Interview

‘Scientists are still human beings with presuppositions about sex differences’

8.4.2021 | Science is meant to be objective but sometimes the personal bias of the researcher gets in the way. To find out more, AcademiaNet went online for a conversation with Associate Professor Malin Ah-King from Stockholm University, whose work sits at the intersection of gender studies and evolutionary biology.
Dr Malin Ah-King
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(© Henning Brüllhoff)


Dr Malin Ah-King

How would you introduce yourself and your research?


I'm an evolutionary biologist and gender researcher. I especially focus on the controversy around sex differences in evolutionary biology and shifting perceptions about females in the recent history of sexual selection, i.e. the theory about sex differences in evolutionary biology.


What led you to your field of study?


I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do after my PhD in Zoology. At the same time I was thinking a lot about gender issues—this was around the time I had my first child. For a long time before that I had been questioning the ideas and assumptions about what women should or shouldn’t do and having a child accentuated that kind of thinking for me. I thought about what the child’s social life would be like, how I could enable the child to become what they wanted to be—rather than be regulated by what was assumed to be connected with their sex.


Then I went to a seminar organised by the Swedish Research Council about gender perspectives in the natural sciences; they wanted to encourage that kind of research. I figured that I could combine my interests in biology and gender in that way, so I joined a gender studies course at the Centre for Gender Research in Uppsala and then got a job there as a postdoc.


Why do you think it’s important to consider gender perspectives in evolutionary biology?


I think it’s important because, especially in zoology and evolutionary biology, we often investigate sex and work with sexed organisms. We’re trying to understand why and how sex differences have evolved and why the organisms are behaving in the way they do. But scientists are still human beings with presuppositions about sex and sex differences. These assumptions have coloured our ideas and how we have interpreted scientific results and observations of animals. So, I think it’s very important that we reflect upon our own cultural assumptions about the sexes and how that can influence research.


Are there any stark examples of this kind of bias?


Yes, absolutely! One of my favourite examples is a study about pinyon jays from 1992 [a pinyon jay is a North American crow bird, editor’s note]. These two researchers had been studying them for twenty years and they were interested in dominance hierarchies. They describe the pinyon jays as very, very peaceful; they had to make elaborate experiments and interpret subtle behaviour such as a beak pointing upwards as dominance. However, in a different chapter of the book, they describe extremely fierce aggression among female jays. But they did not think this aggression concerned dominance hierarchies, instead they dismissed it as the bird version of PMS.


Other ornithologists made a gender analysis of this study, and they reinterpreted the findings saying that in this bird, it seems like female are the ones who have breeding territories. The dominance hierarchy of the males seems to depend on their partnered female’s rank in the hierarchy.


That’s a remarkable story!


Yes, it seems very obvious to us but it wasn’t obvious to them. And there are many such examples. That’s why it’s important to incorporate gender perspectives in natural sciences.


You say that your research aims to ‘problematize the description of biological sex as binary and stable’. What does binary and stable mean in this context?


I think most people think of sex as immutable dichotomous categories, as in, either you’re a woman or you’re a man. But in reality there’s a lot more variability, also amongst humans. It’s not easy to draw the boundary between females and males.


For example, the Olympic Committee has changed the criteria for the sex categories several times. In the 1960s, it was morphological determination, so the athlete had to go naked in front of a panel of gynaecologists in order to get permission to compete as a woman. Then they changed the criteria to sex chromosomes and then they changed it again to testosterone level, which is the current rule.


But whichever system for categorising sex they used, there have always been unruly cases. There is variability in all of those: in morphology, in chromosomes and in hormone levels. We are all part of this variability.


When we look at other animals, there is enormous variability, for example in sea turtles, which lay eggs that are unsexed to begin with but then the temperature during incubation determines individual outcomes. Many shrimps are eclosed as males but then shift into females at a certain size or age or due to a certain environmental factor. Some fish change sex depending on social environment. So, sex is variable within individual lifetimes but also over evolutionary time as sex determination modes have shifted among animals.


And why should it be problematised?


It’s most obvious in the treatment of intersex children, in that many are operated without consent—before they’re able to even give consent—in order to fit into one or the other category. But I think it influences all of our lives. Anything that deviates from society’s norms about gender gets picked on, like a boy child having long hair, for example. It affects all of our lives, we all have to cope with societal gender norms in one way or another.


We’re living through a time right now where lots of people, including non-experts, discuss sex and gender in public debates. Why now, do you think? Is it reflective of a shift in the academic conversation?


No, I think it’s the other way around, it’s due to the current political climate. It has become more accentuated with the recent conservative winds around the world. For example in Hungary, where they have banned education in gender studies.


Your work is very interdisciplinary, with biology on one side and gender studies on the other. How do you manage such a big range?


I have worked both in biology and in gender studies departments; I want to be at the border because I want my work to be relevant for those doing evolutionary biology. In gender studies, I’ve been welcomed but I am a bit odd with my natural science background. I’m not mainstream in any of my fields.


One of the studies I did was a colleague in evolutionary biology in Uppsala, Ingrid Ahnesjö, where we looked at how people use the term ‘sex role’ about animal behaviour. There are many different definitions of “sex roles”—for example based on patterns of mate competition, parental care or mate choice. Some researchers have generalised several sometimes contradictory meanings into “sex roles as observed in nature”, but we argue that this reasoning masks the diversity and variability in nature. So, that’s a gender studies approach that critically engages with evolutionary biology. As is my upcoming book “The Female Turn—how evolutionary science shifted perceptions about females”.


What fascinating and important work. Thanks for speaking to us!

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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