What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender. A Conversation with Primatologist, Frans de Waal.

What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender. A Conversation with Primatologist, Frans de Waal.

How different are the sexes? Is gender uniquely human? Where does gender identity originate?

Frans de Waal is a distinguished primatologist. He has spent nearly half a century working with and studying primates. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on primate behaviour, and the links between human and primate society.

In his new book Different, Frans de Waal draws on decades of observation and studies of both human and animal behaviour to argue that despite the linkage between gender and biological sex, biology does not automatically support the traditional gender roles in human societies. While humans and other primates do share some behavioural differences, biology offers no justification for existing gender inequalities. De Waal Uses chimpanzees and bonobos to illustrate this point—two ape relatives that are genetically equally close to humans— he challenges widely held beliefs about masculinity and femininity, and common assumptions about authority, leadership, cooperation, competition, filial bonds, and sexual behaviour.

In this interview, I speak to Frans de Waal about what his near half a century of studying primate species can teach us about gender, identity, power, and ourselves. We discuss the astonishing closeness between us and our primate ancestors, and what observing primates can teach us about humanity.

Q: How close are we to our ape ancestors? 

[Frans de Waal]: In my previous book, Mama’s Last Hug, I wrote about a female chimpanzee who was dying. My professor (who was 80 at the time) visited her on her deathbed. She embraced him, had a facial expression mixed with happiness and sadness, and patted him on the back. People were surprised and moved. It was something we’ve seen hundreds of millions of times between us as humans, but there was a surprise seeing it from our closest relatives. Why would we be surprised? When you observe chimpanzees and other apes, you see how extremely humanlike they are in almost everything they do.

When the first apes were displayed at London Zoo, Queen Victoria came to see them and was disgusted rather than fascinated. She described the orangutan, Jenny, as being ‘frightful and painfully, disagreeably, human.’ We have been so indoctrinated to think we are special (as a species) that when you see an ape up close and see they are- in essence- us, you don’t know what to do with those feelings. Darwin was of course happy to see the apes, but Queen Victoria? Not so much!

Q: What do we know about the emergence of gender identity? 

[Frans de Waal]: Every human is born with gender identity, and for most of us it corresponds to our biological sex. For some of us, it doesn’t. Gender identity arises very early and makes us emulate individuals who are adults of the sex we identify with. Joan Roughgarden is a trans-woman and biologist. She thinks, when it comes to transgender children, that they emulate the gender they want to become. So, if, for example, you are born a boy, but your gender identity is female, you will emulate adult women – that’s your mode of ‘operation’ let’s say. Gender identity drives self-socialization. People think adults socialise their children, but children socialise themselves. We see the same process in the Great Apes. Young females imitate their mother – and copy the diet and tool techniques of their mothers much more reliably than the young males do. Young males look at the adult males- they usually don’t know who their father is- but they look at adult males of high status and emulate those males. Self-socialisation we see, is not limited just to humans! That’s why I talk about the idea of gender in apes, not just sex.

And the young males, they look around, they look at the adult males, they don’t know who their father is usually, but they look at adult males of high status and they emulate those males.  And so, the self-socialisation idea is applicable to both humans and apes, and that’s also why I talk of gender in apes as well, not just sex but also gender.

Q: What did ‘play’ reveal about gender and sex in the great apes?

[Frans de Waal]:  Play is extremely poorly understood. In humans, we spend the first 15 years of our lives playing, and as adults, we are still playful, but we rarely study this behaviour. If you look at the play of primates, the young females are interested in other infants as soon as the mother comes with a newborn into the group. She (the mother) will be surrounded immediately by young females who want to hold the baby. If you give them dolls (as we do in experiments), the young females do the same – and carry those dolls around, sometimes trying to nurse them, playing mother. In the wild, chimpanzees have been observed to pick up wooden logs and rocks, treating them as dolls, walking around with them, and putting them on their backs…. That fascination with mothering and learning maternal techniques is very useful for females, and it starts very early in life. We see that in all 200 primate species we’ve studied, and in human society. Young males like to mock-fight, they run around and beat each other over the head and laugh while they’re doing it. Again, we see this in all 200 primate species we’ve studied and in human society. To me, there must be biology involved, otherwise, why would we have such massive behavioural differences between the two genders?

Q: Are we losing ‘something’ as a society by denying physicality in human contact?

[Frans de Waal]: When I speak to groups in the US, people often come up to me and say, ‘our children are not allowed to wrestle, or to touch each other at school…’ – physical contact has been eliminated, and I find that so strange, especially after the covid crisis. After the crisis, we were so happy to see each other up close, smell each other, touch each other, and see facial expressions. We are made for that; we should not prevent it in children. The wrestle-play of boys is sometimes interpreted as aggressive- it’s not. It has two functions. Firstly, you learn fighting techniques (which is useful if you are of a gender which often gets into physical confrontations). Secondly, you learn to control your strength. You learn to lose. You learn to win. You learn that you are stronger- or weaker- than somebody else. Imagine a family where the male adult doesn’t know how much stronger he is than the female adult and children, it would be extremely dangerous. A male gorilla could easily kill a baby with his thumb but we see male adult gorillas playing gently, and tenderly with babies. Controlling strength takes a lifetime to learn – and young boys need to learn about physical strength, and how to employ it constructively not destructively.

Q: What is the difference between dominance and power?

[Frans de Waal]: In chimpanzee society, things are led by coalitions. Dominant males can be dominant because of their physical strength, but can also become dominant through developing coalitions, having good friends, and the right female support. The smallest male can be dominant based on his social skills. Think about it; nobody walks into a big store in London and assumes the biggest person is the boss! It might be the old man; it might be the young woman! A higher ranking (alpha) female may have enormous power in society. There was a chimpanzee female I knew at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. She was the alpha female for 40 years and even when she could barely walk anymore, she was the alpha, and decided the positions amongst the males. If there was a political contest going on between the males, the male who had her support would have enormous benefit.

Q: What is the scientific position about gender and sex fluidity?

[Frans de Waal]: We are a very flexible species, and we can change things. It is clear biologically that men are more violent than women. This is true for all primates. However, there are societies we know – from anthropological studies – where violence is extremely rare because kids are elevated, from a young age, to be peaceful and not to fight at all. Even a trait that is basic in our biology is still subject to cultural influence. When biologists like myself say that certain things are biological, it doesn’t mean they are etched in stone. We just need to take them into account.

The mother-child bond can be traced back in mammals for over 200 million years. It’s supported by a whole system of chemistry and brain processes. You cannot break it. The mother-child bond is one of those things’ biology has given us. It’s a beautiful thing, we shouldn’t mess with it. Biology has also given us some very ugly things, such as violence, which we can try and suppress.

Biology doesn’t need to be obeyed, but it always needs to be considered.

If we discuss gender differences, we cannot act as if biology doesn’t exist. We live at a time where a group of people – for ideological reasons – have made it clear that they think we can shove biology aside, that everything is culturally constructed, and we can act like biology doesn’t exist. That’s not going to work, that’s not how the world works. We are biological organisms, equipped with brains, genitals, and hormones. We cannot ignore reality.

Q: How did your study of primates break some of the assumptions we have about human society? 

[Frans de Waal]: In society, we assume (still) that male dominance is natural, and that males will make better leaders. We see no evidence of that in primates. We assume (still) that homosexual behaviour isn’t natural, but we find homosexual behaviours in all primates. In some of our closest species- such as the bonobo- it’s extremely common, perhaps as common as heterosexual behaviour. We assume (still) that male bonding isn’t as strong as female bonding, and that females aren’t as competitive, neither of these are true.

There are differences we assume don’t exist, and differences we try to deny. We try to deny- for example- that females are more empathetic. We see that in many animal species (including our own) they are.

At the very least, even if people don’t believe what I say, and don’t want to agree with me, they have to put biology into the discussion. Every debate about gender has to have biology in there.

Q: Has your study of primates helped you understand what we could improve about human society?  

[Frans de Waal]: I’ve worked with primates for almost 50 years. I’ve known many individual monkeys and apes, and I’m struck by how much diversity and gender diversity there is which I have been ignoring. We always look for typical behaviours… a typical male does X… a typical female does Y. We overemphasise the typicality of men and women. I knew a female named Donna, a chimpanzee who- from a very young age- was masculine. She liked to wrestle and grew up to look like a male, though she was clearly female. She looked like a male, acted like a male, and joined the males often. When I think back, there are so many individuals who didn’t fit the mould – and if we start looking in primates, we’ll almost certainly find the same sort of gender diversity we find in humans. We’re going to find males that don’t play the typical male role- we’re going to find females who don’t’ play the typical female role- we’re going to find individuals who have more homosexual than heterosexual tendencies. We’re going to find all of that, but we’ve not been looking for it.

Q: Why do you think we have such an ideological war surrounding gender and sex?

[Frans de Waal]: In Ukraine, men cannot step onto a bus and leave the country like women and children. They will be blown up if that happens. I was born right after World War II. If I had been born 50 years earlier, I would have ended up in the war, and would most probably have been killed. When we talk about male privilege, that’s only possible in a peaceful society. If we get into war, all these privileges of men disappear- and the young men are sent off to die. Our gender discussion right now is made possible by two things. One is that we’ve had a long period of peace, where male privilege became more obvious to us. Second, we have the pill, which changed the whole game of reproduction.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.