Gendering primates

Gender isn't specific to homosapiens...
05 May 2022

Interview with 

Frans de Waal, Emory University




This year marks the 40th anniversary of Primatologist Frans de Waal's first publication 'Chimpanzee Politics', something a lot of us in the UK probably feels well accustomed to watching as of late. Harry Lewis interviews Frans about his resarch and findings...

Frans - Yeah, I think so, because the gender is the cultural side of the sex binary and, you know, the sexual binary itself is already complex enough. It's not really a binary, it's like an almost binary, and gender is more the cultural expression, the social norms, the education, all the cultural overlays. Gender is usually divided in masculine and feminine terms and everything in between. So, there's a much more flexible concept that relates to what you learn during your lifetime. Primates like the chimpanzee are adult when they're 16, so have a very slow development and learn a lot of things when they're young, some of which is from adult females, some from adult males. They also have a cultural transmission of how you behave as a male or a female in society. In that sense, they are gendered too. For example, we have evidence that young females pick up more behaviour from their mums than young males do. Young males often look around and look at adult males, I call it self socialisation, they emulate adult males more than they emulate their mum, and so self socialisation leads to a transmission of, let's say, cultural norms about how you behave as a male or a female.

Harry - So, in this chimpanzee community, if we're talking about the young, what are those behaviours?

Frans - The evidence that we have comes mostly from these culture studies that we do, which is mostly on what you eat and how you eat things because it's easy to measure. Tool use, for example, the field workers find easier than social behaviour. From a recent study of orangutans in the field, in the forest, we found that young females ate exactly the same foods as their mums. There are thousands of plants and fruits out there, but they have exactly the same diet as their mums. On the other hand, young males, the sons, they have a much broader choice because they mimic the behaviour of the males that they see. And so, we have evidence of this self socialisation ID. Another important point when you talk about gender is gender diversity. We have individuals who are more homosexual than heterosexual in their behaviour, we have individuals who don't exactly fit the roles that you usually see. You may have, for example, a big adult male who doesn't want to play the macho game, doesn't want to be the dominant male, and doesn't even engage in confrontations with other males and stays out of all of that. And you may have females, I described in my book a female named Donna, who, from very young, was into wrestling and mock fighting the way young males usually do. She sought out adult males to do it with, and when she grew older she grew into a male like character. She had the big shoulders, the big hair, the big head, the big hands of a male. And she associated with males - she hung out with them the whole day. From a distance, she would swear she was a male. And so, that same gender diversity that you see in human society where not everyone fits the mould exactly, is visible in the other primates. That's also why I think the word gender is applicable to them.

Harry - I think that's really interesting that you say that those blurring of boundaries is the same in human populations, but we do really love to put people in boxes, don't we? We like to say it's black or white?

Frans - That's so unfortunate. In human society, we are a symbolic species. We love labelling: you are a man, you're a woman, you're homosexual, you're heterosexual. If you fall in between these boxes, too bad for you, we can't handle you in our society. The beauty of primates, they're not ideal in every respect ideal, they can sometimes be brutal, but they tolerate these individuals. For example, Donna was perfectly well integrated in her community. I've never actually noticed that they are intolerant of individuals who are slightly different than they are. Homosexual behaviour as well. I also study bonobos and I describe extensively bonobo behaviour, I consider them bisexual because they don't even seem to have a preference for one gender over the other. For them, that's not a major issue.

Harry - And Frans, just briefly, what else is there that we can learn from the gender of your primates?

Frans - One other thing that I think is important to learn comes from the fact that people always think the natural order is men dominate women, males dominate females: our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, in one of them, the male are dominant, the other one, the females are dominant. Even in societies where the males dominate physically, they are not necessarily the most powerful individuals politically. In my previous book, I described Mama, the chimpanzee, who was a female for 40 years, and saw a lot of alpha males come and go during her lifetime. She was an central and powerful character in the community, even though she was physically incapable of beating up males. I think that's an important message: we should distinguish physical dominance and power, and that there's plenty of leadership and power in females in primates.

Frans de Waal, thank you ever so much.


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