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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.

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