SOAPBOX

October 26th, 2016: On business ecosystems: Your niche can move (op-ed for Global Pets)

June 23rd, 2016: Evolution is happening faster than we thought (my op-ed for the New York Times)

July 1st, 2014: Geni-Tales (my article in The Scientist)

May 5, 2014: The greatest sexual perversions of the animal world (my listicle for Flavorwire)

May 1, 2014: Why Science Needs More Sex (my op-ed for Time magazine’s website)

May 1, 2014: Here’s What the Sex Lives of Animals Can Tell Us About Our Own (my op-ed for the Huffington Post). 

May 1, 2014: Oh, if These Penises and Vaginas Could Talk: Genitalia as Tools, Toys, and Weapons (my op-ed for the Daily Beast)

May 1, 2014: Your Clitoris Is the Size of a ‘Medium Zucchini,’ and Other Vagina Facts You Didn’t Know (my op-ed for The Hairpin)

April 19, 2014: Females with Penises

Over the past few days, as a result of a Current Biology paper describing what looks like a “penis” in female cave lice, and what seems to be a “vagina” in the male, a bit of controversy has flared up over the way science reporters cover genital science and sexual selection research. On io9, Annalee Newick has written that referring to this new female penis-like organ (technically a “gynosome”) as a “penis” is wrong and does the field of sexual selection research a disservice by casting the great diversity of life in conventional human terms, rather than taking it at face value. To which Ed Yong replies that one could argue that the gynosome, since it is used to transfer sperm from one animal to the other, is technically a penis. He also says that he agrees with Newick that “cheap dick jokes” should be avoided in writing about sex.

Of course, Ed Yong’s response is partly driven by the fact that Newick uses his earlier post as one of her examples of how not to write about this field. And Yong rightly defends himself by pointing out that he did emphasize diversity and that he did avoid cheap jokes. Still, on balance, I tend to agree with Newick. She puts her finger on what I have always seen as a sore spot in reporting on sexual selection, especially sexual selection that affects the shape and function of the genitalia, namely that the style is often giggly as well as anecdotal. The latter is the larger problem, in my opinion. Many articles on the latest discovery in the world of animal sex tend to take the shape of “hey, there’s this obscure animal that has sex in this bizarre way! aren’t we lucky that we don’t have to do it like that?” One of my reasons for writing Nature’s Nether Regions, is that it allowed me to move away from this anecdotal style, and instead weave these stories into a narrative, guided along by scientific theory, rather than “wows” and “jee-whiz’s”. And that then automatically solves the first problem as well. After all, once we understand the whole evolutionary playing field, we also see that humans are just one island in a vast ocean of sexual possibilities.

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