i dream of being possible

duck sex, patriarchy, and why scientists shouldn't write about culture

Ok. So a friend asked me for my thoughts on this article on duck sex and the partriarchy. And a number of things came to mind that I figured I’d share with everyone.

The article is, in essence, about how duck sex matters because it can maybe help us understand human nature. Or something like this. To a certain extent the article needs to be taken with a grain of salt because it is apologia for seemingly pointless scientific studies. Its a response to the notoriously anti-science right’s belief that the money granted to this project was a waste. So, to me, its obvious that the scientist can’t simply respond with: science for the sake of knowledge is justification enough. Rather, like with many things involved with getting money for research, there needs to be an attempt to discuss the wider implications of the research. As a way to demonstrate why this study and not the other bajillion science for knowledge’s sake studies should get funded.

Unfortunately, the way this particular scientist decided to justify the importance of duck penises was to try and link the evolution of duck penises and duck vaginas to patriarchy and the evolution of human behaviour. As a result, it reads disparingly close to the kind of garbage peddled by evo psych. But somehow worse because it relies not on theorizing about how random (and possibly incorrect) living conditions of humans past influences our behaviour today, but rather it tries to draw parallels between ducks and humans.

Not that I think that there is necessarily no overlap between the two. We are, after all, both animals. But instinctual behaviour and physical evolution aren’t really the same as culture. And reading his argument is, sadly, an example for why this sort of thing is dangerous to attempt without really careful thought.

My first problem is that he’s generalizing to all human behaviour and all human culture. Towards the end of the article he remarks: “practically everywhere on the planet, men are socially dominant”. This is true, but his narrative as to how it became true is really lacking. The ubiquity of ‘patriarchy’ (as defined by feminists today) has a lot less to do with human evolution and a lot more to do with colonization. Pretty much the entire world had their culture influenced and changed by some white colonial power or another. This means that the global patriarchy that feminists oppose is more a product of white people’s culture, than anything else. Perhaps his duck sex argument holds true for white ppl, but it really can’t account for the vast diversity of cultures and societies.

This monolithic construction of Patriarchy by feminists is one of their weaknesses and an ongoing source of conflict between white feminists and the rest of us. White feminimism pushes narratives like Muslim women wear the veil because of patriarchal oppression rather than as a means for Muslim women to express their religious beliefs. Which also ends up highlighting a particular point: while colonialism pushed a certain type of patriarchy onto most of the world, it didn’t overwrite the existing cultures. Which means that even today ‘patriarchy’ isn’t a monolithic concept.

A point that is even more true historically. Feminism (as well as many other ideologies today) tends to operate on a general premise that all hierarchies are bad bc they are oppressive. Or rather, they tend to push a white, enlightenment notion of everyone being equal means that hierarchies can’t and shouldn’t exist. While white people aren’t the only ones to create a patriarchal society, to say that all patriarchies that have ever existed are oppressive in the same way as white patriarchy, is well, plain wrong. It might even be incorrect to say that every and all patriarchal ways to organize social structures are oppressive. I don’t really know, since I’m only really familiar with two instances of patriarchal societies (pre-colonial China and the white one).

Beyond this, there is also the pressing problem that, without colonialism, patriarchy wouldn’t be the ubiquitous social arrangment that it currently is. Many pre-colonial cultures weren’t patriarchal (and some that were were still more egalitarian than the colonial white patriarchy). Even this one fact kind of pokes a giant hole in his argument. I mean… pre-colonization tagalogs were able to get divorced and the divorce could be initiated by women. Today? Divorce isn’t legal in the Philippines. That’s kind of a stark difference and one that has zero to do with evolution or duck penises or anything that isn’t colonization.

At the end of it all, this just reads like typical white feminism. And, sure, perhaps it would be the case that in his book he makes for a more nuanced argument, but I really doubt it. If he did, he wouldn’t have written this article in the first place.