Book Review: Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke

Book Review: Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke


Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke

Nonfiction/Science: Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke


In her provocatively titled book, Bitch, Lucy Cooke takes aim at the biases that have shaped the study of animals, specifically, biases against females (or perhaps for males). Cooke is a brilliant writer, TED speaker, and presenter for various nature shows in her native U.K. It is fair to say she takes the subject rather personally.


Good for her!


Going back to Darwin, evolutionary theory has had a very paternalistic and androcentric bent. Female animals were assumed to conform to Victorian expectations of motherhood and domesticity. Men were supposed to rule the human home and the human community (excepting the occasional queen, in power only because of a lack of male relatives close enough to the royal line). Therefore, animals were the same. Females of every species were regarded as “nurturing” and “devoted,” focused exclusively on the growth and well-being of their offspring. Any examples that fell contrary to this view were considered aberrations or errors of observation.


This thinking persisted even late into the 20th century and into our own millennium. Part of the reason for its endurance is the lack of other perspectives in the biological sciences. Women are scarce. Women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and students from developing nations are in very short supply. Cooke herself has faced certain ingrained sexism both in the classroom and in the field. When people of any community look at life with a set of common expectations, they are likely to find them and deny the potency of conflicting data.


This is not an angry diatribe against men. On the contrary, Cooke celebrates the many significant contributions of men who have gone against the grain and studied female animals with an open mind. She considers Darwin to be a hero and Richard Dawkins to be a mentor, despite the sexism both have expressed either in writing or in speech. Cooke is simply suggesting that insisting that female animals (including humans) must fit into a specific mold is poor science. Moreover, using animals as role models for humans (or vice versa) is hardly productive.


Hyenas function extremely well, led by an alpha female. Orca packs are also guided by females, usually by one who has passed through the biologically unusual stage of menopause. Even the “alpha male wolf” is a misunderstanding of their pack structure. Male emperor penguins are completely devoted to their eggs. Male seahorses give birth. Female birds, even those who “mate for life” with a single partner, usually seek out other males and their chicks come from multiple “fathers,” even though only one is committed to raising them.


Of course, sometimes the fathers aren’t fathers. Albatrosses are known to make same sex pairs, pairs which act very much like male/female pairs in courtship behaviors, nesting habits, and the rearing of chicks. Obviously, the fact that they often lay fertile eggs demonstrates that their devotion does not include monogamy. Female lemurs, and lionesses, and many others intentionally seek out multiple partners both in and out of their group. When a new male displaces the “alpha male,” it will not kill the infants if it is possible some of them are his.


And don’t even start with the bonobos!


Bitch is a fun book, full of great stories and interesting people. The animals, especially the female animals, might be the focus but Cooke does not neglect the humans who study them. She is engaging, snarky, sometimes angry but usually seeking to persuade rather than excoriate. I may not be a female, but I loved this book.

Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke

Book Review: Bitch: On the Female of the Species, Lucy Cooke

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