These researchers are reimagining animal behavior through a feminist lens

Ambika Kamath and Melina Packer are working to overturn biased, outdated views in biology

A photo of Ambika Kamath and Melina Packer standing next to each other.

Evolutionary biologist Ambika Kamath and social scientist Melina Packer of the University of Colorado Boulder are working to dismantle outdated, biased scientific ideas through research and a new curriculum.

Kayleigh McCollum

When Ambika Kamath was a graduate student in evolutionary biology at Harvard University, she knew one thing for sure: She wasn’t going to research anoles, the lizards that her adviser, Jonathan Losos, specialized in.

“I started out as one of those rebellious renegades,” Kamath says, determined to pursue her own research subject. So she went to India for a couple of years to study the poorly understood fan-throated lizards. But when she tried to map out their territories, she found chaos. “All of the lizards were moving everywhere,” she says.

Losos encouraged her to work with anoles after all, because it was well established that males hold individual territories that they protect from other males, and females only mate with the male whose territory they reside in. That would make it more straightforward for Kamath to study how anole territoriality differed across habitat types, like forests and parks.

So Kamath went to Florida, where she identified individual anoles and tracked their movements day in, day out. Kamath studied the anoles “in a larger area, in a longer period of time than anyone else had ever done,” says Losos, who is now at Washington University in St. Louis. But instead of revealing territorial differences, this massive dataset showed that the anoles weren’t actually territorial in the first place.

Kamath looked into the historical record to see where the idea of anole territoriality originated. It started with a 1933 paper that described frequent sexual behavior between male lizards in the lab. The authors had concluded that this lab behavior must be “prevented by something” in the wild, Kamath says, which they inferred was the males protecting territories. “The very first conclusion,” she says, “was based on a homophobic response to observing male-male copulation.” That shaky conclusion caught on, and later researchers assumed it to be true.

Introducing a feminist perspective

With this work, Kamath had entered the world of scholarship aimed at critically examining science, including interrogations of who is doing research and what biases and viewpoints they bring to their work. In particular, Kamath has adopted a feminist approach to science, which critically examines not only how women and gender minorities have been excluded from science, but also how sexist and gendered ideas have influenced the questions scientists ask and how they frame the results of their work — whether they know it or not.

Kamath began to explore how the fact that most of science has been done by white men has shaped our understanding of the world. It’s something biologist Zuleyma Tang-Martínez, widely recognized for her research challenging accepted scientific paradigms, noted three decades ago. In 1992, she wrote that incorporating diverse viewpoints and dismantling old ways of thinking can “give rise to a new science that is more humane, and that recognizes the perspectives of women and people of color as valuable.” Still, a lack of diverse viewpoints in science remains an issue today.

Kamath’s research led to a collaboration with another evolutionary biologist, Max Lambert. In 2019 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Kamath, Lambert and colleagues critiqued the dominant view of how same-sex sexual behavior evolved. Given how common same-sex behavior is in animals, the prevailing hypothesis that exclusive heterosexual behavior is the baseline from which same-sex behavior evolved doesn’t make sense, they proposed.

Instead, sexual behavior likely first evolved to be indiscriminate to all sexes. The focus on explaining how homosexual behavior evolved, Kamath says, is “driven by these heteronormative, if not homophobic, assumptions that are baked into the science.” If we remove those assumptions, she adds, “we’re going to actually reveal a lot more about biology.”

Science is shaped by human bias

Kamath continues to challenge biological ideas that are rooted in human bias, now at her own lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her group focuses on understanding how animals interact with each other and their environments and what drives those interactions, while also examining how human identities and biases shape our perceptions of animal behavior. This concept is reflected in her lab’s name: the Feminist Lenses for Animal Interaction Research, or FLAIR, Lab.

“Feminist critiques of science have been going on for decades,” says social scientist Melina Packer, who works in the FLAIR lab. The question is why, given that history, so few scientists are ever exposed to social studies that look at science as a human endeavor, complete with human biases. Packer and Kamath are working to change this lack of exposure.

Kamath and Packer first met at the University of California, Berkeley, where Kamath was a postdoc and Packer was a graduate student, in a working group focused on exploring biology through queer and feminist frameworks. While there, Packer teamed up with Lambert, also a member of the working group, to critique the gendered terminology — and thinking — that dominated environmental toxicology, such as the terms “feminize” and “demasculinize” to describe sex-switching in frogs.

Research since the 1990s had focused on chemicals that scientists feared caused frogs to unnaturally switch sex, but Packer and Lambert found that this worry was overblown. In fact, frogs switch sex all the time, for all sorts of reasons, and sex changes don’t result in population declines.

As with Kamath’s experience with the anole territories, Packer says, “if you go into an experiment assuming that chemicals are causing sex changes, then you’re going to find it.” What seems unnatural to humans is perfectly normal in frogs. And the emphasis on sex-switching as an outcome of pollutant exposure takes away from studying other impacts that may be more important, Lambert says, like the growth of liver tumors.

A photo of a brown anole lizard sitting on a tree branch.
After tracking the movements of brown anole lizards (Anolis sagrei), Ambika Kamath discovered that what scientists thought they knew about the lizards’ territoriality was based on bias not evidence.Mary Keim/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Developing a new curriculum

In the FLAIR Lab, Kamath and Packer are working to perfect a new course in animal behavior that is critical and cross-disciplinary. The course presents radically new ways of thinking about animal behavior, sometimes by first teaching — and then unteaching — dominant paradigms.

For example, Kamath will teach students about Bateman’s principle, which is the idea first presented in 1948 that male animals should be expected to pursue as many mates as possible while female animals should not, because males produce millions of sperm while females produce comparatively few eggs. Tang-Martínez calls this the biological myth of promiscuous males and sexually coy females. Kamath will then present critiques of the idea, such as modern researchers’ inability to replicate Bateman’s findings, as well as “theoretical weirdnesses” with how the idea has been used in the decades since it was introduced.

When Kamath teaches the class, some of the students are “baffled” by the feminist critiques of science they encounter in the course curriculum, Kamath says, but she realized that “if we want this more expansive view of doing biology to take root, we’re going to have to face that friction.” She and Packer are also writing a book that builds feminist frameworks for understanding animal behavior, meant for a general audience.

Lambert, now a biologist at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, credits Packer and Kamath with showing him how taking a broader perspective on biology, including interrogating the influence of forces like capitalism and sexism, can lead to more interesting research questions.

Losos says he and Kamath have many differing views, but that’s never gotten in the way of their work. “She has certainly opened my eyes to things that I really never used to think about,” he says.” Kamath created an entirely new statistical framework to quantify how much a lizard’s movements overlapped in time and space with other lizards, which ultimately helped reveal that the anoles she studied aren’t territorial after all. “It was brilliant,” Losos says.

Kamath and Packer are both early-career scientists; redesigning a curriculum and writing popular science books aren’t typical activities among their peers.  “I think that’s particularly brave at this career stage,” Lambert says, “to be planting your flag on what you care most about.” And Kamath is still figuring out how to frame her lab’s research on lizard ecology and behavior into a critical, feminist perspective. “I’m not sure that we as a field are there yet,” she says. “The hope was that in the writing of this book, clarity would emerge as to what the next empirical steps would be.”

Both Kamath and Packer recognize the challenges in the work they’re doing, but they also recognize the stakes. Given the recent flurry of homophobic and anti-trans legislation, says Packer, “it doesn’t help if scientists are reinforcing those same kinds of assumptions,” even unintentionally. Papers that challenge dominate scientific paradigms often struggle to be published, Kamath says. “How much biological discovery are we missing out on?” she asks. “If you have the ability to start changing the conversation, even within scientific communities, it’s an important part of the process.”

More Stories from Science News on Animals