Gah! here’s the lastest headline at New Scientist: Female ducks fight back against raping males.
I will say this one more time. With emphasis.

Forced copulation in animals is NOT the same as rape in humans. These two terms are not synonymous.

I have already made this gripe elsewhere.
I refer you to this excellent review of Thornhill’s book–I’m not the only one that has an issue.

To repeat what I said in the past:

“Forced copulation happens in non-human animals. (And so does infanticide and cannibalism, BTW.) But does a female duck that’s been mobbed by a group of males experience the mental trauma that humans do?”

Dave, at the Behavioral Ecology blog, also made another good point:

“The word “rape” has inescapably moral connotations, and I think most of us would agree that non-human organisms cannot be moral agents. “

I just really, really have issues with this. Sigh.

Aside from all this, the mallard system is very cool. Zimmer has a very nice article on this, and didn’t have to use the R word once. Kudos.

Posted by Bug


  1. And so it begins…

    I pointed out that PZ used the word rape when discussing the article, and am now being royally flamed.

    I really shouldn’t let myself get sucked into this shit….Bad for the epilepsy.

  2. The wanking and the flaming is, as near as I can tell, Caledonian’s perverted form of compensation for his utter lack of use. I just call him a dipshit every now and again, and then get back to my work. Actually, if you piss him off enough, he eventually loses his shit altogether and tries to hurl comedic insults with head-scratching results.

    I was going to ask this on Pharyngula, but that seems impossible now, so I’ll ask it here. I hear biologists talking about sexual antagonism — is this a good example? Also, have any models been produced which suggest that this had ought to stop at some point? I mean, at a certain point the female’s reproductive system could become so complex as to hamper reproduction, and the mallard’s system might become large enough that it becomes a liability, right?

    Also, wouldn’t the larger penises be selected for even among mallards which don’t engage in the forced copulation strategy?

  3. It’s not really the subject matter; you could get in an argument with Caledonian over lawn bowling and he’d end up excommunicating you from the world of reason eventually. He’s special like that. No one will object if you ignore him.

  4. Yes, that whole comment thread grew amazingly rapidly. I especially like the part where he declared I could never be a “real” scientist.

    To answer Dustin’s question–
    there are lots of points at which this selection could be stopped.

    First, there has to be enough variation in a trait for selection to be acted upon. No variation, no change possible. If the variation is phenotypic, rather than genetic, that also will slow or stop selection.

    Second, there is a metabolic cost to everything. A duck with an overly large phallus would begin to loose the ability to fly–at some point the predation cost of a big corkscrew would outweigh the ability to inseminate.
    Many birds have no male intromittent organ at all–which is why the duck system is so fascinating.

    There’s at least 1 other reason, but I’m too tired right now to come up with it. Let m3 know if you’re still interested :)

  5. Boy, did you stir up a hornet’s nest at Pharyngula. I, too, have been guilty of applying the word rape to non-human situations. In my case it was Monarch butterflies rather than ducks. The male often tackles the female mid-air and forces her to the ground where , um, forced copulation ensues. Your take on the use of language around this issue provides some welcome food for thought.

  6. Thank you Doug for…well, thinking about it! At this point, I’m happy to just be listened to :)

    I think for many American men, it just is a non-issue, since they are lucky enough to be in a group at low risk for rape.

    Because I work with female college students daily, (and was one once, a long time ago), it’s something that’s always on my mind.

    One interesting change I’ve observed is the slow and gradual pruning of charged language like this from the disipline of behavior.
    “Harems” are rarely referred to any more in animals, and has changed to a system that refers to resource defence.

    It really helps the science (IMO) to get the charged, emotional/baggage-laden language out.

  7. And, as others have pointed out, we never refer to killing in the natural world as “murder”. Same should go for “rape”.

    Although, there was a chimp who was attacking human children in Africa a while ago. Some people started asking if it was possible for the chimp to be “deranged”. It turned out that the answer was likely “no”, but it was worth asking. But of course, chimps are much more akin to humans than ducks (or anything else).

  8. Zimmer is such a great natural history writer! But kudos to you, too, for continuing to call lazier thinkers on their shit.

  9. FWIW, Bug_girl, here was my take on it before seeing your blog. When Caledonian is right, he’s very right, but when he’s wrong he digs his heels in too fast and I really didn’t like the snooty comment that was more befitting of a creationist ignoramus who doesn’t care about science – not you! I think the anthropomorphizing of human terms is an important issue, not just with rape, but other words such as evil, bad, good, love, etc., at least when speaking in scientific venues. It’s a shame that he didn’t take more time to examine the issue more carefully – certainly scientists have done so.

    “The definition of the word does not involve psychological trauma. It is not human-specific. You are attempting to change the definition of the word in such a way that you gain social power from its altered use.

    Science is a way of thinking, not a profession or a set of techniques. You have never been and will never be a scientist – you will always be a technician, no matter what job you hold or what titles you possess. Your contempt for language and clear meaning makes that plain.

    Posted by: Caledonian | May 1, 2007 09:30 PM”

    Caledonian, you’re wrong per the dictionary about it being not human specific. The very nature of the word and current usage BY THE DICTIONARY is human specific. From Old English, to Middle English, to Latin and current English usage, rape, meaning to seize, plunder, despoil, to take with force has been in reference to humans. Since dictionaries are a collection of language usage, you ought to cite an unabridged dictionary such as the OED, Merriam-Webster, etc. that shows USAGE not the deficient abridged!

    Humans rape the Earth, rape the forests, rape a person of their dignity, rape justice, rape people. If we extend rape to its current meanings, apart from artistic license, then moths rape trees, the locusts rape the cornfields, fish rape the seas, and so on. But there is a moral element to that – it’s not simply to take force; if that were so it would be used more often throughout language and it’s not. And the danger in anthropomorphizing terms among scientists is that they carry a human moral element that can work against explaining animal behavior. Who wants to save those male ducks – they’re rapists! Those evil sharks! Values of bad and good can get dicey with animals, and Bug girl has a very valid point in that respect. Do locusts rape the fields, or do they simply decimate them?

    Now, I see on Wikipedia that they have an entry on animal rape. If PZ used it to mean the female duck resisted, tried to get away, did not like it – OK we see the point in how we can relate that to human rape, but it has not been common practice, at least not when I look at all my animal books, for scientists to use that term in any way. And my dictionary specifically says ‘person’ and ‘woman.’ If the usage becomes so common in reference to animals, it may make the dictionary (I don’t have access to the OED to check there and their online free one is deficient), but I’d really like to know how a majority of scientists feel about SCIENTISTS anthropomorphizing human-related terms. I don’t see it as a good thing to use human terms that have negative connotations (as I said, apart from literary purposes or loosely speaking), especially when forced will do.

    And, your second comment quoted above is really snobby, especially being that Bug_girl cares about these things! And the ironic thing is, by my standards, you are exhibiting comtempt for language in this case. You are using the suckiest dictionary, no less, and not even exploring rape’s usage. And science is not a way of thinking – science IS what you get when you think in terms of evidence, esperiment, observation – you get science knowledge. I think you owe Bug_girl an apology for that smart-ass remark, Caledonian. Really, if you care about language then you will see the slippery slopes that you’re sliding down. Geesh.

    Posted by: Observer | May 3, 2007 12:33 PM

    One wonders why all the animals shows on TV, especially the specific animals having sex shows on The Science Channel, don’t use “rape.” :-/

  10. I think for many American men, it just is a non-issue, since they are lucky enough to be in a group at low risk for rape.

    Because I work with female college students daily, (and was one once, a long time ago), it’s something that’s always on my mind.

    I have to take exception to that. My wife’s a grad student in animal behavior; and, if it matters, the subject of two rape attempts. Her best friend’s been raped, her mother’s been molested. She was, so far as I can recall, the first person to describe forced copulation in ducks to me, and she called it rape. She thought, and still thinks, it’s simply the appropriate word for the behavior. Insofar as I’ve talked to any other female biologists about it (I can think of two it’s come up with), they’ve used the term as well.

    Of course that doesn’t disprove your claim that doing so is inaccurate, or for that matter inappropriate because it could offend or hurt people. But please don’t assume that people who disagree with you are doing so out of their maleness and insensitivity to rape. Even if you’ve had professors who could win blue ribbons in the Male Insensitivity to Rape Global Championships.

    One interesting change I’ve observed is the slow and gradual pruning of charged language like this from the disipline of behavior.
    “Harems” are rarely referred to any more in animals, and has changed to a system that refers to resource defence.

    Really? I did the Google Scholar thing on “sea lion harem” and “baboon harem” alone, and got hundreds of recent articles. And that’s a case where I’d completely agree that human “harems” and nonhuman “harems” are totally different things–but biologists seem to have fine-tuned the nonhuman definition to their liking and run with it.

    It really helps the science (IMO) to get the charged, emotional/baggage-laden language out.

    As we were just discussing on PT, there’s “courtship,” “altruism,” “deception” and “honest signals”, “punishment” of “cheaters”, etc…. and so far as I can see, they don’t particularly cripple the research into the behavior they label. It seems to me that scientists are often quite capable of removing the human-related baggage from a term when applying it to a nonhuman organism.

    “Sneaky f*cker,” though, had to go.

  11. And, as others have pointed out, we never refer to killing in the natural world as “murder”.

    Actually, I think that term’s used pretty often with chimpanzees. See Lionel Tiger’s NYT book review entitled “Love and Murder Among the Chimps,” or Robert Sapolsky reviewing “Our Inner Ape” for Nature.

    It’s not used to refer to all chimp-on-chimp killing, of course, just as it doesn’t refer to all humans killing humans. They mean something specific by it–a planned attack by one chimp or a small group on another member of the same society, which poses no immediate threat to them.

  12. Anton, I didn’t say ALL men. I said Many. I’m glad you’re one of the enlightened ones.

    Second, stating “I know women who use the word this way, so it’s ok” isn’t an argument. It’s rather like arguing “I know a black person who uses the N word, so there’s no problem with it.”
    That doesn’t address the central issue of keeping human social baggage around the word rape from influencing our thinking.

    Lastly, the term harem is declining–do a search Biosis, rather than google, and compare 15 years ago to today. You’ll see a decline.
    Just because scientist SHOULD so something, doesn’t mean they still won’t. I still see entomologists write papers about bug “gender”, which is patently absurd. Insects, especially non social insects, don’t have socially constructed gender roles. they have male/female parts.

  13. Rapists are despised in human culture because they are seen as both cheats and inflictors of suffering upon their victims. All of these charged terms apply, which means that saying that drakes rape (stop drake rape!) brands these males as villains, when plainly we are talking about a reproductive strategy. It is distorting, and therefore technically wrong in a scientific context. It is, as pointed out by others here, akin to calling a predator a murderer. And all around best left out of scientific discussion.

    I disagree, however, on the term gender. An organism’s sex describes its gonads, karyotype, and so on. Organisms have sex, which means the sex act, recombination during meiosis, and so on. Its an overworked word that falls short of describing the behavioural and life-history implications of separate sexes. I tend to use the word sex when distinguishing female from male, but gender when refering to the sex-specific phenotype.

    In my research on flies, which are quite sexually dimorphic, we nonetheless see a high degree of overlap between males and females in development, morphology, physiology, and behaviour … even sexual orientation. It is clear that we have a spectrum of states within each sex, so that it is possible to describe a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ male, for example, based on its degree and direction of departure from the mean. When you start talking about complex sexual phenotypes and behaviours that are dimorphic, and some even socially-determined, gender becomes quite a useful term, I submit.

    On the ducks and sexual antagonism, this does indeed appear to be the kind of arms race evolutionary dynamic envisioned when the two sexes have different reproductive agendas. For example, if male fitness is improved by having many sex partners and fertilizing many eggs, leaving females to rear progeny, then selection favours characters that maximize access to mates and success in sperm competition and fertilization. Hence, in many species we see coercive mating strategies practiced by males. For females, fitness is not usually maximized by polyandry (although there is quite a number of examples where it is important) and the consequences of fertilization are much greater. This ‘Bateman’s Principle’ view of things motivates the view that there is a struggle over control of reproduction (how much, when, where, and who the father is) which the sexes engage in, leading to a dynamic of adaptation (fitness of sex 1 goes up, but sex 2 goes down) and counter-adaptation (sex 2 recovers fitness at the expense of sex 1). Duck females appear to have evolved a complicated internal reproductive tract to enhance mate choice; males who mate coercively will wind up ejaculating into one of the blind sacs more often than not, because of the chicanes on the road to fertilization. It likely makes female cooperation in mating important from the fitness standpoint. Of course this example follows Bateman’s sexual stereotypes, and we now have a fair catalogue of exceptions and reversals, but no matter which way gender roles run in a given species, differences in them are usually associated with sexual conflict and sexually antagonistic traits. Only in the unusual case of genetic monogamy is this tension relieved.

  14. Considering the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, it might very well be appropriate to apply the term “rape” to forced copulation among chimpanzees, with the full moral baggage attached. Ducks? Probably not – they don’t have the brains of a two-year-old human. A grown chimpanzee is as smart and aware as a young human child; a reasonable case can be made that they deserve the same kind of moral consideration that a human with a poorly functioning brain deserves.

  15. Yes, but we don’t really *know*.

    I’d also point out that infanticide is common among apes. Do they experience trauma then?

    We don’t know that either.

    If only we were all like the Bonobos…

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