised for not attending to what Darwin did with his not all that impressive recognition of female choice does not detract from how they both press their case. This case has to be fought hard in order to bring it to life, since one of the achievements of American science writing is to have replaced wit, Classical allusion, metaphor and poetics with sociobiology. It may not matter all that much, but it seems to me that something real has been lost, some great falling-off from Enlightenment alternatives, when a historian of animal life (Bettyann Kevles) can look at the early meetings of creatures great and small and then say: ‘This checking-out period is called courtship.’ The obvious reply is that only animals are under discussion. But that’s not the point. Courtship has had its meaning changed: no longer has anything to do with dawning adoration, even enticement, let alone courtliness. Life is now a teeming Holiday Inn. It’s striking that American English comes to play another of its tricks here, and makes ‘checking-out’ slang for ‘dying’. As for Eberhard, most readers will give up after an early salvo of ‘operational definitions’, ‘intromittent organs’ and ‘genitalic contacts’.

Which would be a great loss. Kevles has her own language barrier, but gives a neutral and informative account of female animals working out. Eberhard delineates a world, concealed from view by the weight of his academic burden, which is quite extraordinary. To advance his argument against the male focus in the history of evolutionary biology, he takes an alarmingly close look at animal genitalia. His case, briefly, is this. The sheer ‘morphological exuberance’ of animal genitalia, including the various mammalian penes, is such that they cannot be explained simply by looking at genitalia as means of transferring reproductive materials. From slugs to pseudo-scorpions, from flies to hyenas (especially the dastardly hyenas), things are out of control. Why? Because female choice operates on sex organs that do not divide (contrary to what reductionist biology would suggest) pleasure from reproduction. These two, hidden from the sombre inquiries of human science, come together. That’s what’s wanted.

For a start, the male-male model for genitalic competition is not satisfactory because it’s not the genitalia per se that boys fight with. They could be said (this seems part of the terrible loneliness of inter-male battles) to be using everything except their cocks. Nor can the thing be explained by the so-called ‘lock and key’ hypothesis – i.e. that males of certain species have organs that are keyed into the females of those species in a tight, medieval fit. Eberhard persuasively argues that, for a variety of reasons, this is too neat, too dependent on prior arguments about reproductive isolation. It also doesn’t deal with an important, asymmetrical fact, which is the relative non-uniformity of male genitalia as compared with the relative uniformity of their female counterparts, at various points within the animal series. The true quality of this stiff, rather modest book can be indicated by Eberhard’s (thank heavens it’s a ‘b’!) thrust: that the morphology of male genitalia, which might encourage spurious sexist claims for the self-generated architectural grandeur of the male genitals, is actually a manifestation of the exercise of female choice. My big beautiful erection is her doing. Furthermore, both Kevles and Eberhard are aware that the hidden internal site for most female animal genitalia does not, as a protective feature of reproductive needs, demean them. On the other hand, the apparent uniformity of cunts may itself be an observational error: what, in muscular or other terms, happens to the clitoris during periods of sexual excitement is unclear, especially down in the darker reaches of the chain of being.

And some chain of being it is. Take doubles. Thanks to these two books, I learnt that kangaroos have a double uterus, and that sharks and lizards are hemipenetic – have double penises – and that only one penis at a time is inserted into the female’s cloaca. The common earthworm, which is hermaphroditic in that it carries both genitalia simultaneously, ‘always needs a double partner’, in Kevles’s words. The discriminations that these authors make between various kinds of intromittent organs is crucial: the mammalian penis is not to be mistaken for the hard-cased packages of sperm, known as spermatophores, transferred from male to female elsewhere in nature. A lot of holding, or clasping, goes on, all along the chain of being, especially with spiders. And Kevles is informative on rear-entry, as well as face-to-face, the widespread incidence of love bites, and on the curious proximity of monogamy to parasitism – for example, in deep-sea angler fish. In general, the newsless news is that monogamy creates stress, and most higher animals avoid it.

Complex genitalia are products of choice, exercised by pleasure-seeking females keen to reproduce. Sex is sexy because it’s more than sexual selection. It’s sex. One possible historical explanation for the need for this to be argued now is that evolutionary biology, in its classical version, contained the repression of its own insights within itself. The culture of Darwinism contradicted the implications of its own theory. The remarkable journey taken by Eberhard, writing from balmy Costa Rica, unites the history of reproduction with the history of pleasure, only contradicting itself in the stultifying language that he feels obliged to use. He has begun the important task of breaking up out-of-date sexual taxonomies, taxonomies themselves historically located within a particular history of biology. Lascivious hyenas imitate each other’s penile and clitoral developments in a remarkable manner, but sea-horses are even more surprising. The male sea-horse has no ‘intromittent organ’. Instead, in the act of copulation, the female deposits her eggs with her intromittent organ into the male’s pouch, where he fertilises them and broods the resulting zygotes, or fertilised eggs. The true beauties of natural history reveal themselves in this charming exchange, as the exhausted categories of sexual type-casting collapse. ‘He’ gets fucked, and gets to play mother.

Which brings me to homosexuality. How it might relate to genital selection, I’m in no position, sitting here writing, to tell. Kevles looks at some homosexual activity in animals – male and female – and especially at female homosexuality among Californian gulls, who seem to favour (where else) Santa Barbara. It’s also clear that female pygmy chimpanzees engage in bursts of mutual masturbation. Thus a certain amount of frantic sexual stimulation goes on, but the issue of the reproductive place of ‘the homosexual’ (what does that now mean?) remains undiscussed. The sociobiologistic iron cage – that homosexuals, outside the network of genetic self-advantage, can be thought of as genuinely altruistic – still seems to be present. In the light of the chaotic sexual performance of much of natural life, it’s time to move beyond this methodological cul-de-sac.

And that remains the dilemma, despite the visions of Eberhard and the sororial affections – and rousing anti-determinist finale – of Kevles. Partly because their hearts are in the right place, both authors make one wonder about the ethological, even the sociobiological project, which they don’t want to identify with but which since the beginning of this century has kept some pretty strange, even sinister company. Amazed and delighted as we may be by the delicious animations of animal sex, all glimpses into the animal world leave traces of depression, from the cliché’d aversion we are supposed to feel at female mantises eating their mates after intercourse to the distressing news that, inside the mother, shark fetuses eat each other. Out of about a dozen in the oviduct, one remains at the end, to go on being a shark.

There seems to be a continuing danger, for all Kevles’s disavowals, that animal behaviour, instead of being merely instructive, is also meant to be something else – i.e. tells us about our own (concealed) priorities. Personally, I’m less and less convinced, but I am writing with a sense of dreading America that sometimes overtakes the all too measurable European. Partly because they seem to be making us all out to be adolescent monkeys, animal behaviorists can seem to lack learning. (They also seem to have trouble behaving like animals, at least the ones I’ve known.) So I suspect infantilisation, rather than anything more dreadful, to be the logic of all this, and recent television performances by Nick Humphreys and Richard Dawkins confirm this.

Aren’t we all tired of these reiterations of sauve qui peut or, at its worst, that we don’t have it in us to love other people’s children? I’m sure there is a vast constituency of exhaustion out there, which feels it has seen enough of the semi-instructive, quickly unilluminating, ethological programme. If he’d bothered to do any work, Alan Rusbridger could have helped in this liberation from repetitive human science in his ‘concise history of the sex manual’. Instead, it’s a dull and unfunny little book, only worth the glance that can take in the illustrations by the even-better-now-than-she-used-to-be Posy Simmonds.

The subject, historically considered, is important, in that at certain crucial historical moments sexual advice-giving has mattered, has made a difference. Even Marie Stopes, riddled with eugenical prejudice, brought relief, as indeed Kinsey may have done. Rusbridger hasn’t organised his ‘concise history’ and doesn’t give the reader any sense of where individuals fit into the story, from the Late Victorian period to the present. Sexual advice literature throughout these decades is up to all kinds of good and bad tricks – controlling masturbatory insanity, policing the wonders of adolescent life, frightening the sex out of people and, most important of all, providing a form of mass semi-pornography. Rusbridger can see some of these historical points, but doesn’t deem them worthy of his prolonged attention.

The opposite holds for Kevles, because, after a hopeful chapter on sisterhood, she speaks her honest doubts. The point is that girls in nature don’t behave any better than boys, they just hurt each other in different ways. Among the social insects, females set out to suppress maturation in other females; something similar happens in the world of mole-rats. Dominant hen ostriches cast aside the eggs of other females. Adult female gelada baboons behave spitefully to each other. Battles all around.

A new translation has to be made, to replace the identification of female choice in nature with its enforced absence in actual human cultures. Maybe we could start on this by finally admitting that animals only have limited amounts to tell us, even about the wonders of genitalic evolution. The replacement of the Darwinian paradox could then begin with the simple announcement that if female animals create so much, what is there that female humans might not go on to do? Darwin acknowledged the existence of female choice in order to domesticate it in human life. But male genitalia, historically speaking, are only the early signifiers of a still undiscovered, larger revolution. Culture itself has been organised against further developments, and that we still believe in this restriction is confirmed by the way we look at these other, slower animals. But there doesn’t seem to be any natural reason why, having selected cocks that embody morphological exuberance, females should not be thought of as genuine victims of much human culture – in that any extension of such exuberance into the actual fabric of the world is stifled. The interesting question still remains as to why sexual distinctions, given the unhappiness they produce, continue to have evolutionary purpose. Why, for example, have females not developed their own penises? Well, in some sense they have (the homologous clitoris) and females very often create their own versions by artificial means.

The powers that select for organs of reproduction and pleasure may, it is argued, be simply peripheral – the icing on the cake of a brutal natural order that is brought into existence by much more impressive forces. Males are stronger, males are more capable, and it’s nice for them, or some of them, that females approve their genitalic attributes. But if one simply dismisses this, and adheres to the view that the creation of the phallus is a great natural achievement, orchestrated by females, then the extension of that achievement into the main body of culture is not merely possible, but a matter of some urgency. The phallus, in natural-historical terms, is the opposite of the war machine. We don’t see it that way because biology has connived at providing an account of genitalic evolution that endorses male authority, especially the authority that men seek over other men, while talking across women. The beautiful sea-horses remind humans of the amazing artificiality of many of our notions of sexual definition, and in their silent way, should urge us on to the magnificent possibility of a much larger unimprisoned sexual revolution.