As Erik mentioned earlier, I and Josefin met Janne Kotiaho during his visit here for a short discussion on biases in sexual selection/sexual conflict research. We actually met Janne already at the workshop on gender biases in sexual selection research in Uppsala last October, which some of you may remember that we, and Åsa Lankinen, participated in. The workshop in Uppsala was organised by Malin Ah-King and Ingrid Ahnesjö, who are both evolutionary ecologists, but also have an interest in gender issues. Malin Ah-King has done a post doc at GenNa, which is a centre at Uppsala University where researchers from different fields study what kind of “knowledge about gender and gendered knowledge are produced in the intersection between the natural and cultural sciences”. Also Ingrid Ahnesjö has been involved in GenNa, at least for a shorter period. Invited speaker at the one day workshop was Patricia Gowaty from UCLA who is a feminist evolutionary ecologist. During the workshop she gave two talks on the history of sexual selection and on a neutral sexual selection model she and Steve Hubbell have been (and still are) working on (see Gowaty and Hubbell 2005). The rest of the day was devoted to group discussions.
Participants came from mainly Sweden and Finland but also Switzerland, working with sexual selection and sexual conflict in animals (either with conventional sex roles or with reversed sex roles) and in hermaphrodites (animals and plants). Although the cause for joining the meeting, and the idea of what gender bias in research actually is, differed between participants (which, to be honest, made the discussions sometimes a bit vague) some main problems were outlined. These mainly concerned the sex roles we assign our study objects. E.g. why conventional (active male/passive female) sex roles are applied in sexual selection research and the impact this has on how we perform science, if we have to use conventional sex roles, how sexual selection theory should be applied on hermaphrodites including plants, and how we can overcome our possible preconceptions of how males and females “should” behave.
Our, and Janne’s, impressions from the workshop was that it was indeed interesting and inspiring and especially Janne had received a new way of thinking. What in particular opened Janne’s eyes was how and why we nominate systems that do not behave as “normal” as sex role reversed – because what is actually the “normal” state in nature? We thought that Janne would continue on this topic for his Thursday seminar during his visit to Lund, but instead he gave a very interesting talk on the history of sexual selection, publication biases and how researchers strive towards fitting in the “format” which at the moment leads to publications. He exemplified this with his own critical studies on the lek paradox (paradoxes can’t exist!).
With Janne, besides reflecting on the workshop, we discussed an idea of an article that we are working on. Now we’d also like to present our thoughts here to get your opinions, if any, and receive some (critical) feedback! Emerging from the Uppsala workshop, but also from the recent criticism on sexual selection theory, (see e.g. Clutton-Brock 2007, Kokko and Jennions 2008), we would like to write a comment or a discussion article on potential biases in sexual conflict research. We’d like to ask the question whether some parts in a conflict dynamics may be left out by us researchers (compare e.g. male mate choice) due to our potential preconceptive view of how the sexes should act. For example, in sexual conflict theory both sexes are striving for their own optimum when it comes to mating and reproduction, and if this is made at a cost for the opposite sex there will be a conflict. However, our impression is that it is mainly a female cost that is being searched for in sexual conflict research and that the terminology used, although stemming from a neutral theory, implies that males make the offensive act and females barely defend themselves, without any impact on the male. But if the males are not affected why should they continue an arms-race?
Thus, by starting off with the recent progress and criticism in sexual selection research, we want to investigate and discuss three main issues in sexual conflict research. First, we will investigate what terminology is used in the most cited articles in “sexual conflict” and “sexually antagonistic coevolution”. By doing that we will know which terms have the widest impact in the field. Second, we will discuss how semantics may influence our perception and how it thus may form our thoughts and ideas, and third, we survey all theoretical models made on sexual conflict to see what parameters are incorporated – and thus are given the potential to affect the result; if male cost is never incorporated it will never be of significance and may furthermore not stimulate to empirical research.
We are just at the starting point, currently surveying the litterature, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on this project. We are not saying that our impression is correct (and we don’t even know what we will find yet!), but we’d like to open up for discussions or at least implant some thoughts on this topic. And, as we are speaking of biases, yes, we may be biased as well! J By being interested in gender issues in the human society we may be more prone to think of these topics also in evolutionary science, however, our aim is not a feminist inflammatory speech and hope that it will not be considered as such. We are not aiming for equality in the animal/plant world – it doesn’t matter if conventional sex roles actually are the truth and that all female individuals are coy, that is not the point. Instead we think that by considering these questions and potential preconceptions one may discover interesting evolutionary aspects that otherwise may be overlooked.
Have a nice weekend and enjoy the sun!