Nature Notes: Not Far Enough

There are many animal species in which the male is subordinate to the female

Who are the white supremacists? The neo-Nazis? ISIL? The Taliban? Boko Haram? These are some that we know about, but there may be hundreds of other such groups of militant, almost entirely male organizations that in various ways are trying to subvert the rest of us non-belongers and non-believers in devious and perverse ways that we have yet to learn about. 

Yes, a few women join in, but most of the women become suicide bombers and other sacrificial lambs to further the murky causes of these groups or are kidnapped and held against their will. Some of these groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram are simultaneously belligerent and religious, others are belligerent and political, some are anarchical.

But it is of interest that they are almost entirely male in composition. The human species has been dominated by patriarchs since we descended (ascended?) from other advanced primates. Fighting among ourselves has been the main means of advancing and maintaining such a lopsided hold on humanity. “Homo” from our scientific name, Homo sapiens, is from the Latin meaning man, the “sapiens” suggests that the man is the wisest of all the primates. But that is still debatable. As Thomas Henry Huxley was said to have remarked upon reading about Darwin’s “The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man,” in which the species “man” was to have come from apes: “Evidently, many of us have not come far enough.” And he’s right!

Women have been playing catch-up through the millenniums, but still have a long way to go to have the same kind of clout. Of the 193 member countries in the United Nations, as of this year, only l5 of them have female heads of state. But women are slowly gaining equality at the polls. As late as 1987, no more than 5 percent of our senators and representatives were women. Today it has jumped to 19.3 percent, but we have a long way to go before equality reigns.

There are many animal species in which the male is subordinate to the female. Killer whales are a well-known matriarchal society. Males are only needed for reproduction. After that, the females not only raise the calves they give birth to, they include their young in their female-led pods, even after they become adults. Elephants also form matriarchal societies. The males are needed for reproduction, but after that a social group of elephants is always under the leadership of an older female.

The chimpanzee, a close relative of man, lives in a male-dominated culture, but its near twin, the bonobo, resides in a female-dominated one. The chimpanzee male likes to beat his chest and can be very warlike with respect to other chimpanzee groups that interlope on his territory. Bonobos are much more peaceful and work things out with intruders diplomatically.

Among African lions, females make most of the decisions in a pride. Such a matriarchy may have evolved to keep male lions from eating stray cubs, something they are wont to do given the opportunity. Hyenas are also matriarchal, just the opposite of another animal with similar feeding habits, the gray wolf, in which the pack is led by an alpha male.

Some species have done away with male input totally. The Mexican six-lined racerunner is a female lizard in which reproduction is carried on by parthenogenesis; there is no need of male insemination or male sperm. There are at least two other species in the same general area, including the southern United States, that reproduce that way. The Komodo dragon of the southeast Pacific is large and formidable, but also parthenogenetic. She could be terrifying to any male that tried to mess with her. 

A guppy relative, the Amazon Molly, Poecilia formosa, of Mexico and the extreme American South has little use for the male, except that, in order for her to reproduce, she lets the male go through the sex act but does not use his sperm to produce young, which are in actuality clones of their mother.

Then, too, there are species, mostly fish, in which the female would rather live on her own and not be tied down with housework. The threespine stickleback is a local but cosmopolitan minnow-size fish species in which the male builds a tubular nest through which the female swims and deposits her eggs after fertilization. She then heads for the hills, leaving the housework and child rearing to the male. 

Seahorses and pipefish, in the same fish family and not unusual in our bays and tidal creeks, take the stickleback theme one step further. The males have a pouch, or marsupium, on their bellies in which the babies are raised. After depositing the fertilized eggs in the marsupium, the female is free to swim about with no child-rearing responsibilities. Some would say in such cases that evolution has gone too far. The male is left with nothing to do but eat and take care of the young. 

Neither extreme seems ideal. I’m not interested in the one lead by the male warrior groups with little tolerance for those who do not think like them. But, then, I wouldn’t like to become a male seahorse left with all the child-rearing responsibilities, either. Let’s shoot for a 50-50 outcome: as many female world leaders as males, as many female representatives and members of parliament as males, with equality throughout the entire sphere and see how that works before taking any drastic measures.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at