A Human Ape Jabbers Away

About this event

Different: What apes can teach us about gender

World-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal explores what we know of biological sex differences and of the role of culture and socialization.

How different are the sexes? Is gender uniquely human? Where does gender identity originate? Drawing on decades of observing our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, world-renowned primatologist and New York Times bestselling author Frans de Waal explores what we know of biological sex differences and of the role of culture and socialization. 

From maternal and paternal behaviour to sexual orientation, gender identity, and the limitations of the gender binary, de Waal analyses our shared evolutionary history with the apes, considering what is similar and what sets us apart.

From the blurb

The lecture was held at the Royal Institution (RI), whose motto is ‘Science Lives Here’, it is a charity which wants ‘to connect as many people as possible with science’. On its website the lecture was classed under ‘Biology and the human body’ and it attended by a fair number of children, students and academics, as you would expect.

Different: What apes can teach us about gender is also a book, one that I struggled to finish, given that it contradicted itself at every turn. To call it unrigorous would be too kind.

From the off

We were warned by the RI’s bod that the topic of gender these days was very you know. Because. And that if you were going to ask any questions about it, please just don’t sAY aNyThiNG whICh migHT Be. This is a great ethos for a scientific educational institution. I’m particularly grateful that they warned us off it several times, before the talk start, during the talk (by Frans de Waal himself) and at the start of the Q&A, because it really ensured that a full debate was had. But moreover I’m grateful the RI bod situated himself and Frans de Waal in neutral political terms: ‘two old cis het white guys’. The RI bod, by the way, was a neuroscientist.

Frans, in his own introduction, said that in the US there ‘was a lot of garbage going on’ with regards to trans and homosexual people.

Sex and gender

Frans knowledgeably informed us that people had stopped using the word ‘sex’ to describe biological sex, because in English it was too easy to confuse it with the verb ‘to have sex’. I mean the number of times I’ve been asked sex on a form and said: Yes please! Never mind that there are literally thousands of other words in English which have two meanings, Frans told us it was a ‘limitation of the English language’.

The story of how sex became gender is a complicated one and in the UK it probably relates back to the development of the Gender Recognition Act legislation, meaning it has primarily been a political shift, not a linguistic one. Vulvamort on Twitter did a thread on the discussions in Hansard on this.

Anyway, Frans had chosen to use the word ‘gender’ in place of sex, but admitted that gender also meant gender roles (i.e. previously known as sexist stereotypes), and therefore might not mean sex. Glad we’ve got that one cleared up!

Frans told us that gender (as he was now calling sex) was made up of ‘chromosomes, hormones, the size differences and sexual dimorphism’. This was ‘mostly binary, but not one hundred percent binary’. I don’t know why, but Frans forgot to tell us about this third gamete, which was a bit disappointing.

According to Frans, the main difference between men and women was upper body strength, otherwise there were very few differences. There were more differences between the sexes in chimps but again he was eager to downplay these, and said that there were even fewer differences in the case of bonobos, his favourite primate.

Transgender children

Just like in his book, Frans wanted to confront the issue of ‘transgender children’ early on. They exist and are real, he informed us, explaining that they tended to identify with the opposite sex parent from the moment they were born. The fact that for all of human history children have primarily identified with their mothers obviously being a bit lost on him. After all he is only a primatologist with a degree in biology or zoology (possibly both) and has spent tens of thousands of hours observing apes and monkeys.

In the book he gives an interesting anecdote about John Money, the man who pioneered the idea that so-called ‘sex change surgery’ was the cure for men diagnosed with gender dysphoria. He notes that Money was surrounded by a dozen fawning young women, who wanted to take his coat and fetch him his drinks, and also notes that later that day Money gave a lecture called ‘Epidemic Antisexuality: From Onanism to Satanism’ (page 52) which sounds like something I would definitely attend. Anyway Frans is a fan, explaining that Money had given us the vocabulary to ‘talk more intelligently and kindly’ about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Frans even mentioned that Money arranged the ‘sex reassignment’ of a boy called David Reimer who had had a botched circumcision and who later took his own life. However, he failed to mention that Money was also involved in the sexual abuse of both David Reimer and his twin brother, who also committed suicide. Undoubtedly he is aware though, as it is widely known and documented, including Money’s wikipedia entry and elsewhere.

Frans tell us that we have no idea what causes transgenderism but that it arises ‘early in life and cannot be reversed’ (page 72) and then maddeningly quotes Jan Morris, who transitioned in his late 40s, and Devon Price who I have never heard of before, but has said this about ‘detransitioners’.

Devon seems nice.

Frans likes quoting Joan Roughgarden, a trans-identified male biologist, whose book was politely savaged in a Guardian book review.

Frans believes children largely ‘socialise themselves’ and that the influence of parents is secondary to the effect of media and culture. He didn’t present any evidence to back this up, it is just something he feels.

Donna, the gender non-conforming asexual chimpanzee

Frans claims that he had seen ‘gender diversity’ within apes, with Donna a supposed gender non-conforming asexual chimpanzee being the only example he could offer. As an infant Donna apparently wrestled with adult males, when normally adult male chimps do not tolerate such behaviour from young females. As an adult Donna had big shoulders, a big head and a lot of hair, and therefore more male in appearance than female. She had, however, obvious female genitalia. Throughout life she continued to hang out with the males.

Frans described her as ‘asexual’ and said that she wasn’t interested in sex with other chimps, of either sex and therefore did not think she was a lesbian. Donna was very peaceful and well-accepted in the group.

Whether we might call Donna “trans” is beyond my ken, because with animals, this is impossible to know. […] The best way to describe her is perhaps a largely asexual gender-nonconforming individual.

page 69

Frans claimed that until now primatologists had not paid attention to these ‘exceptional individuals’ but instead focussed on typical male and typical female behaviours, ignoring the males who wanted to be more quiet. In the lecture Frans said that:

[…] if we start looking for gender diversity we gonna find a lot of that in primates. And the beauty of it, in my mind, is that these individuals are always accepted. I have never heard of an individual like that not being accepted. […] That’s an interesting difference in human society.

Frans de Waal during the lecture

The most obvious counter argument to Donna being gender non-conforming is that she lived in a sanctuary, this was not a wild chimpanzee. Presumably keepers ensured there were no food supply problems, managed the population to ensure that there were equal numbers of males and females and proactively managed any infighting. Because the one thing we all know about chimps is that you do not want to piss them off. In fact, Frans’ book begins with a dramatic story in which a male chimp had been ‘butchered by two rivals’ (page 6), so his argument about tolerance doesn’t really scan.

Pale, male and stale

My favourite moment in the lecture though was when he put up a photograph of George W. Bush taken during his time in office, with his two right hand men (Dick Cheney and I believe Donald Rumsfield) as an example of an alpha male being ‘over the hill’ and manipulated by those with more political acumen. Apparently chimps do the same.

Bush left office in 2009. Can you think of someone more recent who might be a more appropriate example of being ‘over the hill’ and prone to manipulation? I mean Bush was practically a spring chicken when he entered the White House aged 55, in comparison to Biden, aged 79, but who has the current mental capacity of a 97 year old and that’s on a good day.

How is it possible that this man is more than embarrassing than Trump? Answers on a postcard please

Bonobos vs chimps

Frans’ favourite primate is the bonobo. He prefers them because their society is apparently a matriarchy and because they aren’t as prone to violence as chimps. Frans also identifies as a feminist. In the book he is very keen to emphasise that bonobos have lots of sex, describing that the females often greet each other by rubbing their clitorises together, but as he tacitly admitted when showing a video (not the one below) the real driver of copulation was when they were presented with nice food (also confirmed by the speaker in the video below). So it seems Frans deliberately over-emphasised the importance of recreational sex in these animals in a desperate attempt to align the behaviours of bonobos and humans (as he does throughout the book).

Bonobo don’t mate that frequently in the wild but do when presented with fruit

Toys

All female primates are extremely attracted to playing with infants to learn maternal behaviour. In the wild female chimps will often pick up small logs/rocks and practice holding these like a baby. In other words, they make their own dolls. In contradiction to the another theory that Frans later promoted, he told us if you gave a doll to a male, ‘within an hour it would be taken apart’. So much for being in touch with their feminine side. This is apparently true across all primates and monkeys.

Fox News is baaaad

Frans wanted to change human society and have more female leadership, so that we can live life just like bonobos, with females initiating sex all the time. Okay, he didn’t say that but I suspect that is the ultimate, perhaps unconscious, goal Frans is aiming for.

Anyway Frans wanted us to know how awful it was that he saw something on Fox News once, about women in the workplace and some men on the panel said that they thought women should stay at home and be mums! Fran hates Fox News and want us to too (even though most people in the UK have barely an inkling what Fox is). I guess it was a dry news day when Fox ran that segment, I’m not sure what Frans’ excuse is.

Frans told us that there is always an alpha female, in addition to an alpha male, in primate societies.

Paternity Leave

Frans was unhappy that in the US, conservative commentators had made fun of paternity leave using the argument that men are not made to care for offspring and therefore it paternity leave was not really needed. Frans wanted to argue that male nurturing skills were very highly developed, even though he had just told us that in normal circumstances that male chimps never get involved in infant care and that infanticide and cannibalism wasn’t unknown from adult males towards infants.

Frans told us that when infants are orphaned males will sometimes take on the care of the youngster and showed us some footage of this.

Frans claimed that there were brain studies which proved that men who are primary care takers, i.e. gay male parents and single dads, had brains which become ‘more maternal-like’.

Frans’ conclusion

Gender and sex are different things but they somehow remain connected and that ‘all hominids have genders’ and if we only started paying attention to that we would ‘begin to see gender diversity’. A shame then that he hadn’t paid attention to it, gathered the data, wrote the book and then been able to do this presentation with just a fraction of evidence for that claim.

Question & Answer

After an extended plea to create a safe space the Q&A began.

Another zoologist in attendance

The first question was from Lucy Cooke, zoologist and author of the book Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal. Cooke is a she/her and has a book endorsement from everyone’s favourite gender-believing Professor – Alice Roberts. I understand from an Amazon review that Cooke’s last chapter is spent justifying gender identity ideology.

Cooke was excited by some research in which male mice had been found to have a brain switch once they started parenting. The same thing had been found in frogs. The researcher didn’t know what triggers this switch yet. Cooke wanted to know what evolutionary advantage there was in an adult male chimp adopting an infant. Could it be about having more chimps on your side?

Frans thought that males were primed to be responsive to vulnerable infants. Also there was an experiment where a bunch of infant macaques were given to a group of ten adult male macaques and the kids grew up alright. Frans explained it as ‘gender expectations’ and that males are only ‘expected’ to act up when females weren’t around, rather than the more obvious answer that this was simply survival of the species at play.

Evolution/empathy

The RI bod pushed him a bit further on that and asked wasn’t it simply a case of evolutionary survival? and Frans, in a roundabout way, said no, there was no reason why an adult male chimp would need to look after an unrelated infant unless empathy was at play.

Play behaviour

A woman who described herself as gay and who said that her play behaviour as a child had been more congruent to that of boy’s play behaviour. She wanted to know how common it was for primates to display this opposite type of play behaviour.

Frans got stuck in the wrong way, describing bonobo females as more bisexual than female chimps, and that adult females keep playing their whole lives. I think the answer he was looking for was ‘I don’t know’ and he did eventually get there, telling us again that once we start looking for this stuff ‘we’re gonna find it’.

Infanticide

A woman wanted to know how common infanticide was between the sexes and what was the reason for it. Frans told us it was mainly males who do this and some species were more prone to it. Normally it was done so that the new alpha male could get females back into breeding more quickly. Infanticide had been noted amongst the whole of the animal kingdom, including lions, bears and owls. This behaviour is always to the advantage of males.

Frans said that primates do not understand what sexual reproduction is and the only rule they follow is not to attack females they had recently had sex with or the young of those females. Therefore it was in the interest of the females to have lots of sex with as many different males so as to protect herself from future targeting. Frans described female bonobo society as a #MeToo movement.

Do male primates who adopt young do it better than females?

Frans had no idea and suggested that it wasn’t known amongst humans either. Frans thought that adoption studies of same sex parents had shown that they were just as good natural parents.

Birds are famously monogamous, are primates?

Strangely Frans decided to answer a completely different question, that of: Are animals homosexual? He suggested that penguins might try homosexuality for a couple of years before becoming boring cis hets and was keen to tell us that homosexuality is very rare among humans. The only species he knows where that is not the case, were sheep and claimed that some studies show that 12 percent of rams are homosexual for their whole lives. I’d like to ask some farmers to be honest with you, rather than rely on the word of a cranky postmodern academic loon.

Frans continued that he felt that most animals are open to doing it with both sexes, dependent on circumstances. If Frans hadn’t been so into the sexologists John Money and Alfred Kinsey I might have been prepared to give him a free pass on the ‘everybody is bisexual’ mantra, but he is and therefore I do suspect that this was a political answer, and one that he wanted to get in, so deliberately misheard the question.

Are your stories scientific?

I think the patience of the ‘old white cis het guy’ from the RI may have run out, as he wanted Frans to tell us whether the ridiculous anecdotes he was telling us were stories, or were they based in research? Yeah, you can test some of the things I say, said Frans, a bit defensive. On the subject of ‘gender diversity’ he reminded us, no one had paid attention to it, bringing attention to the fact, yet again, that he had written a book which claimed to answer that question, when it doesn’t. That was what the audience was there for.

Frans told us again that humans were very judgemental on the topic of gender, especially on the topic of transgenderism.

Back onto toys

Someone wanted to know if there was any data which existed for the male behaviour with dolls. Earlier in the talk Frans had claimed females always wanted to play with dolls and that males always wanted to take the doll apart, to find out what it was made out of – which completely contradicted his theories about innate male parenting.

Frans, rather than explaining why the males pulled the dolls apart, as he had claimed they do, instead spoke about how male monkeys had a preference for playing with trucks. It was thought it was something to do with movement and having higher energy levels. Frans said that this data was borne out in humans too, that of males having a preference for movement in infancy.

Do different groups of primates have a different ‘culture’ to that of other groups within their species?

Frans had come across different groups of primates in which power had been shared very differently, he wasn’t sure if this was ‘cultural’ but it was a possibility.

A question on intersex apes

There was a woman who wanted to know how many other intersex apes Frans had come across, having fallen under the spell of Donna the asexual gender-nonconforming chimp spoken about earlier.

Frans said he didn’t know much about intersex conditions amongst primates, but claimed that the numbers of ‘intersex’ human beings was ‘systematically downplayed’. He poo-pooed the idea that it was 0.2 percent, claiming that it was more like 1-2 percent. He didn’t know if Donna was ‘intersex’ but did know that she never had ‘children’. Can someone please explain to Frans the difference between being infertile and having a disorder of the sexual reproductive tract? Just joking, he knows.

What it is like being at a university in the USA with the current ‘feeling’ going on in the media?

Frans noted that American students, by comparison to European, where noticeably more reticent during lectures on the topic of sex and ‘eroticism’ (surely there is no such thing amongst lower primates, so why would he have the opportunity to talk about that?). Frans doesn’t express strong opinions with them and he certainly isn’t homophobic or transphobic.

A bit more from the book

In the book, as he was in his lecture, Frans is rabidly political, describing the US ‘bathroom bills’ as an attempt to ‘erase [transgender people] from the public sphere’ (page 72) and that the percentage of people who identify as trans is way more than 0.6 percent. He claims that the ‘bed nucleas of the stria terminalis, seems to be involved in gender identity’ (page 74), that in pregnancy ‘the body takes off in a different direction than the brain’ (page 75) and that ‘Gender identities are probably shaped in the womb through hormonal exposure’. All very sciencey.

He also lets us know that:

[N]o amount of conversion therapy, combined with prayer and punishment, changes the minds of transgender persons.

page 75

At this point in time, there is simply no excuse for such an obvious falsehood to appear in a book which is marketed as popular science. There are now literally thousands of people who have reneged on their claim to be transgender and regret the surgeries and drugs they have taken.

Frans has been influenced by the work of Donna Haraway, especially her book Primate Visions, which he describes as a ‘postmodern analysis of primatology’. Haraway is most well known for her work on transhumanism and her Cyborg Manifesto being a favourite of many a trans-identified academic.

The worst bits in the book is when Frans becomes a leering, smutty and slightly drunk professor, e.g. when informing us of yet another unscientific sounding study in which ‘American university students were photographed at different points in their menstrual cycle’ and that judges of both sexes decided that they were at their sexiest during ovulation peak, wearing ‘more fashionable clothing and revealed more skin’. Or in another he imagines what it might be like to be courted by a woman soliciting sex following ‘some flirtatious eye contact with raised eyebrows’ who then hurries off.

He has some questionable views about rape, telling us that he had never seen a female primate copulate against her will, yet gives an example in which a wild female chimp is forced into copulating with her own son (page 229). Later still he expresses something akin to surprise that humans generally don’t like ‘accidental brushing against a stranger’s breast, buttocks or genitals’ (page 368).

Towards the end of the book he returns to the subject of trans-identified males again.

Compared to their former lives, transgender women enjoy an increase in consideration but suffer a decline in respect. Transgender men, by contrast, enjoy more respect but meet less consideration.

After their transition, gender-conforming trans-women are treated more kindly and helpfully than they ever were as men. People smile at them in public spaces, hold a door open for them … [Continues to describe all the benefits] The increase in gentle treatment comes at a price, though […] they are taken less seriously. Their voices are ignored in meetings, and they are elbowed aside in the subway.

page 310 – my emphases

The above paragraphs further examples of the book not being proofread.

Chapter 12, Same-Sex Sex – Animals Carrying the Rainbow Flag, is frankly embarrassing. If it weren’t bad enough that he links homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom to an explicitly political movement, the waxing lyrical over ‘complicated penguin relationships’ had my hand pasted to my forehead and it didn’t come down until he admitted (in yet another major contradiction) that a biological basis to homosexual conduct and transgender identity had not been proved (page 358). It went back up again a few paragraphs later when he repeats his claim that ‘gender identity is detectable in the brain’. But I almost took the foetal position when he tells us that the two ‘gay penguins’ known as Silo and Ray ‘didn’t stay together’ as Silo left to take up a partnership ‘with Scrappy, a female from California’, and that:

The breakup rocked the Manhatten gay scene.

page 358 – no it fucking didn’t Frans

Bonobos, the supposedly sex-crazed primates Frans prefers to liken humans to, are ‘totally bi, or a perfect Kinsey 3’ (page 365) and that ‘Kinsey was right about the human mind’ (page 374). He claims it has been proven that the brains of homosexual men are like that of heterosexual women, vice versa, but that there is no such thing as a gay gene and that bisexual people face discrimination from both heterosexual and homosexual people. The last chapter of the book is more or less dedicated to defending the idea of ‘LGBTQ children’.

Society may discourage and punish these children all it wants, but it can’t quell their inner convictions. These convictions come from inside their bodies, not from outside.

page 394

Concluding thoughts from The Lies They Tell

Do you know what, I really thought I was going to learn something from attending the lecture and reading the book. What is wrong with me? Have I learnt nothing? You know there was actually a lot of interesting stuff in the book about primate and human behaviour, but how could anyone possibly trust it? And how could the Royal Institution ask him to speak when the book is so fucking bad?

I’ll give Frans de Waal the final word though, but not before saying what a bloody stupid idiot he is.

It remains true, however, that labels hand a powerful weapon to those who are phobic.

page 376

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