From a natural spectrum springs a rainbow

, 17 January 2022
From a natural spectrum springs a rainbow
Bottlenose Dolphin © Caroline Weir

By Sally Ashby

As a keen zoology undergraduate who adored, almost worshipped, Darwin’s theory of evolution, I couldn’t quite come to terms with his theory of sexual selection. It really didn’t add up as I was tentatively stepping out of the queer closet back in 1996. I lived and breathed evolutionary theory but where did I fit in? A deviation? An anomaly? A kink in the genetic spiral of life? So, of course, I started studying the evolution of sex and soon discovered how incredibly diverse and fascinating the plant and animal kingdoms (more like queendoms or even queerdoms) really are in terms of gender and sexuality.

In my early research I came across the work of internationally renowned evolutionary biologist and founding member of Sussex University, Professor John Maynard Smith. His work studying the evolution of sex and, in particular, parthenogenesis got me hooked. Parthenogenesis is a means of reproducing by virgin birth, basically females cloning themselves. It appears Ella Fitzgerald could have actually been singing about parthenogenesis; birds do it (condors for example), bees do it, even educated water fleas do it. Not only that but also some sharks and lizards too with females even having the ability to choose between cloning themselves or the more conventional option of sexual reproduction with a male. This wild notion of a male-less matriarchy led me on to some primate research looking at Bonobo chimps, closely related to humans they too have sex for fun, recreation not procreation. Bonobos not only form matriarchal societies but are also fully bisexual and the females tend to have more sex with other females. Research suggests that the evolution of same-sex sexual behaviour may have led to pathways promoting high levels of cooperation, basically queer peace-keeping. This promoted a new personal moto of mine, “Be more Bonobo” and this knowledge gave me a new found space for my own sexuality in the context of evolutionary theory.

In the plant world too there is a whole host of queerness to explore. In fact bisexual flowers are described as “perfect”, having both male and female reproductive structures. Examples include roses and lilies but also the horse chestnut, highlighted in a wonderful project by the Queer Botany Society at the Walthamstow Marshes SSSI.

Now, with my work for the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project much of my favourite flagship “queer” marine species are linked directly to our conservation work here on the Sussex Coast. For example bottlenose dolphins who are known to engage in homosexual behaviour and sex for fun, again thought to increase social bonding and cooperation. The black seabream which are all born female and change to male at maturity (known as protogynous hermaphrodites). And finally the incredible seahorse species that in my opinion can claim the throne of the animal drag-kingdom in having the only true reversed pregnancy.

I’m sure Darwin would agree that rather than it all being about nature versus nurture we should focus more on nurturing our true nature, that part of us that is wild and free and far from binary. Wouldn’t it be dull if everything were so very black and white… life and love is in fact gloriously technicolour thanks to evolution’s rainbow.

Leave a comment


  • Sue Curnock:

    Amazing blog, thank you Sally. So many interesting ideas and perspectives to think about, I’m going to read it all again now!

    17 Jan 2022 16:10:00

  • Jon Cooper:

    Really enjoyed this reflection, which is refreshing and positively provocative. Jon

    18 Jan 2022 12:48:00

  • Sirenova:

    How refreshing! The diversity evident in the natural world is rarely acknowledged & yet it’s so utterly fascinating & rich. Us human animals have the opportunity to learn from a more complex understanding of ‘relationships’ & sexuality in its myriad of magical manifestations. Thanks for getting this out there!

    19 Jan 2022 10:01:00

  • penny barham:

    So interesting. Thank you. I think that there have been incidents of parthogenesis in women

    20 Jan 2022 12:04:00

  • wendy Jago:

    Fascinating article. Thank you so much. I remember John Maynard-Smith professionally from my first job days at Sussex in the 1960s (!). As a straight person with a real interest in identity issues, I’d have been very interested to know about his research. A nice man. what a shame I never knew.

    20 Jan 2022 17:19:00

  • Pauline Botting:

    Fascinating article, thank you.

    21 Jan 2022 08:50:00

  • David Jay:

    Fantastic blog. What a glorious perspective on a fascinating subject. Surely there’s a book in there?

    21 Jan 2022 09:46:00

  • Sophie Collins:

    A wonderful reminder that the world, and everything in it, is a beautiful rainbow. And should be celebrated as such. Thank you for sharing.

    25 Jan 2022 07:55:00