Books & Literature

Book Review: Bitch, by Lucy Cooke

NON-FICTION: In our fiercely contested social, political and cultural landscape, Lucy Cooke looks to the animal kingdom to ask what it means to be female.

All the weird and wonderful courting and mating rituals happening across the animal kingdom, presented in an accessible, witty and humorous way.

Feature image credit to Penguin Books Australia

Lucy Cooke is an award-winning author, documentary filmmaker, and broadcaster. She was tutored by Richard Dawkins, the somewhat controversial evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, when studying zoology at Oxford University. Her previous books have also been bestsellers, with The Truth about Animals being translated into 18 languages and The Little Book of Sloth winning the Keystone State Reading Book Award in 2015.

This book sets out to debunk the common view that across most species, males are dominant and active while females are passive and “require to be courted” (page xii). Cooke notes Charles Darwin was on familiar ground with this view as it had been expressed since the days of Aristotle in the fourth century BC. Also, given the controversial nature of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin was unlikely to have further shocked Victorian England by highlighting the role of the female in sexual selection, although he was undoubtedly aware of it.

The table of contents will peak readers’ interest with chapters such as: The Monogamy Myth, Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover, Bitch Eat Bitch, and Sisters Are Doing For Themselves. Rather than being the rule, monogamy is the exception, with only 7% of animal species being monogamous. The cannibalistic female spider, which the author describes in gruesome detail, is clearly not among this small percentage, as the father’s body probably contributes to the wellbeing of the eggs which he may have managed to fertilise before he is killed and eaten. 

The author proposes multiple reasons for the scientific misinformation on the female of each species. In many fields of study, the female has been seen as somehow an imperfect or lesser version of the male, thus (apparently) justifying an emphasis on male subjects. The author cites research where results which challenged long-held yet ill-informed views were simply ignored as an anomaly. The dearth of women in scientific disciplines until the 20th century also contributed to the lack of focus on the females.

Cooke further argues the binary distinctions of male and female in terms of sex across the species is an outmoded concept. Take the barnacle, for example. It has the longest penis relative to its size in the animal kingdom, which is needed to search for females as it is attached to a rock and unable to move. Not to be defeated, if no females are within reach, the hermaphroditic barnacle can fertilise itself.

The information is detailed and presented in an accessible, witty, and humorous way. Although the scientific detail is, very occasionally, a little deep for me, skipping such areas will not detract from your enjoyment of the whole book. You will be amazed at the weird and wonderful courting and mating rituals happening across the animal kingdom. A great read.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: May 2022
RRP: $35

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