Gender, through the eyes of a primatologist

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“ [Male chimpanzees] become just as caring as a mother … even the alpha male, showing that these male chimpanzees who are so rough and violent and competitive, have a tender, caring side to them,” says primologist and author Frans de Waal. Photo courtesy of Frans de Waal.

Pronouns, language, hairstyles, social roles, and expectations surrounding gender identity have historically defined who we are. But is gender a solely human construct? 

Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of the 2005 bestseller “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are,” has spent decades studying animal behavior, particularly in our closest evolutionary cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees, who may hold the key to understanding our own behavior, identity, and biological differences.

“Gender diversity is not something that we sort of invented or that is superficial,” de Waal says. “I think it's inherently present in other primates.”

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DeWaal is Professor of Psychology at Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He has published numerous books and articles on animal behavior. In his latest book, “Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist,” de Waal turns his attention to the differences and similarities between the male and female primates. Are these behaviors learned or genetically hardwired?

Jonathan Bastian talks with de Waal about his research and what we can learn from animals about gender. Are there specific male and female roles or traits? Does gender even exist in the animal world? 

“Sometimes a mother dies, all of a sudden there's an orphan. And then the male chimpanzees show a potential that we rarely get to see: they have nurturing tendencies,” de Waal says. “A male adopts one of these orphans, not just for two days or so, but for five years sometimes.”

Primologist and author Frans de Waal. Photo by Catherine Marin. Book Cover “Different: Gender, through the Eyes of a Primatologist”




Andrea Brody