Episode 20: Bug Dicks Revisited (Valentine’s Day Special)
Our new episode is available from our Podcast host here: Episode 20
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Neotrogla (Psocodea: Prionoglarididae), the cave insects in question
(see below, in Polyphyly of Lice Hypothesis, for more context on Psocodea itself)
- “Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect” (Current Biology) *quoted in the episode
- “In This Insect, Females Have Penises And Males Have Vaginas” (National Geographic, Ed Yong)
- “Your Penis Is Getting in the Way of My Science” (io9, Annalee Newitz) *quoted in the episode
- Other publications by the authors
- “A new genus of Sensitibillini from Brazilian caves (Psocodea: ‘Psocoptera’: Prionoglarididae)” (Revue Suisse de Zoologie, 2010)
- “A Transgender Brazilian Cave Insect” (The Winnower, 2014) *quoted in the episode
- “A biological switching valve evolved in the female of a sex-role reversed cave insect to receive multiple seminal packages” (eLife, 2018)
- “Independent origins of female penis and its coevolution with male vagina in cave insects (Psocodea: Prionoglarididae)” (The Royal Society Biology Letters, 2018)
- Other examples of intromittant-like organs in female arthropods
- “An enigmatic lineage of mites from Baltic amber shows a unique, possibly female‐controlled, mating” (Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 2011)
- “Seahorse Fathers Take Reins in Childbirth” (National Geographic, 2002)
- “Sperm secrets of male seahorses uncovered” (Reuters, 2007)
- “Dimorphic sperm and the unlikely route to fertilisation in the yellow seahorse” (Journal of Experimental Biology, 2007)
Other animals’ reproductive strategies
- “The Morphological Diversity of Intromittent Organs” (Integrative & Comparative Biology, 2016)
- “Turtle and mammal penis designs are anatomically convergent” (The Royal Society Biology Letters, 2004) *quoted in the episode
- Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden
- Dr. Roughgarden is herself trans, and has been quoted – alongside now-deceased neuroscientist Ben Barres – in numerous articles about being trans in science
- Traumatic insemination
- “Reducing a cost of traumatic insemination: female bedbugs evolve a unique organ” (Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 2003)
- “Costly traumatic insemination and a female counter-adaptation in bed bugs” (Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 2003)
- *** I KNOW THESE ARE BOTH SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS AND THUS PROBABLY INACCESSIBLE TO MANY PEOPLE, BUT THE GENERAL-AUDIENCE STUFF I WAS ABLE TO FIND WAS EITHER UNINFORMATIVE OR PHRASED IN A VERY SENSATIONALIST WAY – TBH IF YOU’RE CURIOUS, JUST SEND ME AN EMAIL (ASABPOD@GMAIL.COM) AND I’LL TELL YOU ABOUT IT
- Cat penises
- “Penile Spines of the Domestic Cat: Their Endocrine-Behavior Relations” (The Anatomical Record, 1967) (including some discussion of induced ovulation)
- “Priapism Following hCG Administration in a Cat” (clear image of a cat penis, nsfw?)
- “For anemonefish, male-to-female sex change happens first in the brain” (Illinois News Bureau, 2019)
- A group of wrasses, some of which display “sequential hermaphroditism” (changing sexes but only being one at a time, vs. “simultaneous hermaphroditism,” such as many slugs, of having male and female gametes present simultaneously)
- I quote these terms because they are in common use in biology and will be inevitable if you want to find more information on the subject; however, following opinions by many intersex people, I prefer not to use the word “hermaphrodite” in any situation, and I encourage you to find alternative phrases as well
- In addition, one of the earlier YA novels with a trans protagonist was Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (published 2007); we mentioned this briefly in our conversation with Sam Long
- A group of wrasses, some of which display “sequential hermaphroditism” (changing sexes but only being one at a time, vs. “simultaneous hermaphroditism,” such as many slugs, of having male and female gametes present simultaneously)
Polyphyly of lice hypothesis
- Order Psocodea – Barklice, Booklice, and Parasitic Lice (BugGuide.net)
- Psocodea: Parasitic Lice (=Phthiraptera), Book Lice, and Bark Lice (Tree of Life Web Project)
- Papers on the polyphyly of lice in the early-mid 2000s actually features as one of their authors K Yoshizawa, also one of the authors on the Neotrogla papers, above
- “Multiple origins of parasitism in lice” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2004)
- “How stable is the “Polyphyly of Lice” hypothesis (Insecta: Psocodea)?: A comparison of phylogenetic signal in multiple genes” (Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 2010)
Some other articles I had tee’d up but didn’t get to, but maybe they’d be interesting reads
- “Genital Evolution: Why Are Females Still Understudied?” (PLOS Biology, 2014)
- “The evolution of female genitalia” (Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2019)
Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelors, the only science podcast I know about with no cis people allowed. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
And today it’s just the two of us in this super special Valentine’s Day Special and we are going to revisit the topic of insect genitalia.
I bet it’s what you’ve all been waiting for.
Yes! In our first episode with Erin Barbeau, we talked about the importance of insect genitalia in taxonomy and identification. I wanted to revisit this topic because a few years ago, there was sort of a flurry of activity when a publication appeared in the literature under the title, “Female penis, male vagina, and their correlated evolution in a cave insect.” Tessa, are you familiar with this paper?
I vaguely recall hearing about it, but not like… I don’t know the specifics, I haven’t read the actual paper.
Well, good news. I did.
Okay, so I’m gonna back up two steps and talk about what these cave insects are. They are a genus that has four species, according to one of these papers. This genus, Neotrogla, which is in the family… and if anybody has a different opinion on how this is pronounced, they can keep it to themselves… [clears throat] the family Prionoglarididae in the order Psocodea.
What’s interesting here is that Psocodea consists of multiple groups that used to be two different orders. There used to be Psocoptera on one hand, and Pthiraptera on the other hand, both of these including in their common names, “lice.” Pthiraptera is a group that used to be considered an order taxonomically, now both Pthiraptera and Psocoptera together form Psocodea, which is the order name now… if that’s confusing, just don’t just don’t let yourself worry about it. But Pthiraptera were the parasitic lice, so well known to us, for instance, crabs, body lice, head lice, parasitic lice, you know, lice. And Psocoptera were the barklice and booklice.
Barklice are basically a kind of insect that most people probably haven’t actually seen, because they’re most typically seen in congregations up in trees, hence, “barklice.” They tend to eat sort of things that have come off of other things, so tree waste, and then parasitic lice, largely eat body waste, there you go. And so these two used to be two separate orders and then with molecular studies in phylogenetics, in the early 2000s, the polyphyly of lice hypothesis was… not necessarily introduced, but, like, expanded upon. And this is all a huge tangent away from the actual topic of this episode, but I’m going to keep it in because I love phylogenetics. The polyphyly of lice hypothesis is basically the idea that instead of there being one ancestor louse that then gave rise to all of the parasitic lice, instead, you could take all of the bark lice and the book lice and the parasitic lice and jumble them up together, and they shared one ancestor, and then these different lineages branched off at different points within the resulting history. Does that make sense?
Yeah, so pretty much it’s less of a linear descent.
Yeah. And I will include links to some publications on the redefinition of lice and the orders related to that in case… well, really just for my own benefit, because I find it very interesting, because also my area of organismal interest in Dictyoptera is another one of the like, large high profile examples of molecular phylogenetics kind of shaking up long term accepted consensus phylogenies. But Dictyoptera is relatively less complicated because it was just that termites are nested within cockroaches, whereas with the Psocoptera and Pthiraptera becoming Psocodea, both of them were paraphyletic with regards to the other one. Which, again, probably doesn’t mean much of anything to basically anyone who will listen to this, but I am going to link this in my lab Slack channel, and my advisor may listen to it, and so shout out.
So these insects, the cave insects, belong to the genus Neotrogla, and they all share this really unique evolution of sexual characteristics where instead of there being a penis-like organ in the male, there is instead a penis-like organ in the female, which then inserts into the male, takes out sperm, then fertilizes inside their own body.
So I want to take a parallel step and define “intromittant organ.” It is an organ that is used in the direct deposition of sperm inside of a receptive cavity. I did some digging in intromittant organs in insects… we generally call the intromittant organ [pronounses “aedeagus” three ways]… who knows. So in these insects, instead of… this was the parallel step that I want to take also, in the definition of male and female, because there is an intuitive definition of this, and there’s also a specifically scientific definition of this. The definition of male and female that I’m working with, and that the authors of these papers are working with, is not in whole body morphology, it is in specifically relative size of gamete.
And so in this context, male is small gametes, sperm, and female is large gametes, ova, and that is the definition of male and female that takes us all the way down to the quote unquote simplest sex segregated organisms… that males create small gametes, females create large gametes. And for whatever reason, the way organisms have evolved, we typically see the transfer of small gametes into the organism with large gametes that then fertilizes them, gestates them, births them.
Of course, there are numerous variations on this… there are a number of organisms that have purely external fertilization, largely aquatic animals. So for instance, most fish, a lot of amphibians that just deposit eggs into water, and then… like, frogs don’t have a penis, right, which is one of many reasons Crazy Frog was wrong. So generally, what we see, the repeating pattern again and again and again, that is so common as to have become the sort of inviolable biological truth that transphobes love to try to hit trans people over the head width, but it is common, but it is not inevitable and it is not universal.
And so particularly what we see here is that during copulation, which is the connection of two bodies through genitals, the female extends an organ into the mail, I’m actually going to read… I highlighted and will read the description of the mechanism, and then I’ll explain it. [clears throat] “We observed coupling in all Neotrogla species and found that the gynosome acts as an intromittant organ to receive voluminous spermatophores from the male. As in most related taxa, including those having well developed male genitalia, the male is positioned under the female during copulation. The apical sclerotized part of the gynosome bearing the opening of the spermathycal duct deeply penetrates the male and its tip fits the opening of the seminal duct. The membranous part inflates within the male genital chamber and numerous spines on the membrane internally anchor the female to the male. In this position the male sternum is gripped between the female paraprocts and inflated gynosome. Only the connection of the abdominal tips holds pairs fixed in copula together. Furthermore, pulling apart coupled specimens lead to separation of the male abdomen from the thorax without breaking the genital coupling, showing that the female can hold the male tightly using the gynosome and paraprocts.” So what do you get from that paragraph?
Basically, the female in this case has a penis-like organ, is able to hold on to the male long enough to insert it and I guess, retrieve sperm from the male. You know, I don’t want to say it’s like a vacuum, but it sounds kind of like a vacuum.
It’s not completely unlike a vacuum. I’m gonna, I’m gonna ask… how long do you think this coupling takes place? And there is no judgment because you’re definitely going to be wrong.
I mean, within sex, it usually seems to be either very short or very long. But since these are a cave insect, so it’s not like they’ve got anything to do, and it’s really important that they transfer their genetic information since who knows when they’ll find a mate again, I’m gonna say like, 12 hours.
That was actually really good reasoning. You’re still wrong, but great job. It is 30 to 70 hours.
Yes. [laughs] Yes. But as you said, it’s not like they have a lot else to do.
Exactly. I mean, you’re in a cave.
You’re in a cave.
You’re waiting for like the occasional bit of detritus to drop down. What else are you gonna do?
I saw in one article, and I saw reference that they eat basically, bat leavin’ [i.e. waste left behind by bats].
Oh yeah, well, that checks out.
Yeah, and so 30 to 70 hours… over the course of 30 to 70 hours, the two of them couple, the male is on the bottom of the female. And I’ll link to multiple articles when we post this episode which include photos of the two of them in copula. So the male is positioned, the female is on top of the male, the female inserts the intromittant organ which they’ve called a gynosome, because they… well because really, this is a unique thing in documented history, like, as far as any of us know, there are no other animals that have a, you know, genital system quite like this. So instead of just using typical terms for these kinds of things, they’ve named the quote unquote, female penis, the gynosome, and I think the male vagina quote, unquote, the phallosome.
[quotes article] “The apical sclerotized part of the gynosome bearing the opening of the spermathecal duct deeply penetrates the male.” So sclerotization is something in insects referring to sort of the hardening of the outer cuticle… there are very highly sclerotized insects like beetles, which are very hard, and then there are like less sclerotized insects like termites, which are called “soft bodied” and you can’t pin those because they’ll just fall apart. So degree of sclerotization refers to the hardness of sort of the chitinous exoskeleton. The apical part is more sclerotized… just means that it’s harder. And so it quote unquote, deeply penetrates the male and it’s tip fits the opening of the seminal duct. So basically, there is a connection happening there for the semen inside of the male to then be sucked into the female quote, unquote gynosome.
[quotes article] “The membranous part inflates within the male genital chamber, and numerous spines on the membrane internally anchor the female to the male.” So basically, there was a sclerotized part, which is harder, that goes deeper in to suck up the sperm, and then there is a membranous part, which is less sclerotized, so sort of softer, and it inflates basically inside of the male, and it has spines on the outside, which then anchor them together.
Okay, I was gonna ask if this is like a form of traumatic insemination, but I didn’t realize since it’s the female doing, it probably isn’t.
Yes. And it’s also not traumatic insemination because traumatic insemination generally refers more to a penetration of like a non genital opening, like a lot of bedbugs…
Oh, right, yeah.
Yeah. In related insects, have traumatic insemination where they just sort of penetrate through the abdominal wall, and then the sperm gets where it’s going. It’s not quite as chaotic as that, but… but you make a good point, which is that even quote theoretically, non traumatic insemination often still isn’t great, right? You know what I mean? And so in studies, like in observing these insects, the individuals, basically to see how the two genital systems fit together, you know, they wanted to visualize it, and so they try to take them apart, and the spines anchored them together well enough that the male functionally came apart.
[surprised laughter] Oh, jeez.
Yeah. So that’s what that means. And what’s interesting here is that the presence of spines on (a) on an intromittant organ in general is not unique, and (b) is not unique within insects. This is not what this episode is about, but in my most recent therapy appointment, I had the occasion to tell my therapist about cat penises.
Yep, that’s what I what I’ve been thinking of too.
Yes, because apparently cats have induced ovulation.
That’s the term I was thinking of! Not traumatic insemination, induced ovulation.
Which is also not what’s happening, but great pull. And there are pictures that do it more justice because they were able to visualize these organs and so those will be linked in the show notes.
Basically, what’s interesting here is everything. So let’s go through some of those things. One, is this completely unique? Yes and no. Yes, because there is nothing else that is exactly like this, but mentioned in the paper, quote, “in certain a stigmatism mites and certain beetles male genitalia are reduced and females pulseless and elongated intromittant tube or reversible genital duct respectively.” So there are mites that are quote, “an enigmatic lineage of mites from Baltic amber shows a unique possibly female controlled mating.” There are these mites from Baltic amber that have an eversible tube basically. So it is kind of like an intromittant organ, but it is not as developed as the one that we see in these Neotrogla and then in scirtid beetles [in the family Scirtidae], I couldn’t find more information on that because the linked paper was in German, and I don’t read German, but I believe them. And that was an eversible genital duct, which is like even less penis-like where it’s like… the duct, it’s eversible, so you can put it out, then take sperm into it, bring it back in. The way that I’m envisioning it is kind of like a membranous bucket that then gets flipped out of the body, filled up with sperm, and then flipped back in. I have no idea if that’s correct and I probably never will, because again, I don’t speak German.
That’s my guess too.
Another thing that is interesting is the example of seahorses because… I did look into this because I wasn’t actually sure how seahorses’ whole deal works, because obviously, obviously, we all know seahorses are one of the prototypical examples of sexual diversity in the animal kingdom. We all know about seahorses, right?
But I wasn’t actually sure how much seahorses were a unique thing, because I thought potentially the eggs could be fertilized before transfer to the male, and then the male sort of externally broods them.
Yeah, he just carries them around in a pouch sort of thing.
Yes, but I looked into it and it seems like females do literally have an organ that they use to transfer ova to the male. And they’re sort of an enclosed pouch that is not considered fully within the body, so it’s sort of an external internal kind of thing where they get fertilized by sperm. And then they like do implant inside tissue in the male seahorse and are provided, like, nutrients and prolactin and everything, which is interesting, for a lot of reasons. One is… cool. Second is, fish in general, don’t do this kind of thing most of the time in my understanding… and again, I’m not an ichthyologist, so who knows, but in my understanding of fish, it’s a lot of external, I’m gonna put my eggs into the sea, you’re gonna put your sperm into the sea, they’re gonna find each other.
I’m gonna produce a lot of them because this is not very effective. And then they do Finding Nemo, and they do us all dirty because clownfish actually are another example of interesting sexual diversity in the animal kingdom, and they made them straight and cis, because Disney is a bunch of cowards.
Well, yes, you’re right. If it was more realistic, Marlin should have become Nemo’s mother.
There are some interesting comparisons here, where the insects that we’re talking about, and the mites, which are arachnids, they have an organ that reaches into the male and takes sperm and then brings it back into their body. And female seahorses have an organ that transfers ova to the male, which are similar divergences from the expected path and kind of inverse of each other.
And so then the question is, why does this happen? Like why would this have evolved in these cave insects when it is so unlike anything else that we have so far been able to document and the hypothesis that is proposed here and repeated in all the articles and stuff is that this publication included, the description of the females are not just receiving sperm cells, they are also taking up a seminal gift where there is a basically a bunch of seminal material that is nutrient rich, and then they take it with the sperm and eat it, which is not unprecedented inside insects, broadly, particularly within Orthoptera… Orthoptera is the order that has grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, weta, locusts… hoppy guys, know what I mean. And so in katydids, the males will present something called a spermatophylax, which is a great big globule that has a bunch of stuff in it as a nuptial gift, and then they present it to the females and the females are like, “yum, yum, yum, nuptial gift, hooray.” And then that happens.
And so this is broadly comparable. And the idea being that because they live in caves, and caves are kind of a tough place to be, potentially this would, then they can’t get a lot of nutrients available all over the place – seminal gifts, nutrient rich, there you go.
Plus, also in the idea of when we talk about sexual choice. And because… here’s the other thing is that typically, the sort of the model of sexual choice that we give is that female influence over things has to do with overt mate choice. Well, basically pre and post copulatory mate choice, where the idea is that sperm are cheap, most organisms that produce sperm, because they’re small, and it’s just like they’re very stripped down cells, right? Like there’s not really anything else that goes with the sperm except just genetic information. And I know that in absolute terms, that’s not correct, there is some other stuff, but broadly speaking, it is basically just a stripped down genetic packet, right. And so you can produce a lot of those at limited cost.
Whereas ova are not just the DNA itself, it is also like a little house that can build the embryo where you accept to the other DNA, and then you get started cooking on an embryo, and then it develops. And there’s all kinds of other stuff there with the DNA in ova, and so they are more costly to produce, and therefore, more fiercely guarded. This is the general model that is taught to people that, you know, the students in the evolution course that I’m a TA for right now are learning now. In that model, we would typically expect males to basically be trying to sow their wild oats far and wide to anybody who will have them and females being much choosier because they have not only to produce the eggs, but then in organisms that gestate them, to gestate them. And there you go.
And so seeing the opposite here of females who basically have the the lion’s share of choice, both in being able to choose mates and to then… there is no post copulatory options available to the males in this species. Because they aren’t there fertilizing anything inside their bodies, then that brings up the question of why is this happening? And the answer is, who knows? You know what I mean? That’s interesting.
And then I was in thinking about this, then I was thinking, why are there intromittant organs at all? Right, and I dug into intromittant organs a little bit. And in my life, I have spent a lot of time reading about diverse reproductive strategies in non human animals, because I’m an interesting guy. And the thing that I have learned is that there’s all kinds of wild stuff out there. And the thing that I learned today is that, well, I learned a number of things, because I’m studious. But one thing that I learned is and let me bring up let me just say, the title of the paper. In the Royal Society Biology Letters, “turtle and mammal penis designs are anatomically convergent,” which means turtle and mammal penises are visually similar, but are not homologous, like they are not the same organ. And the evidence here, and this is a paper from 2004 so I haven’t checked if anybody has disputed it… Okay, so in the introduction, “penises are found in four amniote lineages, mammals, squamates, turtles and archosaurs. It has been proposed that a penis is an amniotes synapomorphy.” So let’s clarify some terms. One amniotes. I don’t remember the exact I couldn’t like I couldn’t rattle off the exact definition. But it’s basically like the kind of eggs that terrestrial vertebrates have where there’s the amnion. I’m not, I’m not a vertebrate scientist… don’t ask me, but that they have the amnion. So it’s like birds… it’s terrestrial vertebrates, right.
And then a synapomorphy is a shared, derived characteristic that is used to characterize monophyletic clades. So basically, a synapomorphy is a trait that an ancestor has, and that all of its descendants have also. This… it comes up again a lot and a lot of time and again in phylogenetics, because synapomorphies are seen as very like informative traits, because they can group together clades. Again, more stuff for my systematics nerds in the audience, give a yell wherever you are, shout out to you. Anyway.
So the idea being that it has been proposed that a penis is an amniote synapomorphy, the idea that the sort of the ancestor, the granddaddy terrestrial vertebrate had a penis, and that all of the descendants inherited the penis, and in those groups that don’t have it, e.g. most birds, it was a lost trait, rather than a failure to develop a trait. But this paper is proposing that instead, it is just that these different groups have independently developed penises that look very similar to each other. I can’t evaluate this material because I don’t know a single thing about vertebrate morphology, other than what I know from living inside of a vertebral body against my will. But I I just think that’s fun.
And so basically… but this gets to the larger point which is that an intromittant… is that there is some ambiguity here in terms that I would love to, you know to dig my weird little raccoon paws into, right? Where we have the term male which has one specific scientific meaning i.e. producing small gametes, and then numerous variously colloquial to scientific meanings connected to that, but sometimes very tenuously, then we have intromittant organ, which is a fairly straightforward term for an organ that deposits sperm whose functional purpose is to deposit sperm cells, and then we have penis, and penis, besides being a term that 12 year olds love to yell at each other when they think they’re being funny, is an interesting one, because it sits right at the intersection of scientific authority and colloquial usage. Do you know what I mean?
And this brings up a question that is very interesting to me, and potentially very boring to most other people… because here’s the thing, there is a phenomenon in scientific disciplines, where scientists take a word that is in broad colloquial usage, and then decide that it has a relatively narrow, specific definition, and then correct other people who use that term outside of that context. For example, “bug.”
To an entomologist, a bug refers to a specific group of insects with a specific set of traits. But to most people in the world, “bug” is a very broad umbrella term, whose meaning is not constant person to person. For example, some people would call a slug a bug, and some people would not. And so you get into the situation where bug both means a member of Heteroptera, or Hemiptera, depending on who you talk to, or sort of a creepy thing that I don’t really like that sort of, in the area of terrestrial invertebrates that’s kind of gross to me, and sometimes it’s aquatic but mostly, it’s terrestrial. And it has connotation and denotation, and it’s all very complicated. And so similarly, penis has one meaning, and then it also has about 50 other meanings. And I don’t really have a conclusion here, except, isn’t that interesting?
You know, yeah. Because it’s like, obviously, there is some evolutionary benefit to having this sort of arrangement. But it doesn’t necessarily arise from the same exact structure in all organisms, and it’s not always the male who has it.
Well, and specifically with regards to these insects, I actually read… Okay, so the authors of the first paper, female penis, male vagina, etc, etc. published another paper called, quote, “A transgender Brazilian cave insect.”
Which I have a lot of opinions on.
Yes, well, let me provide some more context. So they published this in a journal called The Winnower, which I had never heard of before. And I was like, how did this pass editorial review? And then I looked into The Winnower… they publish all kinds of stuff, so not just journal articles, but blog posts, student posts, whatever, and they have post publication peer review. So the answer to how did this pass peer review, is that it didn’t.
And so “A Transgender Brazilian Cave Insect,” the paper, is basically a sort of a more chill vibes hanging out being relatively informal publication by the authors of the first… so “Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correllated Evolution in a Cave Insect” is a very, you know, by the books scientific article, here’s what we’re presenting, here’s the information, here all of these details, here are some photos of the genitals in question. And then a quote “transgender Brazilian cave insect” is more like, here’s what we were thinking, and here’s what we think about some other stuff. And so it starts out very poorly with the sentence, “the penis is by definition the male copulatory organ (e.g. New Oxford American dictionary).”
[inhales] Okay, yeah. So for starters, it makes no sense to talk about insects as being transgender, because gender… I know some people like to use it interchangeably with sex, but even then, in a scientific context it’s still mostly like a human invention, so insects don’t have gender. Secondly, they’re not trans because that would imply they start out as one and then go to another – no, they’re just like this.
Yeah! See, this is what’s very interesting to me because I read the whole thing – it’s only three pages so that’s not that big of an accomplishment – and they don’t address the labeling of this insect as transgender anywhere in the actual text, like they never return to that description, ever. And what’s interesting to me is what this reveals about what, probably non malicious, but clearly kind of ignorant cis people… and it’s also worth noting that two of the authors are from Japan, one is in Brazil and one is in Switzerland. So it’s possible that none of them speak English as their first language. And so then that brings up the interesting use of transgender of… do they know how wrong they’re being? Which is, like… not to judge people for not knowing English, but like the… “transgender” is one of those words that really does have nuanced definition. So that’s very interesting. And it’s particularly egregious because it presents transgender as an image of sort of a discordant combination of sexual traits, whereas you and I understand transgender as a relational identity, where like, the presence of a quote unquote, female penis in these insects is the normal for these insects. What would be a transgender… you know, putting aside how fraught the application of that term to non humans, like it’s fraught in application to humans…
Let alone anybody else, but a female that didn’t have this sex organ in these four species… THAT would be the unusual one. But what I really wanted to bring up was, quote, “in addition, there were active debates on the usage of the term penis for a female intromittant organ”… in citations, “Newitz, 2014.” Who do you think that is?
Future friend of the pod, Annalee Newitz.
Yes! Annalee published in 2014, in io9, quote, your penis is getting in the way of my science, in which they make basically two points. One is that it is reductive to use the term penis, because it is a unique organ, and a unique phenomenon. And they made an analogy to if a new kind of celestial object was found that was star like, but wasn’t quite a star, everybody calling it a star would be lazy. And then the second is, and I agree with this one, particularly, is the idea that probably a lot of people glommed onto this because of the idea of a female penis being self evidently bizarre or absurd to people. But what most struck out to me is, quote, “I’m sorry, but does this sound like a penis to you? When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant? Pretty much the only thing this organ has in common with a penis is that it’s used to penetrate a partner during sex” unquote. And what is interesting to me is, all respect to Annellee Newitz, but with the exception of maybe allowed its owner to get pregnant, which this one doesn’t even really do… those are not unusual traits for intromittant organs.
Like even in mammals, honestly, in a lot of cases.
And this is actually… Ed Yong also published an article on this because every major publication that has a science section published about this because it you know, cynically, clickbait culture, baby, but Ed Yong actually specifically pointed this out in his article. Because, like, I mean, yeah, I’ve heard of that. Yeah, IF we’re using penis to refer to comparable organs in non human animals. IF we’re talking about just humans, admittedly, those are all a little bit unusual.
So…. and so, just, I think this is an interesting point in the use of language, and how we sort of define these things. And then you know, segueing into the most slam in your face obvious extension of this discussion, the self definition of various organs in trans humans. And I actually put this in my notes under discussion points, “self definition of organs and trans humans comma, Duh” … ’cause the idea of quote, a female penis is perhaps unusual to many people, but certainly not to me.
And so I was gonna open this up to the floor, because I think there is a phenomenon that cis people, I dunno, they may or may not know about, I don’t really care if they do, but it is not uncommon for trans people to define their various stuff in a way that feels gender harmonious to them, but which would make for instance, trans exclusionary radical feminists, spittin’ mad.
Well, no one really cares what they think anyways.
Nobody cares what they think, but which would maybe more mildly confuse a lot of well meaning, but very ignorant cis people. And so I think that’s interesting also, and I don’t really have a major point here, except that wow, language sure is elastic. But I do think there is something here in the way that we define things in animals that are not humans, and how we then relate that back to humans, because like, we talked about this when Sam Long was on the podcast, in the drawing of direct, very literal comparison, between eg parrot fish, which can change sexes in their lifetime, to trans humans. So I just wanted to like, open that door up and see if you were sitting on the other side with any particularly, any opinions that you were really itching to get out there.
I do sometimes think… so the whole thing about bringing up like parrot fish or what have you is useful if you’re trying to refute the argument that there’s only male and female and they never change, and that’s true for all animals, as you know, which sometimes a argument that is made often by people who I guess for lack of better term are more religiously motivated, sort of sort of deconstructing that idea and saying that actually no, you know, to paraphrase Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, there’s actually a huge variety and gender and well, sex and sexuality.
Well, actually, speaking of Evolution’s Rainbow, I don’t know if anybody else has taken this up, but Joan Roughgarden does suggest a redefinition, or a re parameterization of gender in the context of biology specifically, of talking about for instance, fish, which have a sexual system of the primary male, the secondary male, the tertiary male, have different sort of sexual strategies where you have like the primary male who will have a quote unquote, harem of females, and then a secondary male who kind of hangs around, and then the third male who mimics females, sort of darts in there and tries to be very sneaky about it, and using gender in that context to refer to different manifestations of sex in non human animals in that way. I don’t know where she stands on that now, but that’s something that always comes to my mind when I remember Evolution’s Rainbow.
But yeah, I guess like beyond that, though, I don’t know if it’s as useful because at a certain point, we are just like talking specifically about you know, if we’re actually talking about like nuts and bolts policy, we’re it’s completely within the human realm. So the sexual history of parrot fish or of cave lice or what have you may not be as relevant.
Yeah. I don’t think I have, I think, I mean, you can never say everything that you want to say about insects genitalia, because there’s just it’s such a… it’s such a fertile subject. But I think that’s everything that I have on this specific subject and I am going to provide just an absolute abundance of other article links, if people are curious and want to read more about this, because a lot of the articles that have been published even Well, I was gonna say even the like science journal articles, but I have eight years of post secondary biology education behind me. So my evaluation, how difficult they are to read probably is not reflective of the general public. But yeah, so I hope you enjoyed this sojourn into insect dicks.
It has been fascinating.
I’m so glad. [interstitial music]
If people want to find me online I’m on Twitter @cockroacharles.
And I’m on Twitter @spacermase.
The show is on twitter at @ASABpod and at our website where we both show notes and transcripts for every episode, asabpodcast.com.
And until next time, keep on sciencing.