from the world's big
Sexual evolution: What duck mating reveals about relationships, social movements, and politics
Evolution proves that sexual predators are jerks.
Richard Prum: According to aesthetic evolution, animals are agents in their own evolution; that is, through their choices they end up shaping their own species.
One of the implications of this idea is a new perspective on what happens when mate choice is infringed or violated by sexual violence or by coercion in animal species.
One prominent example of this, from our own research, is on duck sex.
Ducks are unusual among birds in having both a typical mate choice situation—where male and females pair up on the basis of display and preferences—and simultaneously other individuals that force copulations on female ducks as they approach reproduction.
So what that means is that as the eggs are being laid, females have to defend themselves from forced copulations by males. Now “forced copulation” is the word that biologists use now, but for over a century biologists used the word “rape” in biology.
Now that was abandoned back in the 1970s in response to the feminist movement and Susan Brownmiller and her work Against Our Will, proposing and articulating a specifically social context for rape in humans.
This led to the creation of a euphemism, “forced copulation,” in biology.
Unfortunately, articulating sexual violence in the animal world with these euphemistic terms has led to scientists losing track of the fact that forced copulation is against the will of the ducks.
And by taking the aesthetic perspective and trying to understand what it is that individual females—in this case ducks—want we have arrived at a new perspective on what it means when they don’t get what they want. So in some ways using socially sensitive euphemisms has led to imprecision or fuzziness in the science.
In the case of duck sex what we find is that males can force themselves on females because they’re among the few birds that still have a penis. And what we find in ducks is, as a result of female resistance and male sexual violence, we find a co-evolutionary arms race between male capacity to force and female resistance.
In this case it takes place in the form of a genital arms race: the males evolve more elaborate and more elaborately armed penises, and the females evolve convoluted vaginal morphologies that exclude the penis during forced population.
So among the many weird things of duck penises is that they’re counter-clockwise coiled. Well, the female vagina (in ducks that have high rates of resistance) actually coils in the opposite direction, so they have literally evolved an “anti-screw” device in their vaginal tract that obstructs the intromission of the penis during forced copulation.
What that means is that what that tea party Senate candidate Todd Akin from Missouri said about women “have a way of shutting that whole thing down” in reference to rape is actually true of ducks.
But in a way that exposes something fundamentally new and interesting about evolutionary biology, which is that sexual autonomy matters to animals.
Freedom of choice is not merely a political concept discovered by suffragettes and feminists in the 19th and 20th centuries, but is actually an evolved feature of the social and sexual lives of other species, especially in ducks.
How does this work? Well if the female mates with the male she prefers, that is she gets the green head and the “quack, quack, quack,” that she likes, and then her male offspring will share those traits and be sexually preferred by other female ducks who have coevolved those same aesthetic preferences.
But if she’s forcibly fertilized, then her male offspring will either inherit a random trait or one that she specifically rejected, which means that her offspring will be less attractive to other females.
So anything the female duck can do to prevent forced fertilization, through physical resistance or behavior, will evolve because she will be rewarded with more grandkids.
So what this means is that aesthetic norms, the shared ideas about what is beautiful among ducks, gives female ducks the evolutionary leverage to advance their freedom of choice in the environment of persistent sexual coercion and sexual violence. This is really stunning.
In fact we know these ducks are so successful, because in species where 40 or 50 percent of the copulations are forced only two to five percent of the eggs in the nest are fathered by males who are not the social partner.
What that means is that females have a 98 percent successful birth control device that is behaviorably deployable in the vaginal tract in response to sexual violence. That’s like FDA approvable.
And what that shows is the power of female choice to advance the sexual autonomy of individual females.
One of the interesting things we learned from examining sexual conflict in ducks is that the genital arms race between males and females is not really a fair fight. In fact the advances in male coercive capacity are really about control over female outcomes. They are about controlling—physically controlling—fertilization.
However, the countermeasures that females evolve are not actually about power or control, they merely reestablish the freedom of choice, if you will the flat playing field in which individuals are free to choose who they like.
Now this sexual autonomy is not actually about control or control over other individual’s sexual outcomes. That’s fascinating because this asymmetry between male coercion and female resistance in duck sex has really fascinating parallels to a patriarchy and feminism in cultures today.
So for example, patriarchy is historically—and even in a modern sense—about coercive control over female reproductive autonomy, whereas feminism is really an ideology of freedom of choice.
So that same symmetry between male power and freedom of choice is elaborate and present today. And we can see this explicitly because patriarchy and men’s rights and “incel” movements all articulate feminism as a countervailing force of control over male reproductive outcomes, but that’s a fantasy. In fact sexual autonomy includes the freedom to be rejected, which is a lesson that we learn from duck sex.
Duck mating—for what it's worth—is a surprisingly complex issue with one hand (webbed foot?) in the #MeToo movement. Really. Richard O. Prum, Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, has a lot to say about the matter. Did you know that male ducks often force sex on female ducks that aren't their mates, to the point where female ducks' genitalia has evolved to try and counteract what biologists have politely termed "forced copulation"? The lady ducks have found a way to shut out sexual predators. In other words: the power of the female's choice has literally advanced the species. Ultimately, Prum says, patriarchy is about "coercive control over female reproductive autonomy, whereas feminism is really an ideology of freedom of choice." Richard's latest book is The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
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