On Wednesday, Vox published an article entitled "How a Pseudopenis-packing Hyena Smashes the Patriarchy’s Assumptions: Lessons from Female Spotted Hyenas for the #MeToo Era." The piece, by Katherine J. Wu, a graduate student in microbiology and immunobiology, broadly explores how the spotted hyena could be used as a model for humankind. The bottom line: Humans get it wrong; hyenas get it right.
"Unlike most other mammals," Wu writes, "spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) live in matriarchal societies led by alpha females. In these clans throughout sub-Saharan Africa, females do the majority of the hunting, dictate the social structure, and raise cubs as single mothers. Even the highest-ranking male in the group is subservient to the most junior female. Accordingly, male spotted hyenas have evolved to be comparatively diminutive, weighing about 12 percent less than females—a feature uncommon even among matrilines."
Sounds great. Unfortunately, it's not exactly true, according to Oliver Höner, a research scientist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife and the co-founder of the Spotted Hyena Project, a research project based in Tanzania.
A tweet by the Hyena Project was featured in Wu's article (much to Höner's chagrin), and when I saw him getting salty about Wu's work on Twitter, I reached out to ask what she got wrong. There was plenty in that paragraph alone. Höner says:
1. "Even the highest-ranking male in the group is subservient to the most junior female." This statement is wrong because both sons and daughters obtain the social rank just below their mother. As an example, the son of an alpha female will be ranked just below his mother, and above ALL other females (and males) of the clan.
2. "Females do the majority of the hunting, dictate the social structure...." Immigrant males are ranked below all native clan members and have to do most of the hunting to get enough food to survive. Females do not dictate the social structure: It is influenced equally by females and males.
3. "Male spotted hyenas have evolved to be comparatively diminutive." A recent scientific study on a large number of hyenas has shown that sexual size dimorphism is very small and only evident in some morphological traits and absent in others.
There's more. Later, Wu writes, "Cubs of this species are born into a competitive world, immediately tussling for dominance. Siblicide is common, and sisters typically beat out brothers. If they are lucky enough to blossom into adolescence, male hyenas must leave their childhood clan. They wander the savannah alone until they assimilate into a new group by seeking the favor of its queen."
Not according to Höner. "Siblicide is in fact very rare," he says, "even in the ecosystem where it occurs most frequently. And there are ecosystems in which siblicide has never been observed (because prey abundance is high and mothers can go back to nurse their cubs every day)." What's more, he adds, "male hyenas do not have to leave their childhood clans but decide freely whether to stay or leave and, if they leave, where they go. In our study area, approximately 15 percent of males stay in their natal clan and reproduce there. Males that are about to become reproductively active do not 'wander the savannah alone' but keep doing short excursions into the territories of neighboring clans until they decide where they want to stay. They also do not assimilate into a new group by seeking the favor of the queen but by building up relationships with the other immigrant males and all native clan members."
Then, Wu writes, "Spotted hyenas are fiercely loyal to their packs, cooperating in everything from child care to distributing shares of food."
Yeah, no. "Spotted hyena females do not cooperate in rearing their cubs but only suckle their own cubs. Adoptions are very rare and seem to be the result of confusion rather than intended cooperation," Höner says. "They also do not cooperate in the strict sense when hunting and they certainly do not distribute shares of food (except with their own cubs)."
Wu gets into mating practices as well, writing that "male stalking, harassment, and aggression toward females are taboo. These tactics simply don’t work. If a guy wants to woo a girl, he waits patiently and earns her respect through deference and altruism—because he knows he is not entitled to her affection or anatomy simply by virtue of being male. When it comes to hyena sex, it’s the considerate guys who get the ladies. Human males, take note."
While not stalking, harassing, or assaulting potential mates does seem like pretty sound advice, this is the part of Wu's piece that seems the most faulty, at least to me. There is no evidence that hyenas are aware of male privilege and she's projecting human emotions onto non-human animals. Besides, Höner says, she's wrong. "Males actually regularly team up to harass single females," he says. "We even have a specific term for this: 'baiting.' During these baitings, males may even bite and severely injure a female." Human males, maybe don't take note.
While looking at other animal species for inspiration on how our own species can better organize our society may be a fun thought experiment, the fundamental flaw of this piece is its blatant anthropomorphism. In one section, when describing the female hyena's "pseudopenis" (a phallic sex organ that resembles a penis so much that males and females can be hard to distinguish) Wu writes that "there’s one aspect of the spotted hyena matriarchy that appears alarmingly misogynistic at first glance. Look between a lady hyena’s back legs (with her permission, of course), and you’ll find a thick, phallic structure complete with a false scrotum and testes." This is just silly. The pseudopenis is essentially an enlarged clitoris and it's the organ through which female hyenas mate, urinate, and even give birth. It's not "alarmingly misogynistic" at any glace; it's not even human.
Wu also claims that the pseudopenis is "a built-in anti-rape defense." While this may be true, the science on this question is hardly settled. "The debate about which selective force made females develop a pseudopenis that so closely resembles a male hyena penis—or whether it is a byproduct of the evolution of another trait—is still ongoing," Höner, says. "But it most likely does make it difficult for males to mate, and this makes it simpler for females to exercise mate choice. Thus, the fact that it helps prevent rape may have contributed in that it was not selected against."
The idea that hyenas are "matriarchal" in the first place simplifies a complex hierarchical structure into something that sounds good if you're making an argument, but doesn't reflect the most up-to-date research, as Beth Windle, a natural history illustrator who works with the Hyena Project, pointed out in a blog post about the myth of the hyena queen.
"Personally, it was the idealized view of the female spotted hyena that shocked me the most [about Wu's article]," Windle told me. "We know that 'hyena matriarchy' theories are very popular, despite being factually wrong and outdated. It made me realize that the reason why this theory may be popular is due to the human-related issues and politics. I can understand to some extent, in using animals as a form of inspiration and symbolism, that's a very 'human' way to view the natural world. But what I don't understand is bending scientific fact (even if it may seem positive) to be a form of empowerment to a human. When we have many humans that fight and have fought very hard for equality, I think they rightly deserve to be an inspiration of human empowerment and not hyenas."