Reflecting on gender identity through apes, with primatologist Frans de Waal

Reflecting on questions about biological sex and gender in humans, in the light of observations about our primate cousins, chimpanzees or bonobos: in his latest book, the famous primatologist Frans de Waal asks not to choose between nature and culture, contrary to many times ideological battles.

“We consider (the great apes) to be driven mainly by instinct and biology, but we also see in them a culture,” explains the 73-year-old Dutchman in an interview with AFP. In this context, “the concept of gender is useful, as it emphasizes this interaction between biology and culture”, without neglecting the strength of biology.

This ethologist (a scientist specializing in animal behavior) is particularly known for his work demonstrating that non-human primates – whose DNA is more than 96% common to humans – are also endowed with known human abilities, such as empathy and cooperation.

In “Different, gender seen by a primatologist”, released this week in France, the researcher covers several themes that are at the center of the debates that agitate our societies: the relationship between the sexes, the social hierarchy, violence, the innate or the ‘acquired.

Frans de Waals demonstrates that non-human primates are also endowed with supposedly human capabilities, such as empathy and cooperation (AFP/Archives - Issouf SANOGO)
Frans de Waals demonstrates that non-human primates are also endowed with supposedly human capabilities, such as empathy and cooperation (AFP/Archives – Issouf SANOGO)

Biology explains, for example, that “in all primates, young males play with young males and young females with young females.” And in these games, physical strength plays a key role in the former, largely absent in the latter, he says. This can be seen at playgrounds like the Yerkes National Center for Primate Research, which Franz de Waal runs near Atlanta.

Other conclusions stem from decades of observing primates: males are “more concerned about their social position” and females “more focused on young and vulnerable beings” from an early age.

But females are as fickle as males, they also engage in intense social competition and assume, with age, a position of authority within the group. Far from clichés about the so-called “feminine” + nature +, the researcher recalls.

– Pleasure, not reproduction –

Frans de Waal scratches at certain academics “who use biology when it suits them.” When, for example, they see in the behavior of men or women in society “a gender role, linked only to culture, while biology also plays a role”.

Above all, he laments this all-too-human propensity to “set standards.” “Among non-human primates, many individuals who do not conform to the dominant model are very well tolerated” by their peers.

Chimpanzees in Liberia in November 2021 (AFP/Archives - JOHN WESSELS)
Chimpanzees in Liberia in November 2021 (AFP/Archives – JOHN WESSELS)

The researcher, who teaches at the prestigious Emory University (Atlanta), also debunks several myths, including that of female passivity in mating games. And for those who consider homosexuality “against nature”, he recalls the practices of Japanese monkeys who, in the absence of females, opt for male-to-male relationships.

When it comes to sexuality, humans and great apes are driven mainly by desire and pleasure, without offending directors of animal films who are quick to portray competition between males as motivated by the pursuit of reproduction, explains the researcher. Primates cannot “conceive” reproduction.

Animals “are interested in sex, not reproduction, even if it’s the result.” Humans, who took a long time to understand the thing, are not so different, they invented contraception for this, he observes.

The book is full of stories, based on observations, to describe everything that unites non-human primates and humans, or sets them apart, such as the advent of the nuclear family in humans or the development of language. It concludes with an appeal not to choose between nature and culture, but to embrace both in order to better accept our differences.

(“Different. Gender seen by a primatologist”. Frans de Waal. Editions Les liens qui liberante, 477 p.)

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