Glen Traver/National Geographic My Shot
Glen Traver/National Geographic My Shot

Ducks Meet the Culture Wars

A few days ago, CNS News (“The right news. Right now.”) discovered that the National Science Foundation has been funding a study on the evolution of waterfowl genitalia.

When someone brought this item to my attention, I was puzzled. After all, this is not breaking news. I should know–I wrote about it for the New York Times almost six years ago.

This old news now seems to have gotten fresh currency thanks to the fact that some of the research was funded through the 2009 American Recover and Reinvestment Act, a k a the Stimulus Package. And so, CNS News believes, you can draw a direct line from the funds that went to this research on birds to the new cuts in government services due to the sequester.

I kid you not. See this tweet from CNS News:

Please RT –> Gov spends $384K to study duck genitalia, cancels White House tours #sequester ow.ly/jfgKa

— CNSNews.com (@cnsnews) March 20, 2013

This “news” then got picked up by other outlets, such as Human Eventssuch as Human Events (“Powerful conservative voices”). Politifact, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning political fact-checking site, even got into the act–confirming that, yes, the government supports research on duck sex.

Commenters on these posts left remarks like “PLS SHOOT ME NOW AS I CAN TAKE NO MORE OF OBAMA AND HIS SPENDING.” (Of course, I wrote my article back in the Bush years, but, hey, who needs to get bogged down in reality?)

This is a tried-and-true tactic that politicians have trotted out for years–long before the sequester. Back in 2008, I wrote about how then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin sneered at spending that “goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good–things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” In 2011, Republican Senator Tom Coburn groused about all the money NSF wasted on things like studying shrimp.

Now, I will not get into a debate about precisely how much money should go to the National Science Foundation versus, say, subsidies for oil companies. I just want to address the question of why we fund basic research in the first place.

Scientists use the word “basic” to distinguish scientific research that’s not directed at some specific practical problem. Developing a vaccine for the latest strain of the flu is applied research. Learning how the body generates antibodies to flu viruses is basic research. Basic research can lead to applications, but we don’t know in advance what particular studies will or won’t do so. That’s because we have much left to understand about how the world works.

For some reason, people like Palin and Coburn are fond of animals when they’re looking for something to make fun of. Understanding the basics of how animals work seems to them like a joke. This just speaks to a misunderstanding of the research.

Animals affect us directly in lots of ways. We eat them, they eat our food (think about insect chewing up wheat), they harbor diseases, and they produce interesting compounds that may lead to useful drugs. Scientists do a lot of applied research on animals to address these issues, and they also do basic research, which sometimes leads to applications. If you actually take a look at the animal research Palin was mocking, she could not have picked a worse example to make her point. The research she singled out involved looking for parasitic wasps that can kill a fly that is devastating California’s olive orchards. The wasps live in France. That, to Palin, is devastating.

Studying animal biology is not just important for our own direct well-being. It’s also important if we want to be good stewards of the environment. To write my story about ducks, I went to the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy in Litchfield, Connecticut, where some of the research is taking place. Obviously, if you want to bring back these birds with captive breeding, the birds have to breed. And if you don’t understand the equipment they use for breeding, then you’re doomed. Sniggering about duck penises won’t change that.

Studying animals is also a way for us to look in the evolutionary mirror. We share a common ancestor with other animals, and the same kinds of evolutionary processes play out in both us and them. Now, you may wonder what ducks–with gigantic cork-screw-shaped penises and a gigantic cork-screw-shaped reproductive tracts–could possibly have to do with us. The manifestation of sex evolution may be different in different species. But the process is similar.

As in many other species, the evolution of ducks has been driven in part by something call sexual conflict. There’s a conflict between males and females: the best reproductive strategy for a male duck is not the same as the one for a female. Females will have the most duckling if they can choose the best males to father their offspring. Males, on the other hand, try to mate with as many females as possible. This sexual conflict leads to an extravagant arms race, which has produced their extravagant sexual organs. (In addition to my story for the Times, I’ve blogged about this research at the Loom, and Ed Yong has also written about it at his blog.)

Ducks are not alone. In various animals, sexual conflict takes many forms. Male flies, for example, will dose their mates with toxic chemicals to ensure that their sperm fertilize the female’s eggs and not the sperm of other males. The fact that they cut the lifespan of their mates short is irrelevant to their reproductive success.

And guess what? Human biology is shaped by sexual conflict too. Men’s sperm and seminal fluid show signs of having evolved through competition with the sperm of other males. (The journal Reproduction–dedicated to research on fertility–recently published a review about sperm competition in humans and other animals.)

Sexual conflict may also explain some of the disorders of pregnancy. Take preeclampsia, a mysterious condition in which pregnant women develop dangerously high blood pressure–so high that they risk death.

Some scientists have argued that the same sexual conflict that is manifest in other animals is the cause of preeclampsia. Male genes drive mothers to provide extra resources to babies, the argument goes, while female genes hold the flow of nutrients in check. Think of it as a tug of war that normally ends up as a stalemate–but every now and then gets out of control. If the placenta drives too much blood towards the baby, it can lead the mother to suffer high blood pressure.

A team of Danish scientists tested out this idea by reviewing 750,000 medical records of pregnancies and found that the data support this hypothesis. “Natural selection may be responsible for the maintenance of these disorders in modern humans,” they conclude in a paper they published last month.

These insights into sexual conflict’s effects on humans may  prove important to our own health. They may guide us to new ways to treat preeclampsia and infertility. But these insights have arrived late in the study of sexual conflict. Other scientists first explored sexual conflict in many other species–species including ducks. That’s just how science works, no matter what culture warriors may claim.