This year saw the drama of Jeremy the “lonely lefty snail.” Found in 2016, Jeremy’s left-twisting shell structure interested geneticists at Nottingham University and prompted a global call for other left twisting snails to act as mates. In May 2017 Angus Davison, a geneticist at Nottingham, introduced two more left twisting snails to Jeremy. In a headline- and pun-worthy twist, Jeremy became caught in a love triangle when those potential mates chose each other. Davison described this as a classic situation of introducing your best friend to someone you’re interested in and they pair up. However, the public was reassured in October that although Jeremy was found dead, he didn’t die a virgin. According to NPR, Jeremy finally “did it” before dying. And just in case you were wondering, “Three times! Nice work, Jeremy.” Other salacious headlines revolve around Lu Lu, the “panda sex god” who shattered his own record for “filthy panda sex” (18 minutes) and Dozer the walrus who “catcalls” the females at Point Defiance Zoo.
The species that seems to capture the most headlines when it comes to mating prowess is the male Galapagos tortoise. The first tortoise to have its sex life profiled continuously was Lonesome George. Discovered in 1971, he was the last of the Pinta subspecies of Galapagos tortoises. Scientists desperately tried to get him to breed, but it was reported that he was uninterested in mating. George died in 2012, after much speculating over his lack of sex drive, leaving no offspring. Enter Diego. In 2016, Diego was described by various news outlets as “sex-crazed” and a hero with “sexploits” that are the “stuff of legend”; even the New York Times lauded Diego as a centenarian whose “sex drive saved his species.” The praise for Diego’s prowess culminated in the website brobible.com exclaiming that a bro tortoise had lived out the ultimate human male fantasy of repopulating a dying species with only his sex skills.
At first glance, this hypersexualization of animal copulation seems both ridiculous and innocuous. Anthropomorphizing animals is a common strategy in science journalism and imbuing animals with human qualities can have positive outcomes; this is known as empathetic anthropomorphism. Conservationists have found that the public is much more likely to care about an organism if they perceive it to have humanized qualities such as being prosocial, intelligent and capable of suffering.
However, this form of anthropomorphizing, with an intense focus on the sexual encounters of males, does not seem to fit into the form described above. Instead, it fits what Loretta Rowley and Keven Johnson have recently dubbed anthropocentric anthropomorphism. According to Rowley and Johnson, this type of anthropomorphism says little about the animal about which we are speaking and more about how humans perceive humanity via animals. Using Rowley and Johnson’s theory, these stories about male animals become problematic, as they emphasize the hyper aggressive role of the animal and human male in exerting sexual prowess regardless of female interaction.
The females in these narratives are unnamed and passive participants that perform little to no function in the process of mating; the stress is placed on the desire to have sex and the joy of copulation. It isn’t clear that Jeremy was lonely, nor that he had a desire to lose his snail virginity before death, but his tale of woe has inspired a twitter account (which uses the phrase “money shot” to describe snail mating) and two ballads. Diego has six unnamed mates who laid over 800 eggs, all of whom must accept him before copulation can occur, but the emphasis is on his willingness and not theirs; he is a sexual hero and they are passive vessels. If we read these headlines as headlines about perceptions of human sexuality, they present a disturbing picture, especially in our current cultural climate.
But these depictions are also concerning for scientific reasons. The last few years have seen a renewal in debates over the impact of anthropomorphism in the study of the evolution of sex and mating in the animals. In the 1970s researchers called into question Darwin’s sexual selection theories of the aggressive male and coy female. The ensuing debate suggested that evolutionary theories of sex were built on perceptions of English sexual roles during the Victorian era and these perceptions might actively be harming the study of these behaviors in animals. If you’re looking for a coy female, the sexually aggressive female becomes an anomaly, not a valid form of data.
More recently, scientists have called out the negative impact of preconceptions of male dominance on various areas of evolutionary research, including the study of the evolution of genitalia. A 2014 article in PlosOne by Malin Ah-King of Stockholm University and Andrew Barron and Marie Herberstein of Macquarie University in Sydney argued that a biased cultural belief in males as active and females as passive in sexual congress created an uneven study of male genitalia over time. A 2016 Science article suggests that when scientists examine female genitalia, they find an active evolutionary path mirroring male evolution. Human perceptions of active and passive roles in the evolution of sex in animals continues to be a hurdle to those who engage in these studies. And those perceptions are developed long before scientists become professionals; they are developed through the digestion of articles about the subjects they find interesting. They are shaped by popular depictions of sex in the animal kingdom.
On the surface, stories praising the hypersexualized, anthropomorphized bro tortoise appear harmless. But these stories reveal more about our continued perceptions of the role of males in human sexuality than they do about the animals engaged in copulation. In the end, those continued misperceptions about the sexual role of the aggressive male will feed back into scientists’ values when studying the evolution of sex and slow down our understanding of the evolution of sexual behavior in non-human subjects. I think a nice feature story about Nigrita the Galapagos tortoise, one that doesn’t call attention to her as an older mother and “senior citizen,” might be refreshing.