Depending on your perspective, a beehive can seem like a feminist utopia. The average hive consists of tens of thousands of female workers, led by a queen, and they endure the presence of male drones only when necessary. When it's time for reproduction, a young queen will undertake a “mating flight,” collecting and storing the sperm of male bees, which she will use to lay eggs for the rest of her life. Males die after mating.
But for thousands of years, western scientists got many aspects of bee biology totally wrong. Hives were said to be led by kings instead of queens, and although queen bees were observed laying eggs, people thought that you could spontaneously generate bees by, say, killing an ox and hanging it in a locked chamber for 45 days.
Why all the confusion? In an enlightening thread on Twitter, Joe Ballenger, who co-runs the account “Ask an Entomologist,” makes a good case that scientists were blinded by their biases. They just didn't believe that a woman could be in charge of things. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote extensively about how women were inferior and subject to men, was adamant that kings ran the hive.
This view didn't shift until the turn of the 17th century, when an English researcher named Charls Butler (yes, he spelled his name without an “e”) published “Feminine Monarchie,” which popularized the view that hives are indeed run by queens. Guess what else was happening at the turn of the 17th century? England had experienced almost 50 highly successful years with a female monarch — Queen Elizabeth I. In Ballenger's view, that's not entirely coincidence.
Ballenger's Twitter thread (which is much more extensive than this summary, and worth reading in its entirety) blew my mind, so I reached out to the “Ask an Entomologist” team to learn more. Joanie Mars, who is an entomology PhD student at Texas A&M, told me they wanted to tell this story to illustrate how science is influenced by its social context.
“There’s always reasons for how we perceive things we find in our research,” she said. “Scientists are people. So you really have to consider people and where they're coming from. At the end of the day, science is a process and not a product.”
Scientists might strive to be objective, but it's hard for them to avoid interpreting data through the lens of their own experience. Misconceptions about bee biology are hardly the only example.
Consider Tycho Brahe, a 16th century Danish astronomer celebrated for the stunning accuracy of his astronomical observations. Brahe saw the universe more clearly than almost anyone before him, and was so committed to the scientific process he has been described as “the first competent mind in modern astronomy to feel ardently the passion for exact empirical facts.” And yet, when confronted with data suggesting that Earth could not be at the center of the solar system, Brahe balked. He was committed the teachings of the Catholic Church, which held that the heavens were made of light, swirling “aether,” the Earth was dense and motionless, and humankind was at the center of everything. For years, Brahe's brilliant mind was preoccupied with trying to craft a model of the universe that matched his beliefs — rather than reshaping his beliefs to fit with the evidence in front of him.
This isn't just a problem of the past. In a paper published last fall, University of Zurich biologist Hanna Kokko examined how the mere fact of being human can hinder scientists trying to study other species. For example, researchers tend to prioritize creatures that are more like us, a phenomenon called “taxonomic chauvinism.” We have trouble understanding evolutionary strategies, like inbreeding or parasitism, that differ wildly from our own. And we tend to view our way of doing things as normal, and other traits — say, hermaphroditism — as aberrant, even though we may in fact be the outliers. (Indeed, hermaphroditism is thought to occur in about 1/3 of non-insect species.)
The takeaway: scientists are not objective, body-less intellects, unaffected by their social context and human skin. This is a constraint, but it doesn't have to be a problem, if we're aware of it. “The good news is that both diversity appreciation and critical thinking can be learned,” Kokko wrote.
If all else fails, we have one last option, she concluded: “I also finally realized what I would ask an alien, should I ever encounter one: can I possibly see your most recent textbook on evolution?”
Correction: An initial version of this post misstated the number of drones a queen bee will mate with. She typically mates with between one and 40 drones, not hundreds.