Toymaking giant Hasbro engendered (ahem) controversy this week by announcing at its investor day that it was dropping the “Mr” moniker from its Mr. Potato Head line of toys, and would be offering a gender neutral version of the toy alongside the traditional Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
The outrage and culture war spats on social media were as tiresome as they were predictable, but hey, everything is an opportunity to learn, right? Because if you look at the science of potato reproduction, it’s far more complicated than male and female. And the toy company’s impulse towards a gender-neutral toy isn’t just more inclusive, it’s closer to the actual science of potatoes.
The ancestor of the modern day potato first evolved in the Americas, and then was developed into the food crop we know today by ancient indigenous Americans in what is now Peru and Bolivia. (Knowing this geographical background also gives you an opportunity to annoy your friends by pointing out the common historical inaccuracy of Europeans eating potatoes in movies set before the 1500s).
Potatoes, of course, are tubers—the part of the plant that we eat forms a part of its roots, while above-ground the plant consists of a stem, leaves and flowers. They are are self-pollinators, meaning that every individual potato plant possesses both male and female flowers for reproduction. When they reproduce this way, they produce a potato fruit, which resembles a green cherry tomato. (Don’t eat it, though. It’s poisonous.)
Inside the fruit are what folks in the business call “true potato seeds,” which are what’s used to develop new varieties of potatoes. However, the seeds produced this way can often be quite genetically different from the original plant, which makes farmers wary about using them during planting season.
Fortunately for farmers, potatoes can also reproduce asexually—much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. This is the main process through which potatoes are produced around the world: the tuber (i.e. the part of the potato you eat) can be planted to sprout new plants. Particularly healthy tubers that are disease-free are sold to farmers as “seed potatoes” and produce new plants that are genetically identical to their parents. It’s this property of the potato that saved Matt Damon’s life when he was stranded on the Red Planet in The Martian.
And now back to the original controversy from which this hot potato issue sprouted: In science, whether you’re talking about potatoes or people, gender is more complicated than simple binaries. Particularly when it comes to potatoes, which are male, female and asexual – all at the same time.
So in one very important way, Hasbro has always gotten the concept of the toy exactly right, scientifically speaking. Like its earthy ancestor, Potato Head has interchangeable parts.