Spring 2013 saw another round of misguided right-wing attacks on basic scientific research in the U.S. Congress, a political tactic that purports to demonstrate the wastefulness of the federal government by showing off the price tag (often small in terms of scientific research budgets) for obscure research that can be described in ways that make it sound goofy or idiotic. This time around, it peaked my interest a good bit more, because it brought national media attention to one of my favorite bits of biological research: Patricia Brennan’s work on duck genitalia. (Brennan wrote a wonderful defense of her research for Slate. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed in.)
Why do I love this research so much? The biology is interesting, yes (more on that in a minute), but also, as a philosopher of science with a long-standing interest in feminist science studies, I see it as following the exact structure of some of the classic cases from that literature. That is, Brennan’s work exemplifies the pattern of research of women entering a field of research dominated by men, revolutionizing and improving the methods and theories in that field. It is thus similar to the earlier cases of primatology as described by Donna Haraway—where scientists hadn’t paid much attention to the behavior if female primates and ended up with theories where their roles were entirely passive—and reproductive cell biology as described by (inter alia) Emily Martin—where the “Prince Charming/Sleeping Beauty” theory of sperm/egg fertilization was a going idea, I kid you not.
To get the basics, let’s start with this “True Facts” video by Ze Frank: