Multicellularity, male privilege and also I need $10 million.

I watched the vid of my colleagues here at FtB, Matt Herron of Fierce Roller and PZ Myers of Tentacly Overlord infamy, discussing some very cool science-y stuff about the evolution of multicellularity. One of the most interesting takeaways for me is that it had long been thought that evolving multicellularity would be an exceedingly rare and difficult jump to make. But it has been discovered, only in the last five to ten years, that this is actually relatively easy and common:

Matt (@3:51): I think there’s been sort of a natural assumption that it has to be difficult. And maybe it is difficult to evolve a complex multicellular organism, with lots and lots of cell types and tissues and maybe even organs, because that hasn’t happened very many times. But Rick Grossberg has a paper where he argues basically what we’ve found, which is that at least the initial steps towards a multicellular lifestyle really aren’t that difficult. It’s happened lots of times that we know of, at least a couple of dozen times, and probably more because in a lot of cases these things don’t leave any fossil record. It is surprising, compared to what people thought five or ten years ago, that multicellularity evolves so easily, but now we’ve seen it in several of these experiments. And in a lot of cases it happens within just a few hundred generations.

OMG cool, right?

Then they touch on the intersection of philosophy and biology, and specifically the question of what exactly constitutes an individual organism, as opposed to, say, a colony of creatures that appear to function as one. I don’t know about you, but this kind of stuff really gets my beanie spinning. I am reminded of my unfortunate encounter with a species known as Physalia physalis, a.k.a. the “floating terror,” a.k.a. the Atlantic Portuguese man o’ war, which I would henceforth (and forevermore) refer to as a “sea squirrel.” Despite its similarity in appearance to the common jellyfish—an individual multicellular organism that will also sting the everloving shit out of you if given a chance—it turns out that the Sea Squirrel™ is actually something very different:

[T]he Portuguese man o’ war is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore, which, unlike jellyfish, is not actually a single multicellular organism, but a colonial organism made up of specialized individual animals called zooids or polyps. These polyps are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they are unable to survive independently, and therefore have to work together and function like a so-called individual animal.

Mind: blown.

These weird little fuckers are carnivorous, wielding their wickedly venomous tentacles to paralyze prey (e.g. small fish), and to inflict upon barefoot beachwalkers excruciating pain even after they are long dead (the sea squirrels, not the beachwalkers).

Detached tentacles and dead specimens (including those that wash up on shore) can sting just as painfully as the live organism in the water and may remain potent for hours or even days after the death of the organism or the detachment of the tentacle.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention an interesting cephalopod angle here. Blanket octopuses are immune to sea squirrel venom, which is an amazing enough trick to evolve. But these cephalopods go waaaaaay beyond that: they rip the venomous tentacles right off of those critters (hopefully while mocking them mercilessly), and then they carry the tentacles around with them to wield as weapons for defensive (and possibly offensive) purposes. Now that is some serious next level shit, blanket octopuses! I mean, can you just picture that? Because I sure can!

Octopus Wielding Sea Squirrel™ Tentacles Against Douchefish.
©Iris Vander Pluym
8′ x 11′
(oil on canvas)

But! I digress. As beanie-spinning as all of this clearly is (as evidenced by the foregoing blather), it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this post.

A little more than halfway through the discussion (@13:44), PZ and Matt moved on to the topic of social justice, and the lack of diversity in the sciences and scientific academia. Most interestingly, both of them acknowledged that up until five years ago, if you had asked either of them, they would not have noticed that there even is a diversity problem, or how deep it goes.

Matt (@15:32): On that issue in particular, the issue of women in academia and sexism in academia, that’s something where my thinking has really evolved over the last five or so years. The things I thought five years ago I would consider pretty benighted right now. Because I just wasn’t really aware of the problem, or at least had no concept of the depth of the problem.

PZ: Yeah.

Matt: I don’t know if it’s that I’ve changed what I read, or if there really is a growing awareness of that problem but things I never would have believed five or ten years ago I now take for granted.

PZ: Yeah I know, I felt the same way. I’m one of those privileged white males and so of course I sail right through and I never notice this stuff. And it was conversations with some of my colleagues—for instance, I’m sitting there talking to them about this really cool work that Dr. X over here is doing, and they all go quiet, and they don’t want to talk about it. Because Dr. X, it turns out, has this problem that nobody wants to talk about, because he’s basically a sexist asshole. And because I’m a guy I don’t see this sort of thing. And over the years it’s become increasingly obvious that I’m oblivious to a lot of this stuff, and so I’m trying to be more conscious of it. It’s been a weird evolution on my part too, you know.  I’d say the same thing you did: five years ago I would have been clueless. I would have said okay, there’s a problem? Get over it! Right? Just buckle down and get to work and do the science and you’ll be fine! And nowadays I’m starting to realize how pervasive the problem is, and that that’s exactly what a white man would say. Yeah.

Matt: I’m in the same boat. I don’t think I ever didn’t believe there was a problem, but I certainly wasn’t aware of how widespread a problem it was.

PZ: And we tended to minimize it, too, I think is part of the problem.

Matt: Sure. And I don’t know if people are talking more about it now, or if I’m just listening to different people.

PZ: It’s got to be a combination of the two. For instance, I was at a big HHMI meeting this past semester, and this was a central topic of discussion. How do we break these barriers? Because in coming years, we need to recruit these people to be contributing to science. If you care about science, you’ve got to care about these issues. That was kind of an eye opener for me, sitting down with the granting agencies and discovering that they are intensely aware of this problem. And they want everyone to stop discriminating against minorities, against women, to give equal opportunities, because of the purely pragmatic concern that this is the coming generation of scientists. And we’ve got to keep that pool open and active and involved in the scientific community.

I haz questions. Foremost of these, obviously, is what exactly happened five or ten years ago that (a) opened the eyes of two decent liberal fellows to the breadth and depth of sexism and racism in the sciences, and (b) revealed to the world the ease of evolving multicellularity? Can the timing of these two major paradigm shifts really be a coincidence? I THINK NOT.

Hahaha, I kid! These two things are unrelated (probably?). But this part of the discussion, coupled with my irrelevant digression about the fucking Sea Squirrels™, gave me an interesting idea I’ll get to in a minute.

Matt and PZ hit on the most insidious aspect of privilege: namely, that those who enjoy it almost invariably do not take notice of it. The unconscious biases we all have are, by their very nature, beyond our conscious recognition. The good news is that once we begin to consciously notice the ways our privilege affects our everyday environments, it becomes difficult to un-see. But there is another aspect that ensures systems of privilege/oppression remain stubbornly in place and self-perpetuating: the extreme defensiveness and denial from individuals in the privileged class when their privilege is pointed out. It’s a problem. And this naturally leads us to the question of what can be done about it.

Toward the end of the video, Matt and PZ discuss both practical and aspirational solutions for removing or reducing racial and gender bias from major components of the scientific professions like journal publishing, grant funding and university hiring decisions. If I may, I would like to suggest a tactic any man similarly motivated can do: call the shit out, and make it uncomfortable when you do.

Why, just last night I made a white, tall, apparently able-bodied, educated, economically successful, US-born, privilege-denying d00d so uncomfortable that he left my local bar.

“But we aaaaaall have struggles! EVERYONE DOES!”

Privilege doesn’t mean that one doesn’t struggle. It means all things being equal but for x, the privileged struggle less.

“But there’s no way to even measure these things!”

Of course there is, Google Scholar is your friend.

“Are you even serious?” *sneer*

Deadly. *blink blink*

Cue the usual goal post moving, talking over me, intimidation tactics, woe is me, and I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I flourishes, until finally I said I’m done with you, stop talking to me. I spun around 180 degrees on my barstool, turning my back to him while he continued barking condescendingly at the back of my head (because of course he did). I rejoined the conversation with my more enlightened fellow barflies.

“THAT D00D IS A GIANT DOUCHE,” I announced, hopefully loudly enough for the giant douche to hear. When I turned around minutes later, he was gone. I had made this space, on this night, uncomfortable for him to perpetuate harmful myths about meritocracy, bootstraps, and especially automatic female deference to male domination of conversations.

Here is another recent example, this one particularly relevant to sexism in the sciences:

At the annual World Science Festival at John Jay College in New York on Saturday, a female scientist’s own theories were mansplained to her during a panel until a frustrated audience member had to step in and stop him. Really.

…The sole female panelist was Veronika Hubeny, a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of California, Davis. Jim Holt, a philosopher and New Yorker contributor, moderated the talk.

For the first hour or so of the panel, Dr. Hubeny was hardly able to get a word in edgewise. Finally, Holt acknowledged Dr. Hubeny and started to engage with her on her particular area of expertise— string theory and quantum gravity. However, Holt continually interrupted, spoke over, and mansplained Hubeny’s own theories to her without giving her a second to actually finish a thought.

Then, a female voice rang out from the audience and said, “Let her speak, please!” For a moment, the entire room went silent. Then the audience broke out into rapturous applause.

That uncomfortable silence? That is what I’m talking about. It is in these moments that people can (sometimes) be shaken from their obliviousness and recognize how fucked up what is happening it actually is—and that they can interrupt it. The usual and expected experience is suddenly, jarringly different, instead of reinforced and further normalized by silent acquiescence.

And believe me, it is a rare woman indeed who interacts professionally with groups of men in any field and has not experienced this precise dynamic. It’s the very definition of “normal.”

But here’s the rub: the person who spoke out from that audience is an actor, director and disability rights advocate—and a woman. She was outraged, sure, but she also felt intimidated and frightened to speak up to the point of physically shaking, and it continued long after the panel finished. From her account on Facebook (emphasis mine):

In the last 20-30 minutes of the 90 minute discussion Jim Holt [finally] asked her to describe her two theories of string theory that seem to contradict one another.

And THEN, without letting her answer, proceeded to answer for her and describe HER theories in detail without letting her speak for herself.

We could clearly see that she was trying to speak up. But he continued to talk over her and dominate the space for several minutes.

So at this point, after seeing very clearly that she was not going to be given space to speak and in fact having her own theories described to the audience by the moderator, I am in full outrage. My body is actually beginning to shake. The sexism is beyond blatant. It is happening on stage and NO ONE, not a single other physicist or panelist is stepping in to say anything about it… Jim Holt, even at one point, asks Veronica a question and she laughs because he has been answering his own questions about her work…and he makes fun of her for ‘giggling’.

JFC. ^%$#*!

So at some point while he is Still talking about Her theories, I just can’t handle it any longer.

With my hands shaking, I finally say from my seat in the 2nd row of the audience, as clearly, directly and loudly as possible;

“Let. Her. Speak. Please!”

The moderator stops.

They all stop.

The auditorium drops into silence.

You could hear a pin drop.

And then the audience explodes with applause and screams.

Jim Holt eventually sat back, only after saying I was heckling him.

And he let her speak. And of course, she was brilliant.

Oh, dear me! Was Jim Holt uncomfortable being interrupted and spoken over? Instead of, you know, Veronika Hubeny? :o

After the session ended, many audience members (women and men) offered the interrupter thanks and support.

And the whole time, my hands are still shaking. And I’m felling light-headed. And I just want to scream out into the lobby “WHY IS THIS SEXISM STILL HAPPENING? WHY, does someone like me, with No status in that room, have to be so extraordinarily bold and speak up? And why was it so frightening to do so?

Perhaps the better question is why no d00d, on the panel or otherwise, spoke up. Because that is what needs to happen. That is what needs to be “normal.” I am happy our heroic interrupter received kudos from women and men alike. But more typically when women speak up we are viewed as abrasive, and deemed oversensitive, humorless feminazis. I’ve written about this before:

As a woman of course, I have been cut off, interrupted, ignored and spoken over by d00ds, in professional and personal contexts, more times than I could even begin to count. Men do these things to establish status and dominance, presumably among other males, since most women think these moves are sure signs of insecure and disrespectful blowhards. Tellingly, even when women are purposefully allotted equal time to speak, the perception is that they’re actually getting far more time than an equal share.

Dale Spender, Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill explain this phenomenon:

The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.

In other words, if women talk at all, this may be perceived as ‘too much’ by men who expect them to provide a silent, decorative background in many social contexts.

Just yesterday, an Uber board member d00d interrupted a female board member to make a sexist “joke” about women talking too much—at a fucking company-wide meeting on sexual harassment and other unprofessional conduct at Uber.

The comment came as an interruption of fellow board member Arianna Huffington, who was explaining the benefits of having more female representation on Uber’s board.

“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” said Huffington, according to several people who heard the remarks.

“Actually,” [billionaire board member David] Bonderman interjected, “what it shows is, it’s much likely there’ll be more talking.”

“Oh, come on, David,” Huffington said, in between awkward laughs. Addressing the crowd, she added, “Don’t worry, David will have a lot of talking to do, as well.”

Bonderman has since apologized, and resigned. But the point is that he felt perfectly comfortable in that forum (!) to make a (false) sexist comment in the first place. Imagine what he says and does in more private settings. It was the female target of the sexist remark who called him out on it—and she made it uncomfortable. (Good.) But what’s with the silence from all the other d00ds on the board?

See, in the same way I need to leverage my white (and other kinds of) privilege to step up for people of color, men need to step up for women. To take notice—and that is probably the most difficult task. To question false assumptions and stereotypes. Interrupt the offender. Make it uncomfortable.

Like the sea squirrel tentacles weaponized by the blanket octopus, men can be extraordinarily effective weapons on behalf of women, precisely because of their power within these groups. I mean, can’t you just picture it? Because I sure can!

Cephalowoman Wielding Good Men Against Douchefish.
©Iris Vander Pluym
8′ x 11′
(oil on canvas)


I need to inject myself with blanket octopus DNA to achieve Sea Squirrel™ venom immunity before walking the Miami shoreline barefoot again. I figure this will cost me about $10 million. But it will be so worth it.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    I think one of our local lotteries is at about 10^6.
    I’ll roll the pennies and nickles and dimes and buy a ticket.
    If I win, I’ll share.

  2. says

    I’ve said the same on Pharyngula more times than I could count, how important it is for men to speak up to other men, to refuse to remain silent. The homosocial circle being what it is, the majority of men won’t listen, let alone get the fucking point unless it’s made by another man.

  3. says

    Great American Satan: I believe it’s spelled “klassy.”

    chigau: I salute your appreciation of just how much this Sea Squirrel™ immunity is worth to me. Nobody else I tell seems to get it. (It seems I lose them at “sea squirrel”. WTF. There’s just no helping some people.)

    Caine: I know you have, and I (and countless others I’m sure) appreciate that so fucking much. And I get how awkward and uncomfortable it is for men to speak up in these situations, just like it is for this here Whitey McWhiteperson to step up among whites to shut racist shit down. But of course it’s orders of magnitude more uncomfortable for women/minorities to do so, AND far less effective for precisely the reasons you note. It’s always easier to STFU, go along to get along, don’t “rock the boat,” etc. I wrestle a lot with the question(s): what can we ask/demand of those who claim to be our allies? And relatedly, what exactly am I willing and prepared to do for those with less privilege who I claim to support?