The Biological Answer to Why ‘The Wasp’ Had To Be Female

Antman Wasp
By  · Published on July 7th, 2018

Let’s talk science.

What do ants and wasps have in common?

They are both insects, you might be thinking, and you would, of course, technically be correct. But more specifically, they are both members of the order Hymenoptera, and this means they have one very important and quite unique thing in common: sex determination occurs through a haplodiploid system. And I know that sounds like nonsense movie technobabble, like “Tardigrade Field” (water bears might be pretty awesome, but they live on most things in most places instead of having their own microscopic realm the way the Ant-Man depicts), but haplodiploidy is real and also very cool.

It means that as opposed to humans, where sex is determined through an XY chromosome system—everybody gets one sex chromosome from each parent and it’s whether the father passes on a copy of his X or Y chromosome that decides whether the offspring will be male or female—in Hymenoptera, it is the number of chromosomes that decides the sex of the offspring. Basically, females get one set of chromosomes from mom and one set from dad, like in humans, but males just receive one set of chromosomes from their mother. In other words, males have no fathers. Ever. Period.

(Admittedly, by now you might be wondering what the point in all this is and when it will get back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I promise, we’ll get there. Just hang tight.)

Ant-Man and the Wasp pretty much gives up on even pretending to appeal to the realities of social insect biology—which, you know, fair enough, science fiction is fictional—but Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly’s first 2015 outing did try to appeal to some (pseudo)biological explanations regarding the various behaviors of ants, which are admittedly more than a little strange to the casual observer.

While the Ant-Man films have never mentioned the term, many biologists consider haplodiploidy a key element in the evolution of the unique and highly social behaviors found in various species of ants and wasps. As I mentioned in my recent article on Bao, when looking at the animal kingdom, pretty much every evolved behavior can be understood as being selfish on the gene level from the right angle—and the haplodiploid sex-determination system creates some intriguing angles.

A relatively common complaint about Ant-Man is well, isn’t he a little useless, but the funny thing is that, with respect to the realities of the animal kingdom, he really ought to be.

“I do some dumb things,” Scott tells daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) at one point in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Over the course of the film he also attempts to salvage the wreckage of his relationship with Hope van Dyne, destroyed since the first Ant-Man by his galavanting off to fight Captain America in Civil War without her (or, you know, even telling her)—and then getting caught, to top it all off.

In the new installment, an understandably annoyed Hope informs Scott that with her help, he would have made it out of Germany scot-free, and the Ant-Man films give viewers little reason to doubt this claim. In both Scott’s shortcomings (he is quite often the butt of the joke) and Hope’s general competence, the Ant-Man films echo the realities of the natural world far more than any technobabble monologue the MCU has bestowed upon us thus far.

Put simply, within the haplodiploid system of ants and wasps, the sole point of males—generally known as drones—is to contribute to the production of more females (except for this one species of weirdos), because males as members of society are practically useless. In most species, they do not gather food or help with colony maintenance, or rear offspring. Males are such freeloaders that in at least one species of wasp—the paper wasp, Polistes dominulus—female workers shove their deadbeat male counterparts headfirst into empty nest cells to keep them from eating hard-earned food in a behavior known as “male-stuffing.” In other words, perhaps the most blatant communication of “I think you are a waste of space” in all the animal kingdom. That Hymenopteran males generally exist just to produce the next generation of females is further indicated by the fact that in most species they die either in the process of having sex or shortly afterward, the ultimate biological indication of outliving one’s usefulness.

I’m not saying that Peyton Reed and his team intended to echo the male-female dynamics found in various species of ants and wasps, from the dedication of a colony to their queen—i.e. Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer)—to females generally outshining their male counterparts in terms of competence, only that there are some interesting coincidences to be found.

Like, for example, all three fathers (Scott, Hank Pym, and Elihas Starr) featured in the film have daughters.

Curious, is it not?

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.