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English Review: Sex and Gender: What Can We Learn from Primates? Reading by Professor Frans de Waal

Gender in het dierenrijk | Lezing door primatoloog Frans de WaalSex and Gender: What Can We Learn from Primates?  | Reading by Professor Frans de Waal | Tuesday 7 June 2022 | 20.00 – 21.45 uur | De Vereeniging, Nijmegen

Terugblik (NL)

Sex and Gender: What Can We Learn from Primates?

Nijmegen, June 7, 2022. The filled-to-capacity “Amphitheater” of Sociëteit “De Vereeniging” offered the grandiose setting for a reading by Professor Frans de Waal (1948). Professor de Waal completed his undergraduate studies in biology at Radboud University Nijmegen and currently is the C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, Atlanta, United States. He is one of the world’s foremost primatologists and is known in particular for his research on the behaviour and social intelligence of primates. He has published numerous bestsellers – e.g. Politics (1982) and Our Inner Ape (2005) – and in 2007 was named as one of the Top 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. In this reading, which relates directly to his latest book Anders. Gender door de ogen van een primatoloog (Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist), Professor de Waal focused on the following question: what can we learn about sex and gender by looking at other primates?

Sex vs Gender? Sex and Gender

What is the difference between gender and sex? According to professor de Waal, the term “sex” is usually reserved for the “biological side of things”, i.e. hormones, genitals, and chromosomes and so-called gametes (reproductive cells; sperm cells and ova). Sex (male/female) is mostly binary. The term “gender” has to do with expectation patterns; what we expect from males and females or how we cultural think we should express ourselves as males and females. Unlike sex, gender (masculine/feminine) is not binary but falls on a spectrum. Such a distinction between nature and nurture is very familiar in biology. Moreover, apart from always making this distinction, biologists agree that nature and nurture cannot be separated; they are intensely intertwined, with all sorts of feedback loops between them. Nothing, and in particular not gender, is purely cultural. We are biological organisms acting in our environment and so none of the properties we humans have are purely biological or purely cultural. Purely biological or purely cultural properties simply do not exist.

Is Gender Uniquely Human?

It is often said that people have a gender and a sex whilst animals only have a sex. But is gender really a uniquely human social construct? Using examples from studies on bonobos and chimpanzees — two species of apes that genetically speaking are equally closely related to humans — professor de Waal argues that learnt gender roles are also observed in other primates. For instance, chimpanzee males are dominant whilst bonobo females are. Observations such as these challenge our beliefs about what is masculine and what is feminine. Moreover, in all primates young females learn techniques that are required for future motherhood whilst young males engage in rough and tumble play that teaches them how to control their strength. This shows that in non-human primates an individual’s sex and how that individual is expected to behave are closely related. In professor de Waal’s words, it shows that “separating sex and gender is an illusion”. All hominids – humans and apes – have genders; they all learn from their environments and there are ways that members of a certain sex are expected to behave. Gender is not just a human social construct. Moreover, an enormous gender diversity is observed in nature.

Humans vs Primates

The existence of gender and gender roles is a point of convergence between humans and non-human primates. Are there are any differences too? Professor de Waal points 1 out that an important difference between humans and animals when it comes to gender (and sexuality): in the animal kingdom non-conforming individuals do not experience the same problems — the same social exclusion — that non-conforming humans face. People label everything and have a habit of being intolerant; animals do not do this and non-conforming individuals are fully integrated and face no problems unless they cause trouble.

Conclusion: what can we learn from primates?

Following the reading, Professor de Waal was joined in conversation by Pam Tönissen, philosopher and programme maker at Radboud Reflects. Asked about what we can learn from primates, Professor de Waal is careful not to commit the is-ought fallacy: we should not look at how things are in the animal kingdom to conclude how things ought to be in the human domain. What biology does show us, however, is that certain views are non-sensical and overly simplistic, e.g. viewing gender as something purely cultural or holding that genders do not exist (and only the sexes do). Gender and sex are intertwined, and should not be seen as completely separated from one another. Moreover, gender is not rigid but in flux and our views on gender continuously change. Although our current views on gender might very well seem old-fashioned ten years from now, what is important in discussing gender is that biological aspects are not ignored. Discussing gender in complete separation from biology simply is not possible.

Young-il Kim, Radboud University.