Researchers find gender bias in sexual cannibalism papers

Jan 17, 2013 by Bob Yirka report

(Phys.org)—A trio of biologists, Liam Dougherty, Emily Burdfield-Steel and David Shuker from the U.K.'s University of St Andrews, School of Biology, have found that when researchers write papers that are published in scientific journals, they tend to use gender biased terminology to describe acts of sexual cannibalism. In their paper, published in the journal Animal Behavior, they suggest that gender stereotypical word choices can cloud study results and lead to inaccurate results.

When authors use words like "rapacious," "predatory," "voracious," or even "aggressive" to describe the behavior of a female spider when she eats a male – before, during or after sex – the team says, it adds an ingredient to an observation that might not actually exist. In a similar vein, describing the male in such a scenario as "willing to sacrifice himself" implies a degree of nobility that may or not actually be the case. There is no way to know what either spider is feeling or if it's feeling anything at all – a necessary ingredient for ascribing emotional actions to any living creature. In most cases, it appears likely both genders are simply behaving in ways that are most conducive to the carrying on of their species.

To come to these conclusions, the researchers poured over 47 published that covered sexual cannibalism, highlighting every instance of words that described the behavior of the male or female. Next, they focused most particularly on the use of active/reactive words in such descriptions and contrasted the different ways that the behavior of the two genders was described. They found that authors overwhelmingly represented the behavior of females in active terms, while describing the males using mostly reactive words. The overall impression authors give, they say, is of terrorizing males culminating sometimes, in an act of .

The problem with using such words, the authors argue, is that it degrades the science. It's a form of anthropomorphism, and as with any other science, has no place in good research. They suggest that ways be found by authors to describe such activities without resorting to loaded words that add emotional heft to a paper, but little in the way of actual science.

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More information: Sexual stereotypes: the case of sexual cannibalism, Animal Behaviour, Volume 71, Issue 3, March 2006, Pages 481–490

Abstract
There is a long-standing debate within the field of sexual selection regarding the potential projection of stereotypical sex roles onto animals by researchers. It has been argued that this anthropomorphic view may be hampering research in this area, for example by prioritizing the study of male sexual adaptations over female ones. We investigated how males and females are described in the sexual cannibalism literature. Sexual cannibalism is a specific form of sexual conflict and is highly gendered, with females generally cannibalizing males. We found that females were more likely to be described using active words and males with reactive words. This is contrary to recent results from a survey of the sexual conflict literature. While this reversed gender bias may arise from the nature of sexual cannibalism, our results nevertheless indicate an alternative form of sexual stereotyping. A number of the words used to describe cannibalistic females were highly loaded and suggestive of a negative stereotype of sexually aggressive females. To make progress we suggest first that animal behaviour researchers recognize both the costs and benefits of looking for general patterns as part of the scientific method. Although necessary, the search for general patterns may validate existing stereotypes or provide the basis for new ones. Additionally, we suggest that the field of sexual behaviour research is neither wholly bad nor good in terms of language use but that we should work towards a consensus of how and when we use particular terms to describe sexual behaviour.

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User comments : 6

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jscroft
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 17, 2013
Boy I hope these guys received a bunch of taxpayer funding to answer this VERY pressing and important question. Good Lord.
gopher65
3 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
I hadn't noticed it before it was pointed out, but yes, there is definitely a strong tendency to anthropomorphize spiders and other bugs. If they are intelligent enough to have emotions and/or thoughts they're probably very different from those that we'd have in similar circumstances.
gopher65
5 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
Here's an example I thought up to clarify that position:
A spider has several thousand children, while a human has single digits of children (generally).

It makes sense that a human would put more energy into each of its few children, and it also makes sense that they'd develop an automatic emotional attachment to them in order to promote protective behaviour (ie "loving" your children when they've done nothing to deserve that love. That's nothing more than an oxytocin based high intended to keep you from becoming overly angry at the crying little (very cute!) parasite that you've been looking after for months with no end in sight, not real love).

On the flip side it *doesn't* make sense for a spider (of a fish, etc) to have a similar attachment to all of its thousands of children. It wouldn't only be difficult to maintain that level of attachment, it would be counterproductive.

Because of that it's unlikely that a spider would understand a human's attachment to their offspring.
wiyosaya
5 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
I hadn't noticed it before it was pointed out, but yes, there is definitely a strong tendency to anthropomorphize spiders and other bugs. If they are intelligent enough to have emotions and/or thoughts they're probably very different from those that we'd have in similar circumstances.

As I see it, there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphize behavior in the animal and insect world in general. Scientific investigation of these realms should not include such tendencies. When it does, it strays away from science, IMHO.
VendicarD
not rated yet Jan 17, 2013
Clearly, the only way a spider can act with Nobel intent is if it is a member of the Spider Nobility.

Science has advanced in large part due to the alteration of language to make it more precise in description and formulation.

The metaphor, multiple meaning, and nonsense personification common in Shackelspere's time are slowly being removed from scientific as well as every day language.

Society is vastly better off as a result.

Caliban
5 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2013
I hadn't noticed it before it was pointed out, but yes, there is definitely a strong tendency to anthropomorphize spiders and other bugs. If they are intelligent enough to have emotions and/or thoughts they're probably very different from those that we'd have in similar circumstances.

As I see it, there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphize behavior in the animal and insect world in general. Scientific investigation of these realms should not include such tendencies. When it does, it strays away from science, IMHO.


And that tendency doesn't stop at insects or animals, either. It has been applied to the entirety of the natural world around us, and even further --out into the visible universe.

It should be pretty clear that this is precisely where the idea of Deity and therefore religion come from --our projection of our own fears and emotions upon the processes at work in this world in order to try to understand and control it.