Have you heard the one about Neotrogla? Neotrogla is an interesting cave insect discovered Brazil; instead of being blind or transparent or having other neat cave-specific adaptations, Neotrogla mixes things up with sex. In specific, Neotrogla females have a penis, while the males have an internal cavity that receives the penis. A great summary of the science can be found at Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of not-great science communication attempts out there with Neotrogla, and Annalee Newitz took aim at them over at io9. Unfortunately, Newitz got it wrong, too.
In particular, the issue with Newitz’s piece is it’s also conflating issues, mixing human gender-related issues with the more technical biology and anatomy of sex. She says
almost every news outlet covered the story by describing the insects as “females with penises.” This isn’t just painfully wrong ”” it’s bad for science.
and then goes on to support her assertion that this isn’t a penis, but a new structure (citing the also-incorrect Jason Goldman’s post for io9 on Neotrogla).
Newitz asks if we’ve ever heard of a penis inflating, or having barbs, or of marathon mating sessions, and the answer to all of those things is yes. A penis can have barbs and spines (cats), inflate (dogs), and mating can happen for a period of time humans consider long (moths). But as Professor Diane Kelly notes, a penis is, technically/biologically, an appendage that transfers reproductive material between mating creatures—which is why octopus have them, even if they’re weird little hentai-inspiring arm things. So yes, Neotrogla has a penis.
That said, Newitz is absolutely right that there has a lot of offensive coverage on the topic, and that? That should be called out. I saw the play on “chicks with dicks” she refers to, I saw “gender-bending insects!”, I saw articles referring to “the tranny bug” and other charmingly awful things. (Note: after thought, I decided not to link to any of the offensive articles. They don’t deserve the clicks. If you want to see them, Newitz had a good running list in her io9 post.) That sort of writing needs to be called out for what it is: offensive and wrong. The lazy writing that, as a whole, the science communication community should be ashamed of, is conflating issues of biological sex and gender for crude humour that requires the butt of a joke to be someone whose gender and biological sex don’t “match,” and we as a community should be better than “Crying Game cave insect” jokes.
But the thing is, naming and shaming those who want to use transgender, intersex, and other issues of identity and biological non-conformity is separate from an actual discussion of the biological structure of Neotrogla. Ultimately, noting that there is a female insect with a penis does do exactly what Newitz wants: emphasizes the awe-inspiring diversity of science. Because Neotrogla‘s female is female—she just happens to have a penis, too. Which means that how people want to define gender (as the rigid representation of biological structure, ie “men have penises, women do not”) is continuing to crumble. And that? That’s a good thing.