Book Review: Gender is a human attribute, formed by social expectation

Evolution and natural selection have been among the most influential and irrefutable scientific theories of all time.
Bitch: What does it mean to be female? by Lucy CookeBitch: What does it mean to be female? by Lucy Cooke
Bitch: What does it mean to be female? by Lucy Cooke

But as Lucy Cooke explains in her fascinating and laugh-out-loud funny book, Bitch: What Does It Mean to be Female?, Charles Darwin ushered in an era of sexist biology that endures to this day. Cooke exposes the narrow focus of biologists on the supposedly more evolved male, and she attempts to undo the damage of their systematic disregard of the supposedly more passive female by introducing the reader to a menagerie of mind-blowing females from across the animal world.

Among the females who challenge the received Darwinian wisdom about the 'weaker sex' are the highly aggressive spotted hyena with her 8-inch clitoris that masquerades as a phallus; the tyrannical and infanticidal meerkat; the menopausal orca matriarchs; the male-to-female clownfish (Finding Nemo ruined forever); albatross that use sperm donors but raise offspring with other females; and the all-female self-cloning lizards who've eliminated the need for males entirely.

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Gender is a uniquely human attribute, formed by social expectation, but for centuries now, we've attributed human gender norms to animal behaviour, judging (often lauding) females for their perceived motherliness, capacity for nurturing, and submission to the physically dominant male. However, this book reveals that biological sex across the natural world is far less binary than Darwin ever imagined, and Cooke suggests that it's about time we re-evaluated our long-held beliefs about sex and gender within our own species, beliefs that took hold in the Victorian era and have stubbornly clung on ever since. Bitch is an X-rated Planet Earth, and it'll keep you both entertained and endlessly topped up with jaw-dropping facts about genitalia and sexual behaviour that will impress your friends and upset family dinners. It's a must-read.

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