One of my passions is studying multispecies entanglements. As an anthropologist, the ways in which human activities affect the lives of other living organisms are of central interest but the ontological relationships of other organisms goes deep.
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my partner (who is a gender scholar) and we were talking about the nature of ‘penis’. We came to the conclusion that the function of the penis is to deliver small gametes to large gametes. This is in-line with Neotrogla curvata, a species of barklouse in which the females use a gynosome to retrieve sperm from the males (see pictures below), which goes against our normal intuition of a penis being strictly ‘male’ (not even to mention the weird notion of ‘penis’ as masculine).
Because of the research questions I am currently thinking about, it inspired me to think about even more abstract notions of a penis.
Bear with me here!
We are avid gardeners and are very excited to have our front yard currently beset by yellow as daffodils are in bloom. Among our other flowers, we love Salvia because they attract hummingbirds. Hummingbirds (along with bees and butterflies) are common occurrences in our yards and play such important roles in plant pollination, the fertilization of plant ovum by pollen.
Flowers have small gametes (sperm/pollen) and large gametes (ovum) and the pollen has to find a way to ovum of other individuals. This is done a couple of ways. First is by wind: if you have pollen allergies, you can thank this method of reproduction. The other is by using pollinators and this is what is of interest here.
For many flowering plants, reproduction requires a third party, an organism to carry pollen from one plant to another, thus delivering the small gametes to the large gametes. This is very interesting because, in a way, one of the reproductive organs of a flower is on the face of another organism; an organism of a totally different Kingdom (Plantae and Animalia). Without the co-evolution of plants and their pollinators, neither would exist in the way that they do today. Organisms exist in a dialectical relationship with other organisms, and the world in which they occupy and this extends all the way to cross-bodied organs.
Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and many other organisms have been co-opted by plants as their genitals, specifically, their penises: the means of delivering small gametes to large gametes facilitating fertilization and thus reproduction.
And this makes hummingbirds nature’s dickheads (I say so endearingly). Their faces, along with the bodies of butterflies and bees become something qualitatively different in the context of their feeding and plant reproduction. By association, organisms become something new: evolutionarily, behaviorally, reproductively…
To me, this is amazing!
(Yoshizawa, K., Ferreira, R. L., Kamimura, Y., & Lienhard, C. (2014). Female penis, male vagina, and their correlated evolution in a cave insect. Current Biology, 24(9), 1006-1010.)