Great Ape See, Great Ape Do

While my degree is in English Lit, I had originally been intending to go into Marine Biology (to study dolphins) and I tested out quite high on whatever it those “where should we place you?” exams are called.  I did a fair amount of study in basic biology, evolutionary theory, anthropology and related subjects.

One of the things I learned is that when it comes to primates, there are a variety of different reproductive strategies represented in the wild – troops with alpha males and harems, life long monogamy, temporary pair bonding, and, of course, the Bonobos who are as versatile and confusing as humans.

The one thread that runs pretty much through all of the different species of ape is a simple dynamic:  males pursue and females select.

If this were the be all and end all of the relationship, we’d probably have little to be talking about.  However, it most obviously is not.

Barbara Smuts, who worked with Jane Goodall in the Gombe Preserve, studying chimpanzees in the wild became interested in mating behaviors and discovered that aggression towards fertile females by males was not uncommon.  In fact, she found that such behaviors pretty much ran through the primate family.

Curious, she delved deeper and, among other things, discovered baboons that prey on juvenile females, using threats of violence as coercion. The juveniles learn that remaining loyal to one male reduces the violence.  When mature, these females avoid congress with other males.

Similar methods of coercion are expressed by a variety of primate species.

Smuts also identified several primate species that flipped this dynamic on its head.  When females banded together and jointly enforced their powers of selection, males did not engage in physical coercion, or were roundly beaten and ostracized for attempting to do so.  In the article linked to here, Smuts compares these kinds of banding together strategies to those of Orangutans, who are solitary, and notes that female orangutans are frequently subject to physical abuse and forced mating encounters (rape).

An awful lot of these behaviors ought to sound familiar, at least if you accept the concepts of evolution.  We’re Great Apes and the fact that other species of apes share many of our behavioral traits ought not to be surprising.  We should be gaining insight into our own behaviors by studying other apes.

Apparently, our females are.  They’re banding together to reassert their rights to select.  “High-ranking females use their dense network of female alliances to rule the troop; although smaller than males, they slap persistent suitors away like annoying flies.”

Males, on the other hand, seem to be taking their time in coming around to the realization that the old methods of “pursuit” (and I use that word loosely) are not only no longer acceptable, but simply will not work.  Males of our species have a choice:  learn new methods, (and not of the MRA type) or get demoted to the status of insecta.

We’re experiencing evolution in action.  If you want your genetic code to be represented in succeeding generations, you better pay attention.


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