Over the years, learning Zoology makes me feel like a sad misfit. Not because I love spiders and cut up dead things I find on the side of the road, or because I’m happy to hunt in animal droppings for clues about what their owners ate. No, the source of my unease is my gender. Being a woman means only one thing: I’m a loser.
“Women are exploited, and the basic evolutionary basis for exploitation is that the egg is larger than the sperm,” my college mentor Richard Dawkins wrote in his best-selling evolutionary bible, selfish gene.
According to the laws of zoology, our egg makers were betrayed by our massive gametes. By investing our genetic heritage in a few nutrient-rich eggs instead of millions of mobile sperm, our ancestors pulled a short straw in the primordial lottery of life. Now, we’re destined to play the ejaculate’s second-in-command forever, the female footnote of the macho main event. I was told that this apparently insignificant difference in our sex cells lays a cast-iron biological basis for gender inequality. “It is possible to interpret all the other differences between the sexes as stemming from this fundamental difference,” Dawkins told us. “Women’s exploitation starts here.”
Male animals live a showy life. They fight each other for leadership or possession of women. They roam around indiscriminately and, driven by biology, spread their seeds widely. They dominate society; where men lead, women follow meekly. A woman’s role is naturally that of a selfless mother; therefore, the mother’s efforts are considered the same: we have zero competitive advantage. Sex is a responsibility, not a motivator.
As far as evolution is concerned, it is men who drive change. We women can ride it as long as we commit to being nice and quiet, thanks to shared DNA. As a Egg student studying evolution, I can’t see myself in this ’50s sex role sitcom. Am I some kind of female aberration?
Thankfully, the answer is no.
In nature, women come in a wide variety of forms and roles, covering a fascinating spectrum of anatomy and behavior. Yes, the doting mother was among them, but the bird also abandoned her eggs, leaving them to the cuckold male harem to raise. Females can be faithful, but only 7 percent of birds are monogamous, leaving many cuddly females seeking sex with multiple partners. Not all animal societies are dominated by men in any way. Alpha females have evolved into various classes, with their authority ranging from benevolent (bonobos) to savage (bees). Females can compete with each other as viciously as males: Topi antelopes fight fiercely with their huge horns for the best male, while mongoose matriarchs are the most ferocious mammals on the planet, killing rival babies and inhibit their reproduction. Then there’s the femme fatale: cannibalistic female spiders eat their lovers as a post- or even pre-coital snack, while “lesbian” lizards have completely lost the need for males and reproduce only by cloning.
Sexist mythology has become embedded in biology, and it distorts our perception of female animals. But luckily, the past few decades have seen a revolution in our understanding of what it means to be a woman.