I saw this footage of flatworm reproduction years ago on PBS and I was so excited when Robin H. sent it in!
Flatworms are hermaphroditic. All flatworms can inseminate and be inseminated. These flatworms also have two penises each. Flatworms are sexual. That is, they reproduce sexually by finding a partner with which to trade genetic material. (Asexual creatures do not trade genetic material, they reproduce by making copies of themselves.)
A flatworm reveals its two penises (in white):
What is interesting about this clip sociologically (in case you’re not already intrigued enough) is how the narrator describes what the flatworms are doing.
Let’s first suppose that it makes little sense to attribute human emotions and motivations to flatworms. Let’s also suppose that narrations of animal behavior are often going to tell us a lot about how we think and only a little, if anything, about what’s going on with the social lives of invertebrates.
As you watch the clip below, notice that they explain the behavior not descriptively, but metaphorically. Flatworm mating behavior is like war and wars have winners and losers:
So the narrator explains that flatworm “sex is more like war than love.” Worms are “swordsmen” who are “penis fencing.” (Mix metaphors much?) They carry “double daggers” (penises). And “the first one to make a successful jab, delivers its sperm.”
Notice how the narrator genders the hermaphroditic flatworms. Because they have penises they are “swordsmen.” Apparently their equally functional capacity to be inseminated is eclipsed by their dangerous daggers!
And notice, too, how they describe the flatworm who becomes inseminated as the “loser.” The “losing flatworm,” the narrator explains, “bears the burden of motherhood, committing valuable resources to having offspring.”
Sperm on the “loser”:
Now it may be true that being the “mother” involves the use of resources. [Note: And this is a nod to the evolutionary logic involved.] But even so, we would never call the females of non-hermaphroditic sexual species “losers” would we? I mean, they both get to pass on their genetic material, and doesn’t that make them both winners from an evolutionary perspective?
No doubt it seems reasonable to call the functional female of the pair a loser in a sexist world in which childbearing is defined as a disability (according to the Americans with Disabilities Act) and childraising is defined as non-productive (it garners no wages or benefits and cannot be put on a resume). Gosh, being non-hermaphroditic, human females are losers by default. They don’t even get to play the game.
So sexism is one way to explain the wildly offensive characterization of the inseminated flatworm as a “loser.” But it also may just be that, in choosing a war/sports metaphor to describe flatworm behavior, they inevitably had to characterize one or the other as a loser. This is a great example of the folly of metaphor. Metaphors can be used to make something unfamiliar make sense by comparing it to something familiar, but it also runs the risk of forcing the thing being explained to mirror the thing you use to explain it with.
It’s simply sloppy. And, all too often, it results in projecting ugly realities with which we are all too familiar onto those things we don’t really understand.
For another example of the projection of socially constructed human relations onto the body, see our post on sperm, eggs, and fertilization.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Nick — August 31, 2009
Although I agree in general with your analysis of the anthropomorphizing of the flatworms, I think there may actually be a meaning behind using the terms "winner" and "loser" beyond the war metaphor. Though I am no biologist, it seems to me that the inseminating worm would indeed be the "winner" from the evolutionary standpoint, as it would be in prime position to continue inseminating other worms and spreading its DNA. The inseminated worm would be the "loser" in the sense that although it will be contributing its DNA to this particular offspring, it loses the opportunity to inseminate other worms while it focuses its resources on gestation. I know these terms are loaded, but maybe we as sociologists are in fact the ones putting too much of our understanding of the human social world into our interpretation of scientific information.
George — August 31, 2009
I agree with Nick about the scientific context.
On the other hand, the "swordsman" metaphor is not a biological term of the art. The narration is meant to appeal to a mass audience, not to provide a precise biological understanding of the process. I think the sociological perspective applies in this context. That is, framing the female as the loser in order to appeal to a general (social) audience is where one could, if you're looking for it, find an implicit bias.
rachel — August 31, 2009
Eh...I think since each flatworm has the chance to become impregnated each time, there would be times when you "win" and "lose" throughout your flatworm life, so that any evolutionary advantage you had from being the "winner" this time would all balance out by the end of your flatworm life.
Considering that it is Spike TV, the "first network for men"...I do believe that the "loser" is the "loser" because "he" ends up being the "bitch" in the whole exchange, the one who is conquered, just as female humans are always the conquered.
slugs are hermaphroditic, and mate in a similar way, if you believe wikipedia.
Kelly — August 31, 2009
Its also worth noting that oftentimes during these battles the flatworms end up seriously injured. The 'penis' pierces the body wall of the other flatworm and often many jabs are delivered before successful insemination. So the 'loser' also may not be doing so well in the end.
Holly — August 31, 2009
First, this originally appeared on PBS, and doesn't have anything to do with Spike TV. They're just posting the video.
Second, the language (swordsmen, etc.) is unquestionably evidence of gender bias, but describing reproduction in terms of energy used (loser) is really common in evolutionary biology. It's the classic tradeoff -- you get to pass on your genes, but it's energetically costly to reproduce. Making gametes takes resources, reproducing takes time away from finding food and hiding from predators, and gestation is particularly costly. Some species spread out the costs (males help care for offspring, bring food to the gestating female, etc.), some species don't do gestation at all (males and females just release gametes into the water or air), the males of some species spend lots of energy on huge tails or mating displays, it can get pretty complicated. Energy budgets and reproductive costs are the subjects of entire schools of evolutionary thought. They are *really* important when it comes to understanding reproductive behavior.
Now, I'm not going to deny that discussions of reproductive energy costs can end up going to some unfortunate places. "Loser" was a very blunt term, and obviously some people found it offensive. However, in this case, two organisms are attempting to produce offspring, and either one of them (but probably not both -- out of 46 observed mating attempts, 30 attempts resulted in one insemination, and 10 attempts resulted in a reciprocal insemination that was much shorter and probably less successful, according to Leslie Newman's 1998 Nature paper on these flatworms) could be the gestating organism. From an evolutionary perspective the one that ends up gestating loses, because its energy costs per offspring are higher, and also in this case it ends up with holes that go right through its body and out the other side. I'm really not sure what non-warlike metaphor would make sense for a type of mating that results in gaping wounds in the inseminated organism.
Anyway, I apologize for the pedantic interlude. I was trained as an evolutionary biologist, and this post hit a nerve. Applying sociology to evolutionary biology can be tricky. Sometimes it's great, because evolutionary biologists are certainly not universally enlightened about their gender/race biases. Sometimes, though, it confuses the issue, when the science gets muddled or when evolutionary biologists are using common terms that have really specific meanings in their field. And sometimes, of course, you end up with sociobiologists run amok, telling people how all men have to cheat to fulfill their biological imperative or some such nonsense. We need to cooperate, if only so we can smack them down from both sides.
Sighter — August 31, 2009
As a non-professional in either sociology or biology, but someone who appreciates music and the construction of music, my thoughts on this post have nothing to do with the subjects covered so far.
What interested me was, therefore, the music. It was definitely intended to color one's entire view of the affair; it conjured suspense, heightened the tension, made one worried and apprehensive. So in a sense, from the start of the entire presentation, before even a word was spoken, you were primed for their warlike, conflict-driven frame for the whole affair.
I imagine one might view the scene very differently if the music that started had been more lyric and so forth. Just a thought.
jessica grey — August 31, 2009
wow... over-analyzing much?
it would sound silly if the narrator said "swordsperson"...
"men" is a term used to describe a people. mankind... human...
i've found many of the posts of soc. images. interesting, but a lot are also very skewed and bigoted (against religious folk, against "conservatives")
anyways, i'm unsubscribing. it's become a waste of my time.
Milo — August 31, 2009
My mom used to study entomology (sorry if it's mispelled) when I was little, and I remember to have read this same story on one of her books
I felt so bad for being a woman, because I understood that the meaning of the story was to recall that men are winners because they force and make holes and women are losers because they get harmed.
But I also have to say that many of the language we use has the same metaphore...
And there is hoy you craft a nihilistic girl.
Jenn — August 31, 2009
The misuse of sexist metaphors in science is not uncommon at all. It is particularly noticeable, of course, when you look at how scientists choose to describe hermaphrodite flatworm reproduction. It reminds me of the far more socially damaging metaphor used to describe human conception. Namely, that the egg is a passive inert structure while the sperm are intrepid conquerors of the acidic and inhospitable womb.
Of course, this doesn't just stop at reproductive metaphors. Often, the social structures of various animals and cells is mashed into an ill-fitting 'game theory' in which every organism is in competition and there is some assumed hierarchical structure, while a more egalitarian and cooperative model better describes the observed phenomenon. However, it takes decades for the scientific community to abandon the false metaphor--if at all--, and it still stands as the epistemological touchstone of scientific theory, no matter how many times it's disproved.
Such inconsistencies irritate me to the extreme. I'm no natural scientist, but as a trained social scientist and student of philosophy, seeing how damaging cultural metaphors twist and warp our understanding of the world around us never fails to undermine the legitimacy of various academic pursuits.
And to the people up-thread that lament that we shouldn't expect science to be "PC"... do you know the meaning of objective? It isn't the imposition of norms onto newly observed phenomena without questioning those norms. Surely, if you observe something and it happens to exactly fit stereotypes and cultural myths, then that's the time to take a step back and reexamine your supposed objectivity and foundational biases. How you go about studying and explaining something absolutely shapes the understanding of that thing. And if you flippantly reproduce what is convenient and relies on already accepted norms--making it sound more palatable without requiring effort to support--then that isn't objectivity. It's arrogance.
angie — August 31, 2009
Even thought this is an animal behaviour explained in common terms it is fair to say these terms are chauvinistic in a way. Then again, if you want to translate this animal behaviour metaphorically into terms of what is somewhat loosely similar to human interaction this is the accurate way but false if you want to look at the specific biological and sociological fact. Of course one wants to makes these alien things understandable in a common human way. This is the point of using such metaphor. Naturally, because these worms are not humans. And they should not be compared as humans in any way. But in the end of the day you cannot make the biological fact that men have a penis and women have a vagina disappear. Not that I want to add any moral focus of this supposed and normative female and man behaviour. Actually, I find the notion that one gender and its biological traits would be "worse" than the other as someone would understand them in a metaphor more offensive than this silly misguided sea worm video.
Kendra — August 31, 2009
Great blog, as usual.
May I suggest Green Porno for a less biased (and more hilarious) take on the subject?
Eneya — September 1, 2009
Is it possibly that it is conneced with the idea that in fact a male worm is the "mother"?
Yes hi is also female but I feel that the female part is perserved as the loser part.
rachel — September 1, 2009
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Pearl — June 28, 2010
:) Rachel, just what I was thinking.
I watch vids with sound off so missed the constructed drama of the music.
anyone with a penis, or two, is male, even hermaphrodites? interesting.
the language is being a kludge there. trying to switch pronouns back and forth would make awkward mouthfuls and ambiguity.
funny the metaphor of choice was war when it looks like flamenco. but then, there is the stabbing into or thru the body wall which lends itself to idea of war.
Carlo — June 28, 2010
As a biologist, I would just like to point out that scientists doing this kind of work are generally not the same people who produce these kinds of videos. While there is all kinds of valid discussion to have about cultural bias in scientific discovery, I think it should be recognized that the people paid to make someone's careful and thoughtful work into entertainment are probably more likely to play fast and loose with terminology than the scientists every would. Scientific papers generally don't include dramatic recreations of such events, or words like "swordsmen". Although, sometimes they do. Nevertheless, the intersection of culture and science and culture and scientific entertainment are two separate discussions - both equally valid, but largely separate.
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BarryG — July 19, 2013
I won't wade into Lisa's issues, best to clam up. Looking for offense in flat worm videos. Must not be very fun at parties nor at work.