Researchers Challenge Traditional Views of Animal Behavior through a Feminist Lens

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Ambika Kamath, a graduate student in evolutionary biology at Harvard University, is leading a movement to reimagine animal behavior through a feminist perspective. Despite initially wanting to pursue her own research subject, Kamath eventually found herself studying anoles, a species of lizards.

Her groundbreaking work challenges long-held assumptions about anole territoriality and reveals the influence of biases in scientific research.

Kamath’s interest in anoles stemmed from the well-established belief that males maintain individual territories and that females only mate with the males in their respective territories.

Researchers Challenge Traditional Views of Animal Behavior through a Feminist Lens

This concept seemed to provide a straightforward framework for studying territorial behavior across different habitat types. However, after conducting extensive fieldwork in Florida, Kamath’s findings contradicted this established understanding.

Analyzing a vast dataset that tracked the movements of individual anoles over an extended period, Kamath discovered that anoles were not territorial as previously assumed. Intrigued by this revelation, she delved into the historical origins of the idea of anole territoriality.

It traced back to a 1933 study that reported frequent sexual behavior between male lizards in a laboratory setting. The authors concluded that this behavior must be prevented in the wild, suggesting the existence of territories.

Kamath asserts that this initial conclusion was rooted in a homophobic response to observing male-male copulation, and subsequent researchers perpetuated this assumption without questioning its validity.

Kamath’s research aligns with a broader movement in scholarship that critically examines science and its inherent biases.

By adopting a feminist approach to science, Kamath challenges not only the exclusion of women and gender minorities from scientific research but also the impact of sexist and gendered ideas on scientific inquiry.

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Her work aims to broaden our understanding of biology by dismantling traditional viewpoints and uncovering the influence of human biases in shaping scientific knowledge.

Collaborating with other scientists, Kamath has published critiques of prevailing theories on the evolution of same-sex sexual behavior in animals. These theories often operate under heteronormative and homophobic assumptions that constrain our understanding of the natural world.

By questioning these assumptions and incorporating diverse perspectives, Kamath and her colleagues believe that a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of biology can emerge.

Kamath has established her own lab, known as the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research (FLAIR) Lab, at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Together with social scientist Melina Packer, Kamath is developing a new curriculum that challenges traditional paradigms and offers a critical and cross-disciplinary approach to studying animal behavior.

By unlearning dominant theories and examining the impact of biases, they hope to cultivate a more inclusive and humane science.

Although Kamath’s and Packer’s endeavors face challenges, such as resistance within scientific communities and the difficulty of publishing papers that challenge established paradigms, they remain committed to fostering a change in scientific conversations.

They emphasize the importance of acknowledging and dismantling biases to uncover untapped biological discoveries. Through their work, they seek to create a more inclusive scientific landscape that challenges assumptions, values diverse perspectives, and drives the advancement of knowledge.

Introducing a feminist perspective

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In a groundbreaking endeavor, evolutionary biologist Ambika Kamath has embarked on a scholarly journey to challenge conventional understandings of animal behavior through a feminist perspective.

Kamath’s research not only addresses the exclusion of women and gender minorities in science but also scrutinizes the influence of sexist and gendered ideas on scientific inquiry.

Kamath’s exploration of the subject began with an examination of how the dominance of white male researchers has shaped our current knowledge of the world.

This critical evaluation, previously noted by biologist Zuleyma Tang-Martínez, highlights the need for diverse viewpoints and a dismantling of traditional thinking to create a more humane and inclusive science. Despite this recognition, the lack of diversity in scientific perspectives remains an ongoing issue.

Driven by her feminist approach, Kamath collaborated with evolutionary biologist Max Lambert to challenge the prevailing view on the evolution of same-sex sexual behavior.

In a 2019 article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Kamath, Lambert, and their colleagues contested the hypothesis that exclusive heterosexual behavior serves as the baseline from which same-sex behavior emerges. Given the prevalence of same-sex behavior in the animal kingdom, this hypothesis seemed inadequate.

Instead, they proposed that sexual behavior likely originated as indiscriminate to all sexes. Kamath points out that the focus on explaining how homosexual behavior evolved is often influenced by heteronormative and, at times, homophobic assumptions embedded within scientific research.

By questioning these assumptions, she believes that biology can be further illuminated.

Continuing her mission to challenge biases, Kamath now heads her own lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, named the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research (FLAIR) Lab.

The lab’s primary focus lies in comprehending how animals interact with each other and their surroundings, while also investigating how human identities and biases shape our interpretations of animal behavior.

Science is shaped by human bias

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Through her pioneering work, Kamath aims to foster a more inclusive scientific landscape that promotes diverse perspectives and encourages the dismantling of biases.

By unveiling the influence of human bias on scientific knowledge, Kamath and her colleagues strive to advance our understanding of biology and enrich our appreciation of the natural world.

FLAIR Lab Researchers Challenge Gendered Terminology and Assumptions in Environmental Toxicology

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Social scientist Melina Packer, affiliated with the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research (FLAIR) Lab, emphasizes that feminist critiques of science have a long-standing history.

However, the question arises as to why so few scientists are exposed to social studies that investigate science as a human endeavor, complete with inherent biases. Packer and evolutionary biologist Ambika Kamath are actively working to address this knowledge gap.

Their collaboration began during their time at the University of California, Berkeley, where Kamath served as a postdoctoral researcher and Packer pursued her graduate studies. They participated in a working group that focused on exploring biology through queer and feminist frameworks.

Within this context, Packer and fellow group member Max Lambert embarked on a critique of the gendered terminology prevalent in environmental toxicology, particularly the terms “feminize” and “demasculinize” used to describe sex-switching in frogs.

Previous research from the 1990s had placed significant emphasis on chemicals that were believed to induce unnatural sex changes in frogs. However, Packer and Lambert found that the concern surrounding sex-switching was exaggerated.

In reality, frogs naturally undergo sex changes for various reasons, and such changes do not lead to population declines.

Packer asserts that the preconceived notion that chemicals cause sex changes influences the outcome of experiments. When researchers approach an experiment with this assumption, they tend to find evidence to support it. Yet, what may appear unnatural to humans is entirely normal behavior among frogs.

Moreover, Lambert stresses that the excessive focus on sex-switching as a consequence of pollutant exposure diverts attention from other potentially more significant impacts, such as the development of liver tumors.

By challenging gendered terminology and assumptions in environmental toxicology, Packer, Kamath, and Lambert are urging scientists to adopt a broader perspective that considers the complexities of nature and the influence of human biases.

Through their work, they aim to foster a more comprehensive understanding of science as a human endeavor, thereby enhancing the scientific community’s ability to address pressing environmental issues.

Scientists Challenge Dominant Paradigms and Advocate for Feminist Perspectives

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In their pursuit to revolutionize the study of animal behavior, researchers Ambika Kamath and Melina Packer from the FLAIR Lab are developing a new cross-disciplinary course that encourages critical thinking.

This innovative curriculum aims to introduce students to alternative viewpoints and challenge established paradigms in the field.

One example of this approach is the examination of Bateman’s principle, a concept introduced in 1948, which suggests that males should seek multiple mates while females should be sexually reserved due to differences in sperm and egg production.

Kamath plans to present the principle to her students and then introduce critiques that question its validity, such as the inability to replicate Bateman’s findings and the theoretical limitations associated with its application over the decades.

Kamath acknowledges that feminist critiques of science can initially leave students “baffled,” but she believes that addressing this friction is necessary to foster a more comprehensive understanding of biology.

Alongside Packer, she is also working on a book that provides feminist frameworks for comprehending animal behavior, intended for a general audience.

Biologist Max Lambert, currently affiliated with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, credits Packer and Kamath with expanding his perspective on biology by considering broader influences such as capitalism and sexism, leading to more intriguing research questions.

Jonathan Losos, Kamath’s former adviser, acknowledges their differing views but emphasizes that it has never hindered their collaboration.

He praises Kamath for developing a novel statistical framework to analyze lizard movements, which ultimately challenged the conventional notion of territorial behavior in anoles. Losos describes her work as “brilliant.”

Redesigning a curriculum and writing popular science books are atypical endeavors for early-career scientists like Kamath and Packer. Lambert commends their bravery in taking a stand for what they believe in at this stage of their careers.

Kamath acknowledges the ongoing challenge of framing her lab’s research within a critical, feminist perspective, expressing hope that writing the book will bring clarity to the next empirical steps.

Both Kamath and Packer are aware of the challenges they face but also recognize the importance of their work. With recent waves of homophobic and anti-trans legislation, Packer highlights the need for scientists to avoid unintentionally reinforcing discriminatory assumptions.

Kamath points out that papers challenging dominant scientific paradigms often struggle to be published, raising the question of how much biological discovery is being missed. They believe that changing the conversation, even within scientific communities, is a vital part of the process.

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