Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Even Dolphins Gang-Rape!

I missed all those popularizations about the raping gay  dolphins:
Dolphins have been defamed. Six weeks ago, the Daily Mail informed us about The dark side of Flipper: He's a sexual predator who resorts to rape to get his way.
And the Daily Telegraph also told a similar tale: "according to scientists", dolphins resort to "rape" to assert authority.
Other news outlets around the world carried similar reports. Examples: bisexual and exclusively gay dolphins (MSN); male dolphins are bisexual, US scientists claim (Australia's News Ltd); and male bottlenose dolphins engage in extensive bisexuality (ZeeNews, India).

Anyone who has read my litanies about how science is popularized knows why The Daily Male Mail would print that popularization or why the Daily Telegraph would follow suit.

Many popularizations popularize stuff that's not in the initial study, of course.   But this one is really an extreme example because the particular paper did not discuss rape or homosexuality in dolphins:

Are you kidding me? If the ‘writers’ of these articles had read the paper, they would have noticed that it contains nothing about the sexual behaviour of the dolphins they studied, bisexual or otherwise, aside from brief mentions of the possible consequences of social networks on reproductive success. It certainly didn’t mention anything about bisexual behaviour, homosexual behaviour, or rape.

That's good advice, about actually reading the paper one summarizes and popularizes.

What's instructive about this case is that it tells us so very clearly WHY certain studies get popularized and many others do not.  That this particular study had nothing (or very little) to do with the sexual behavior of dolphins doesn't matter at all.

A study twenty years ago has argued that dolphin bulls engage in behavior which to humans looks like gang-rape:
Richard Connor and other colleagues showed, almost 20 years ago that male dolphins work in alliances to cut a female off from the pod and coerce her into mating. It's a behaviour that forever associated male dolphins with the human idea of 'gang rape.'

The other side of the dolphin story illustrates my point. Dolphin bulls behave like gang rapists, harassing solitary females until, exhausted, the female copulates with one or all of the males.
Perhaps the similarities with the most repellent coalitional behavior among men are merely superficial. Perhaps they run deeper than that. That makes a fascinating question to be researched. Sensitively. But no matter what the findings, what dolphin males do in Shark Bay doesn't make that kind of behavior any more acceptable in men.
It's unclear to me how often this behavior has been observed, whether it is common or unusual and whether the observer's interpretation of it is correct.   But it was reported in a study twenty years ago, not in the study this past spring.