Evolution and Ethics Lecture: Sex and the Scala Naturae

Biologist Marlene Zuk will be giving the third and last talk in the Collier Committee Lecture Series: Evolution and Ethics (the first one was by historian Paul Farber and the second one by philosopher Geoff Sayre Mccord).

“Sex and the Scala Naturae”
Marlene Zuk, University of California Riverside, Department of Biology
Monday, March 8, 7:30 PM, Mc 003 – Rausch Auditorium,
Free and open to the public

Since well before Darwin, people looked to animals as illustrations and models of behavior. With respect to sex and gender, animals are used in two ways, both of which can harm our understanding of the animals as well as ourselves. First, we use animals as model systems. For example, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and other species in the genus have been used to study genetics. If we use model systems as the archetype, it is easy to conclude that anything that deviates from the model is aberrant, not “normal”. Because we often view males as the norm, they become the model system, with detrimental effects. Second, we pay more attention to certain kinds of animals than others; we are more excited about bonobos than butterflies. Relevance is often defined by how similar the animals seem to be to humans, with the idea that some species are higher, some are lower, and humans are the highest of all. This ranking is called a scala naturae, and it is completely false, leading to the use of animals as role models, and ultimately to a counter-productive view of how evolution acts on the sexes.

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