Frans de Waal is a Dutch biologist and primatologist who thinks humans have some silly ideas/constructs about sex and gender. He’s written a number of books, most recently Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist.
I heard him express his strong opinions on Alan Alda’s Clear and Vivid podcast and found them thought-provoking—an interesting perspective as Americans seek to navigate one of a number of “us vs them” issues.
Please keep in mind that this is my summary of a podcast discussion evoked by the contents of his book. It is, inevitably, a superficial rendering of some very complex topics.
Based on his research and observations, de Waal says:
“Some conservative politicians say there are men and women—that’s all.” But “things are not so simple—with us and our closest relatives.”
For Starters, What Are We Talking About?
De Waal made quick work of definitions. Sex, he began, is biological, relating to the genitals, hormones, and chromosomes.
It’s mostly, but not exclusively, binary: ninety-eight percent of humans are either male or female.
The term “gender” came into use in the 1950s to indicate behavioral expression. Some of it is biological, but factors of culture, education, and norms are also involved. Gender, he says, “is a much more flexible concept than sex.”
To de Waal, a regrettable conflation of the two terms has taken place, and he sees it even in scientific studies.
Noting a study about the “gender” of frogs, he asks incredulously: “Can you imagine?” The loss of the distinction between “sex” and “gender” results in misuse and confusion.
Sex and gender are related, but not interchangeable. He says discussions of gender must include biology; he believes it’s misguided to insist that gender is completely cultural, formed by expectations and stereotypes. Gender and sex remain connected.
Gender is also applicable to chimps and bonobos, and he relates evidence of learning and acculturation among them.
Male Dominance? “Ha!” Say the Female Bonobos
Alda asked de Waal to discuss the argument that since male chimps dominate in their milieus, we can expect male humans to be similarly dominant.
Male dominance isn’t universal in the animal world, de Waal says, using the two primates that are our closest relatives as examples. Although male chimps are dominant, male bonobos are not. Among them, the females are in charge.
Bonobos have what de Waal calls “collective female dominance.” He referred to a veritable ‘me too’ movement in which the female bonobos simply stopped male aggression.
“They object to male harassment. There certainly are no rapes possible in bonobo society because the females would never tolerate something like that.”
Even among chimps, there are departures. De Waal has written about a female chimp named Mama who was the alpha female in her colony for forty years.
Though she didn’t physically dominate the males, she was the decision maker, leading a tight-knit and powerful group of females. A male chimp couldn’t become the alpha without her blessing.
Alda asks about archeological evidence for war, which goes back only 12,000 years. Many kinds of animals gang up on each other in hunting, but preplanning for war by humans hadn’t been seen before that time. How does de Waal assess that finding?
De Waal responds that the belief that human history is one of warfare and dominance—and that we are the survivors of those who wiped out everyone else—remains a popular strain in anthropology.
But he agrees with Alda’s premise:
“Before the agricultural revolution, before our settlements were created, we don’t have evidence for that [warfare]. So it’s highly speculative to say that we’ve always waged war.”
It’s an assumption that isn’t backed up by strong evidence.
“Some anthropologists into peace studies argue that based on what we know of hunter gatherers and so on, it’s unlikely we had a lot of warfare going on in earlier times.”
Male dominance, and the characterization of the alpha male that’s found in literature about the business world, depicts a bully who insists he’s the boss and shows that to others.
De Waal says though such bullies do exist (don’t we know it!), most of the alphas he’s known have been protectors and defenders who break up fights and are empathetic toward victims. Such men become the most popular in a group because they’re great leaders.
Turning to the primate world, de Waal stresses that the bonobo society is much more peaceful than the chimp society—bonobos are neither territorial nor violent.
He thinks that’s one reason anthropologists haven’t shown much interest in bonobos: they don’t fit into the widely accepted concept of male dominance.
He’s quite critical of anthropologists who give short shrift to bonobos, describe them as “very strange” primates, and fail to study them—despite their genetic closeness to us approximating that of chimpanzees.
“Anthropologists don’t know what to do with an animal like that who’s a close relative of ours.”
And, he conjectures, “maybe chimps’ behavior—territorial, killing each other—is less in line with humans than bonobos.”
To de Waal, the sharp behavioral differences between bonobos and chimps lead to interesting comparisons. He believes bonobos are “equally relevant, and we should try to develop an evolutionary picture that includes both of them.”
He regards this topic as one that’s important for discussion.
“Self-Socialization” in Humans and Primates
In primates, young males look to adult males as role models, and young females emulate their moms. We always assume that human children do the same.
But de Waal says human studies reveal more self-socialization. This is a concept that’s been associated with transsexual individuals. A child born biologically as a boy who develops as a trans girl has emulated individuals of the opposite sex—adult females. And vice versa.
Self-socialization is underestimated, he believes, and it’s going on among primates as well.
“In captivity settings, I’ve often seen…an adult male display…put all his hair up as a demonstration of strength to the group. It’s intimidation, but not overtly aggressive. If he does that for 10 minutes, mothers keep kids close because it could be a dangerous moment, but once he’s done, they release the children.
“And often it’s the young males—1, 2, 3 years old, baby chimps—run to the place he’d been and bang on the same door or shake the same tree—with their hair on end. They’re very young, but they’ve been watching closely what that male was doing.”
Generally, the self-socialization behavior he describes fits our traditional stereotypes.
“Young females are fascinated by infants. A mother comes into the room, she’s surrounded by young females who want to put their hands on it.
“If they’re older, they may become baby sitters for the mother. In the wild, they collect rocks or logs and hold them against their bodies, sometimes build a nest for it—they create their own dolls.”
Seen through the evolution lens, this behavior “has to do with the enormous amount of knowledge females need to become competent mothers. It’s not easy; maternal behavior needs to be learned.”
The young males are interested in play wrestling.
“Rough and tumble play [is seen] in all young males primates, as it is in human studies.”
Here de Waal expresses his distress that schools today tend to forbid children to engage in play involving touch. Rough-housing among boys isn’t just about learning how to fight; it’s also critical for teaching them how to control their own strength.
When an adult gorilla plays with a baby, he points out, it could crush the infant immediately if it didn’t know how to control its strengths.
“Humans need to learn their limits.”
Now de Waal points to self-socialization that defies the stereotypes.
Enter Donna, a Chimp Who Offers Us Important Lessons
“I’ve known her since she was 2 or 3. She’s now 42.” (Chimp females can live up to age 50 in captivity.)
When she was young, Donna sought out adult males to wrestle with, “something female chimps don’t do.”
In adolescence, she became very robust. She developed a male chimp’s big hair and began to act like a male—displaying and running with them. “She became a male-like character.”
De Waal’s point, which he made in the context of human trans individuals, was that Donna was fully accepted by both males and females. “She was not condemned.”
“I never noticed a problem. She had no offspring, was not interested in sex. We originally thought she might be a lesbian, but [she was] not interested in sex with either.
“There’s a lot more flexibility than people assume—not just the males and females that some conservative politicians contend.”
And then there are the bonobos: “very sexy primates.”
They are “perfectly bisexual—I don’t think it matters much to them whether they have sex with males or females.
“Sexual orientation is not as clear-cut as people think and sexual development [suggests]. Look at the case of Donna. I’ve also known males that are not so much into the macho game—not interested in confrontations.
“So we have all that variability going on. In society today we call it gender diversity; that’s also the case in other primates.
“It’s unfortunate that our current societies are intolerant of diversity—we like to put people in pigeon holes—you’re male or female, homosexual or heterosexual. But not everybody fits, and we are intolerant of the ones who don’t fit into these pigeon holes.”
Like the bonobos, de Waal says, “the human species is very sexy,” although we spend more time talking about violence and warfare than about sexual orientation and eroticism.
In the US, he says our Puritan culture gives us Hollywood films with a great deal more violence than sex, and when there is sex, special settings and codes keep it out of sight and keep people away.
Studies of human evolution, he says, avoid and downplay eroticism.
“When it became known that bonobos have sex in all possible combinations and all sorts of positions, people were embarrassed by it and didn’t want to talk about it. Is it really sex? I would say, ‘Well if I did what bonobos do in the streets, I’d be arrested in a second.’
“Eroticism is a very important part of our feelings and culture, and bonobo has a lot of connections there. In that sense, it’s an interesting species to compare ourselves with.”
“The Victorian View of Sex Doesn’t Hold Up in Biology Anymore”
De Waal then circles back to gender discussions in which female sexuality has been avoided by biologists who take the Victorian view that female sex is not necessary for enjoyment—all women care about is the need to get pregnant.
Just as I was thinking about the mini-revolution brewing over the banning of abortion, de Waal says:
“The Victorian view of sex doesn’t hold up in biology anymore. We have completely changed our views on that. So bonobos are a very interesting comparison to us for the sexual evolution of our species.”
And it’s not just the bonobos.
De Waal observes that studies of rhesus monkeys had suggested that the alpha male would have 90% of the offspring: “All of the copulations are with the alpha male” had been the assumption.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, when primatologists began to test the offsprings’ paternity, they learned that the alpha males actually were responsible for at most half of the offspring.
“…a lot of younger males…have been fathering offspring,” he explains.
“This must be happening at night, or behind the bushes, or behind the back of the alpha male, and we scientists don’t know about it. So there’s a lot of secret or sneaky stuff going on, initiated by the females.
“Now we have a lot of evidence that female sexuality, not just in primates but in many species, is much more pro-active and adventurous than people had assumed. So ideas about female sexuality are rapidly changing in biology at the moment.”
Alda cites the last sentence of de Waal’s book, Different:
“Humans do not need to be the same to be equal.”
De Waal elaborates. In the term “gender inequality,” the attention should be not on the gender; it’s the inequality.
“We need to try to fix that—and not try to do away with gender.”
What do you think about de Waal’s views? Would you be interested in reading his book?