By Ethan Baron
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the scientist who is applying a feminist lens to her research. Her unique approach is uncovering new information that could shatter some long-held scientific beliefs.
For as long as humans have practiced science, men have dominated research. Much of our understanding of the world has been filtered through their beliefs. For UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Ambika Kamath, that’s a problem.
The behavioral ecologist studies Anolis sagrei, the brown anole, a small lizard native to the Caribbean and introduced in Florida. For years, it was widely believed that this reptile was territorial, and that females would mate only with the male whose area they occupied. When women scientists first found evidence that might not be the case, their conclusions were dismissed, their findings deemed exceptions, and their papers rejected, Kamath says.
But Kamath, through observation, DNA analysis, mathematical modeling and “feminist science,” determined that the lady lizards were actually, so to speak, pretty hot to trot, despite male researchers’ inability to recognize — or even look for — behavior she says conflicted with closely held male beliefs about female sexual behavior.
Those biases, which go back to Charles Darwin and beyond, continue to influence how science is done, and the conclusions that are reached, she says.
This news organization sat down with Kamath in her lab to talk about how her practice of feminist science turned accepted knowledge on its head, and why a diversity of perspectives is important to scientific inquiry. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: If feminist science is science through a feminist lens, what have been the traditional lenses in science?
A: They end up being lenses of whatever culture or demographic is dominant. Currently, the dominant global scientific tradition is one that has largely been white, largely been male, largely been people who are rich. Those are the people who have practiced a lot of the science on which a lot of what mainstream science today is built.
Q: What have been the effects of that traditional approach on our understanding?
A: Very often when you study an animal population it’s (considered) OK to just study the males and not study the females. The lizards that I worked on, Anolis lizards, for the longest time things that we stated as generalities about the species or the genus were things that were known only in males and no one thought twice about that. Most practitioners of biology were men.
Another aspect of this that is very dominant in research into the evolution of animal behavior is importing stereotypes of males and females from the human world and projecting those onto the animals that we study. A long-standing one, that was famously formalized by Darwin, was this notion that females are coy and passive in sexual interactions and males are not.
Q: Are there risks to practicing feminist science, in the way that it’s perceived or received?
A: I don’t think it serves scientists well to pretend that the scientific process is perfect or infallible. None of this should be interpreted as challenging the scientific process in and of itself. There’s a huge difference between broadening science to include a marginalized perspective that goes against the status quo, versus preserving the already powerful voice that seeks to marginalize. We’re doing better science if we’re asking questions from different perspectives as opposed to just one. And we’re doing better science if we think about the ways in which who we are influences the questions we ask. That’s the beauty of science, it’s these incremental steps toward something that is hopefully true.
Q: Why wasn’t it understood that female anoles could be promiscuous?
A: In Anolis lizards the long-standing paradigm for their social organization was one of territoriality — females would just mate with the one male in whose territory they lived. These sorts of inferences about mating patterns from behavioral descriptions were true of animals across the board. In the ’90s or so people started to be able to use genetic methods to infer actual mating patterns using the same methods that people use for paternity tests. They started to find that much much more often than was expected based on those behavioral descriptions, females were mating with multiple males. We saw this hugely in birds. It’s been described in the literature very often as ‘adultery’ — that’s a very clear example of the ways in which we take non-neutral terminology of how we talk about ourselves and import it onto animals.
Q: What criticism do you get for practicing feminist science?
A: There are people that say … we would have figured this out without making a fuss. People really object to the fuss. People also think that it’s incredibly disrespectful to the work of previous scientists to question it in this fashion. Once I was giving a seminar and someone said, ‘You’re supposed to stand on the shoulders of giants, you can’t kick them in the ankles.’ Very graciously, another senior academic said, ‘Well, what if those giants are standing in three feet of mud?’
Q: Is there a risk that if you’re applying a feminist lens that you’re going to miss something in the same way male scientists did?
A: What we’re looking for is as many lenses as possible. Science is not the work of single lone geniuses. Sure there are geniuses. But their perspective is still one perspective. When you’re non-mainstream in terms of the questions that you’re asking, you’re automatically going to get more people saying, ‘Oh, you have an agenda.’ And because you’ve got people saying, ‘Oh, you have an agenda,’ you have to do that much more work to hold yourself to a higher standard.
Title: Post-doctoral fellow, UC Berkeley
Education: Undergraduate degree in biology, Amherst College; PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology, Harvard University
Born in: New Delhi
Current home: Berkeley
Five things about Ambika Kamath
1. She flew a kite for the first time in July
2. She hosts open mike events for writers and musicians in her living room
3. Has been a dancer for more than 15 years
4. Is an organizer for the UC postdoc researchers union
5. Her favorite TV show is Jane the Virgin
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