Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

ducksex1.jpg

Duck sex is an important scholarly endeavor. (Photo: Richard Bartz/Wikimedia Commons)

In Defense of Studying the Duck Penis

• March 05, 2014 • 10:18 AM

Duck sex is an important scholarly endeavor. (Photo: Richard Bartz/Wikimedia Commons)

Duck penis expert Patricia Brennan offers a catalog of all the amazing things that would not exist without the pursuit of “oddball” biological research.

Joyless right-wing politicians and gormless oafs at Breitbart.com, Fox News, et al. enjoy assailing scientific research as government waste, especially if the topic of inquiry is anything remotely outlandish (it’s a refrain best read in a Southern drawl: “what, pray you, is this ‘evolution’?”). If not directly tailored to benefit the public interest, they argue, defund at all costs.

This assault has already led to a short-lived ban on National Science Foundation funding for political science work not expressly devoted to “national security” and “economic interests.” But hard sciences, too, are suffering from criticism and cutbacks.

“The problem with this view is that it assumes that human innovation arises in a logical fashion from planned research. History says otherwise: Innovations often arise from unlikely sources.”

In a new opinion paper in BioScience, duck penis expert and University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher Patricia Brennan and a few of her colleagues offer a bold defense of pursuing “oddball” science on the esoteric matters that so revile critics. Exploration of “duck penises, shrimp running on a treadmill, robotic squirrels, and snail sex” may serve as easy targets for “frivolous” attacks, but their results are often crucial, they argue.

Brennan’s own research has not been immune to criticism; she once fended off conservative detractors in a viral riposte for Slate about why duck genitalia matters. It prompted a dimwitted retort from the titans of patriotism over at Breitbart.com. “Of course the government should fund the study of ducks’ genitalia rather that [sic] allow tours of the White House,” it read in part. “Instead of being inspired by the history of their country’s leaders, our children can extrapolate from the female ducks’ successful resistance to the males exactly how much males of any species are worth.” It’s difficult to parse drivel.

Besides the fact that duck sex is incidentally intriguing (males are equipped with incredibly long “counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas and blind pockets that prevent full eversion of the male penis,” Brennan wrote in Slate), the findings have bettered “the understanding of the developmental cascade that results in hypospadias, a common penis malformation in humans,” the researchers note. 

Discrediting science on the basis of limited human-application fundamentally misunderstands civilization. “The problem with this view is that it assumes that human innovation arises in a logical fashion from planned research. History says otherwise: Innovations often arise from unlikely sources,” the researchers write.

The paper catalogs some of the human innovations in technology and medicine that root from what, on their face, seem only applicable to basic evolutionary biology. This sample shows how myopic the opposing arguments truly are:

  • “personal armor based on the structural properties of mantis shrimp appendages”
  • “invisibility technology based on studies of structural color in insects”
  • An “adhesive pad that can hold up to 700 pounds” comes from studies of “gecko toepads.”
  • An important enzyme used “to make in vitro DNA replication more efficient … was discovered in a study on the distribution of photosynthetic organisms along a thermal gradient in Yellowstone National  Park.”
  • “a promising new diabetes drug (exenatide) was based on studies of the composition of Gila monster venom.”

Preach, duck penis professor, preach.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.