Reviews for Bitch: On the Female of the Species

by Lucy Cooke

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Noted TED speaker and author Cooke dives into sex and gender across the animal kingdom, dispelling all the misogynist notions of females being the weaker sex. From the female mole’s venomous saliva to female spiders that devour the male after sex, Cooke upends the Darwinian notion of female submissiveness with those “that deviated from the passive, coy and monogamous template by being vicious, promiscuous and unquestionably dominant.” With humor and candor, she also discusses the diversity of female genitalia: the opossum's two ovaries, two uteri, two cervices and two vaginas; and the female hyena’s eight-inch clitoris in which she has sex, and through which she gives birth. Other chapters discuss female promiscuity, female sexual aggression, homosexuality, reproduction by cloning, sex-swapping animals, animals that have three or more separate genders, and menopause (experienced only by humans and some whales). Cooke also places much-needed female faces to related studies, citing the work of Jeanne Altmann, Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and others. Their pioneering research shows that sex and gender have always been complex, innovative, and varied throughout the animal kingdom. This book elevates not just the science itself but the scientists that have been marginalized for too long.

Publishers Weekly
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“The truth is that males and females are more alike than they are different,” writes journalist Cooke (The Truth About Animals) in this zippy survey on females of the animal kingdom and the scientists who study them. Cooke emphasizes how research on female animals was woefully inadequate until the past few decades, when scientists began to challenge the “standard paradigm” of female passivity and male agency. In vivid detail, Cooke highlights animals that defy stereotypes: there’s female spotted hyenas, who dominate males with their “masculinized body and behaviour”; the “matriarchal and peaceful” society of the bonobos, where females avoid conflict by trading food for sex; and orcas, who have seen menopausal matriarchs spend their post-reproductive years leading their pods. Cooke emphasizes the importance of female choice in evolution, and bite-size profiles of scientists appear throughout, including ones spotlighting Patricia Gowaty, who studied adulterous female songbirds, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist who’s spent her life “weeding out sexist dogma.” The author has a charmingly irreverent style that, among other things, pokes holes in the sexist scientific research of old that used cherry-picked data to conclude females weren’t worth studying. This hits the right balance between informative and entertaining; popular science fans will want to check it out. (June)

Library Journal
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Cooke (The Truth About Animals) freshly analyzes a hot-button topic—the use of "sex" and/or "gender" to describe human sexuality, identity, and social roles—in terms of the zoological kingdom. She makes a clear argument that notions of binary sex or gender are even more ambiguous in animals than in humans. Today, assumptions about evolution and the female role linger from Darwin's Victorian-era writings, clashing with current zoological research that seeks to "fight the scientific phallocracy with data and logic." Cooke's case studies analyzing the five types of sex (chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, morphological, and behavioral) prove that each category has fluidity and instances of non-fixed sex; as examples, she offers spiders, the common mole, and the female spotted hyena, whose physiology and behavior defy categorization. Cooke expertly explains current scientific research with engaging humor, interspersed with first-person accounts and an impressive number of interviews with scientists who are rewriting the binary narrative. Her book encourages reflection but never overwhelms with information, even when, for instance, debunking accepted wisdom about XX and XY chromosomes. VERDICT Zoological notions of gender will challenge general readers to appreciate sexual diversity in animals and reassess human notions of "female."—Jessica A. Bushore

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A cheerful and knowledgeable popular science review of female animals. For decades, writes British science writer Cooke, “studies of intrasexual competition focused on male competition for mates, and the combative potential of females was largely ignored by science. The resulting data gap on females then masqueraded as knowledge. It’s assumed females aren’t competitive, and theories are based upon that understanding—when the truth is we just haven’t been paying attention.” The author emphasizes that it was only at the end of the 20th century that women began to enter biology in large numbers. Many turned their attention to female animals, heretofore considered too boring to bother to study, and discovered that “true till-death-do-us-part sexual monogamy…proved to be extremely rare, found in less than 7 percent of known species.” A skilled journalist, Cooke has traveled the world to interview experts, most of them women, who have performed groundbreaking research and are unafraid to confront skeptical male colleagues. Despite deploring his Victorian sensibilities, Cooke remains a Darwin enthusiast, but she maintains that his later (and lesser known) theory of sexual selection deserves equal status with natural selection. Readers will receive a superb education in the evolution and mechanics of animal sex as well as countless colorful anecdotes describing bizarre reproductive behavior. Readers will find the familiar account of female spiders eating males as they try to mate, but there is much more to discover in Cooke’s fascinating pages: Almost all birds are monogamous, but it’s a social monogamy; 90% of female birds sneak away from the nest to copulate with multiple males, so a single clutch of eggs can have many fathers. Permanently attached to a rock, a barnacle possesses the longest penis for its size in the animal kingdom, but this is purely functional, enabling it to search for neighboring females. If there are no females within reach, as a last resort, the hermaphroditic creature fertilizes itself. A top-notch book of natural science that busts myths as it entertains. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.