FALL 2022

Sex Tips From Apes

‘Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist’ by Frans de Waal


W. W. NORTON, APRIL 2022, 409 PP.

SEXUAL ESSENTIALISM—the idea that men and women differ from each other in various innate and permanent ways—has rarely been a friend to feminists. Charles Darwin thought the rules of inheritance would prevent women from ever becoming the intellectual equals of men. E. O. Wilson, in his 1975 landmark Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, cited the sex division of hunter-gatherers as evidence for women’s natural inclination for homemaking. In 1997, Bill Kristol complained that legal abortion had amounted to “women’s liberation from natural distinctions.”

Early in Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist, Frans de Waal argues that essentialism, whatever its history, need not be the tool of the master. Feminists, he says, make both a factual and a rhetorical error when they deny sexual difference. De Waal points out that women are far more likely than men to die in car crashes; a possible reason is the typically male weight distribution of crash test dummies. The implication here is that today’s feminists are too busy denying biology to agitate for a crash test dummy with breasts; in other words, that the push for transgender inclusion has made us lose our scientific minds. De Waal, who identifies himself several times as a feminist, believes that his primatological expertise can help. The blurbs on the back of Different speak of the need for a “calm biological assessment” and congratulate its author for his bravery in stepping into such raging waters.

Humans, de Waal reminds us, are primates too, and often behave like them. And while other primates can be said to have a culture—and therefore, as de Waal convincingly argues, a gender as well as a sex—they are not as self-conscious as humans, who are notoriously dishonest on questionnaires. As such, each chapter moves between anecdotes from de Waal’s field experience, mostly with chimpanzees, and a gloss of the latest research of sex differences in humans. There is also a chapter on his Dutch childhood as one of seven brothers—“like all boys, we were physical and had lots of shouting matches”—and his brief stint in a group for male feminists, which he abandoned not because he disagreed with its aims but because he thought it vilified men. (Especially hurtful to him is the phrase “toxic masculinity.”)

There are several obvious difficulties in concluding anything about humans via observations of another species. First, as de Waal owns, our two closest primate relatives have very different gender relations. Chimpanzees are male-dominated and sometimes violent. Bonobos are female-dominated and peaceful: two females may resolve a dispute by rubbing together their genitals in delight. What are we to infer about our own baser instincts from two such different species, especially since chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to each other than they are to us? And why could and should not human gender relations be as distinct from these species’ as their gender relations are from each other? It is perhaps too obvious to mention that humans are the only species to prosecute sex crimes, or have legally fraught abortions, or bequeath property to the eldest son, or perform virginity tests. And in the course of a single lifetime—a cultural rather than evolutionary time scale—we have shown remarkable mutability in traits once seen as permanently gendered: for example, the time spent by American fathers with their children has nearly quadrupled in the last fifty years.

De Waal is fleetingly aware of the problems of conflating what is “natural,” what is “good,” and what is “possible.” He describes a presentation he gave to a group of women lawyers about the incontrovertible male dominance in chimpanzees and his surprise and irritation when some of the lawyers complained that the speech had been sexist. “Factual statements are sometimes taken as normative, which they aren’t,” he writes. “People find it hard to consider descriptions of other primates without relating them to themselves.” This disclaimer, while true, is wildly disingenuous coming from de Waal, whose career—ever since his 1982 Chimpanzee Politics popularized the use of the phrase alpha male to describe humans—has depended on just this confusion. To take ape behavior as both factually and normatively relevant to human gender relations is, of course, the very premise of Different.

In keeping with this premise, and with his ostensibly feminist aim, de Waal describes what he calls “unexpected” behavior in other primates. Male chimpanzees, usually uninvolved in parenting, have been known to adopt infants when their mothers die. Female chimpanzees have been observed as the shadow power behind the seemingly male-dominated hierarchy. De Waal describes the frequency of homosexual sex in bonobos and rhesus monkeys. He tells the story of Donna, a female chimpanzee who displayed some male characteristics. Donna was large, enjoyed wrestling, walked with a wide-legged swagger, could erect her body hair, and was uninterested in sex with males. “The best way to describe her,” de Waal writes, “is perhaps as a largely asexual gender-nonconforming individual.”

What are we to make of this? There are readers who will walk away from this text more sympathetic to homosexuality and gender fluidity in humans and more open to the idea that women can be powerful and men can be nurturing. Amid the hypermisogynistic conclusions of most pop-evolution pundits, this is not nothing; I could imagine Different as a useful if mild prophylactic against, say, Jordan Peterson. But to be seduced by essentialism, and especially zoological essentialism, would be a mistake for feminists.

We do not need to search for a nonhuman precedent to permit ourselves gender fluidity any more than we did before forming democracies or writing lyric poetry.

Because of his faith in a universal female maternal instinct, I was surprised when de Waal mentioned that he and his wife, Catherine, are “childless by choice.” Let us imagine the near future in which the right to contraception, which depends on the same right to privacy recently rejected in Dobbs, will come under attack. One side will surely argue that choosing not to have children is unnatural, that, as the (childless) pope recently said, “It takes away our humanity.” Would de Waal wish, in response, that we unearth evidence of other animals who avoid childbearing? That we search for the human gene associated with voluntary childlessness? That we argue that some people were simply born that way? Isn’t the stronger argument one about human freedom and choice?

Ask yourself: If male chimpanzees killed rather than adopted their orphaned infant siblings, would you think any differently about paternity leave? If not a single bonobo had ever been observed having gay sex, would you think any differently about homosexuality in humans? Surely, the right to live free from gender prescriptions does not depend on the existence of Donna the butch chimpanzee but instead on a basic human right to seek happiness where it does not imperil the pursuit of happiness in others. We do not need to search for a nonhuman precedent to permit ourselves gender fluidity any more than we did before forming democracies or writing lyric poetry. We, too, are animals; our behavior, too, is natural. I sometimes wanted to pull de Waal aside and say, The world that you labor to prove may someday exist already does.

THE APES ARE only the half of it. In each chapter, de Waal turns from his field observations to discuss human sex differences in such areas as toy use, parenting, violence, mating, and leadership. Some of his claims about human behavior are extrapolated from the behavior of other primates, and so, to my mind, irrelevant; others rely on the latest research into humans. Here, in his frequent use of essentialist fallacies, de Waal seems simply in over his head.

Sometimes the fallacy is obvious. “Both genders take pleasure in their own gender’s company and neither gender would like its friendships to be more like the other’s,” de Waal writes. “Women friends don’t desire more shared exploits, while men friends aren’t waiting for intimate revelations.” This extraordinary claim is even more baffling because it is contradicted by the very meta-analysis that de Waal cites in its support. A survey of thirty-seven previous studies found that women, not men, actually have slightly higher average expectations for “mutual activities [and] companionship”—de Waal’s “shared exploits.” And while two-thirds of the surveyed men claimed to want less “intimate revelation” than the average surveyed women, the other third of the men claimed to want more. If a coin were weighted to flip head two-thirds of the time, it would be wrong to say, “This coin flips heads.” It is a bad habit of essentialists to describe overlapping probability curves as mutually exclusive gendered traits, especially when the trait is suggestible and so the exaggeration self-fulfilling.

De Waal with baby chimpanzee Roosje in 1979. Photo by Desmond Morris.

Elsewhere, De Waal, who is aware that the differences between boys and girls are often thought to be socialized, looks for cross-cultural evidence to bolster an essentialist claim:

Observations in ten different cultures found girls to be more nurturant and involved in household tasks while boys played more often away from home. Most of these studies were conducted in the 1950s, before Western television and movies overtook the world, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, and India.

The emphasis on the apparent independence of the surveys is meant to show that girls, whatever their acculturation, prefer to stay at home, care for babies, and do chores. But girls everywhere are vulnerable to rape and pregnancy and so are less likely to be allowed to play outside and more likely to be taught how to care for others. It is ironic that de Waal, who scolds feminists for “acting like biology is irrelevant,” misses what few feminists would deny—that patriarchy has a biological origin. The enforced or adaptive behavior of women and girls caught in a natural-but-demolishable prison is an imperfect measure of a gendered preference. We should not confuse survival strategies with real desire.

Finally, de Waal adapts his essentialist view to transgenderism. Certain children, de Waal argues, are born with a gender identity that matches their sex; others are born with one that does not. Because de Waal thinks that sons and daughters, being different, must be raised differently—he takes umbrage with Gloria Steinem’s recommendation that we raise sons more like daughters—it seems crucial, in his world view, to identify which infant is cis and which is trans as soon as possible and to adjust accordingly. Here he cites the famous case of David Reimer (b. 1965), the victim of a botched circumcision, whose parents, on the recommendation of a sexologist, decided to raise him as a girl named Brenda. During his unhappy childhood, David resisted wearing dresses, stole his brother’s trucks, and felt an “irrepressible” urge to pee standing up. When he was informed as a teenager that he had been born male, he renamed himself David. He lived as a man until he killed himself at age thirty-eight, two days after his wife asked him for a divorce. De Waal finds in this story a warning against those who would ignore an innate gender identity. I take from it a different lesson. Wearing dresses rather than pants, playing with trucks, peeing standing up: these are morally neutral acts and should not be required or forbidden of any child. The tragedy here is not just the loss of freedom associated with the wrong gender assignment. It is that any enforced gender norm is a cage.

De Waal writes:

The big mistake, which we have faced before with respect to homosexuality, is to present being transgender as a disorder that needs fixing or a choice that needs correcting, as if it were a mere lifestyle preference. But being transgender is both intrinsic and constitutional.

This strikes me as well-meaning but quite misguided. Many people living with gender dysphoria desperately want their pain to be recognized as a disorder so that its treatment may be covered by insurance. (A disorder need not be constitutional—think of PTSD, for example.) But most worrying is de Waal’s dismissal of “choice.” There is nothing “mere” about a lifestyle preference associated with a historically ubiquitous site of oppression. Why should we not consider all kinds of gender fluidity the way we consider a lifestyle preference like marriage? In short, as a life choice that may be driven by strong hormonal, genetic, or cultural factors; that may be direly necessary for a person’s happiness or merely a slight preference; that may last forever or only a little time; that may involve a new legal status and perhaps a new name that takes some getting used to—but above all as a choice that is, in any case, a choice. The difference here is the difference between being tolerated and being free.

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