Primate Studies, Gender Bias and Competition

My PhD thesis looked at biodiversity conservation from a feminist philosophy of science perspective.  Part of the analysis considered ways that evolutionary sciences in particular could reflect gender biases, and I focused on primate studies (here is an excerpt):


Primate studies provide us with easily identified examples of gender biases that have existed in evolutionary sciences; these biases involve a hierarchical model in which male aggressive and dominant behavior is central to study, while female behavior, labeled submissive, is secondary.  Donna Haraway provides a historical view of primatology, explaining scientific practices adhered to in the 1930’s, referring to the work of comparative psychologist and primatologist Robert M. Yerkes:  “[Yerkes’] study linking sex and power was typical of work in the 1930’s, and hardly different from much to this day…to Yerkes that economic link of physiology and politics seemed to have been scientifically confirmed to lie at the organic base of civilization.”[1]   Haraway continues her exposition with a detailed account of anthropologist Sherwood Washburn’s contributions to primatology in the 1960’s, which defined a biology of male aggression leading to dominance hierarchies.[2]  This attitude persists and “primatologists have continued to ask about the selective advantage of dominance behaviour and have tended to assume, rather than test, a correlation between breeding advantage with an entity called dominance.”[3]

Tang-Martinez adds further detail to such present-day biases as she explains the persistent use (by sociobiologists) of baboons as the evolutionary “prototype” for human beings; she calls this the “baboonization” of human evolution.[4]  Baboons have been selected as many sociobiologists’ favorite species because their social organization, which consists of hierarchical relationships between males and females, seems to be a mirror image of human social organization and relationships.[5]   When baboons are not used in comparison to human beings, sociobiologists of this ilk have been known to interpret relationships between males and females of primate species within the same male-dominance/female-submission model; for instance, according to Tang-Martinez, Russel (1993) described lemur relationships in terms of “aggressively determined dominance hierarchies” in which males were “adventurous and active” and females “passive and timid” (he considers lemurs to be the “prototype” for human evolution).[6]

Both Tang-Martinez and Haraway do, however, highlight certain primatologists’ work that does not exhibit such biases.  Tang-Martinez challenges the “baboonization” of human evolution through an array of examples detailing variability among primates; we are reminded by this author that the sociality and behaviors of primates are highly diverse, and include the exhibition of dominance and submission by both males and females (male and female primates present a range of behaviors and relations that do not allow for generalizations about primates to do with either of the sexes).[7]  Tang-Martinez also refutes Russel’s conclusions by referring to Sussman (1994), whose extensive study of ring-tailed lemurs has led to contradictory conclusions that, for one thing, give females of the species much greater agency within social relations.[8]   Smuts’ (1995) conclusion that “humans are an exception to the typical primate pattern of sexual egalitarianism”[9] also furthers the point that hierarchy is in the eye of the beholder.

Haraway introduces the perspectives of Thelma Rowell and Tanner and Zilman as a contrast to Yerkes and Washburn.  Rowell’s studies of primate behavior (Haraway refers to research Rowell conducted in the 1970’s) yielded conclusions quite different from those arrived at by Yerkes; she avoided “emphasizing primate universals” and instead her research was “permeated by particularism, by counsels to notice complexity, by insistence on variability.”[10]   Rowell considered any identification of hierarchy in primate social systems to be “an artifact of methods of observation”.[11]  When these methods were changed, the structure of the hierarchy was also differently conceived (so there was no absolute in terms of how to characterize social relations).  While Haraway identifies a shift from focus on dominance to more recent focus on “stress” descriptions of primate social relations, there is a strong correlation between the two concepts; social relations in the form of a system consist of “subordination hierarchies”, which are mapped in terms of individual stress susceptibility.  Within the concept of stress (and the social “system”), dominance has been associated with those animals that appear calm in most situations, while “shy” or nervous animals are labeled subordinates.  But, in Rowell’s explanation of stress, “both nervous and calm animals would have a role in efficiently monitoring the environment for danger or for maintaining intra-group peace.”[12]

Tanner’s and Zilman’s research of chimpanzees offers another example of non-hierarchical thinking from within sociobiology.  For them, chimpanzees, who do not exhibit “rigid dominance hierarchies”, appear better suited as human evolutionary prototypes; they do not make this comparison merely due to close genetic links or because it appeals to feminist sensibilities, but rather, they reconsider the social lives of early hominids and provide reinterpretation from this evidence (concluding that “gathering of plants and animals was unlikely to maintain much selection pressure for an aggressive biology”).[13]   Haraway ultimately questions the value of comparative studies, despite her introduction of the Tanner and Zilman argument, pointing out the need for (and the beginnings of) a change in “focus from primates as models of human beings to a deeper look at the animals themselves—how they live and relate to their environments in ways that may have little to do with us.”[14]


I was considering these biases in terms of improving conservation efforts – the need for evolutionary ecology, or even ethology, with a  legitimate foundation,  to provide the scientific basis for conservation efforts rather than a systems ecology, but I also wanted to present challenges to the ways in which we have related to other nonhuman organisms and to each other, in order to begin to understand how we could change relationships.  I also looked at assumptions about competitive relationality, but not in the context of primatology:


Birds such as scrub jays and brown jays raise their young through “cooperative” partnerships.  Cooperative breeding involves the parent birds accepting assistance from closely related helper birds.  This “altruistic” behavior on the part of the helpers seemed at first to fly in the face of theory, which would explain all behavior in terms of competitive individualism (“the only respectable form of evolutionary explanation”).[1]   But sociobiologists solved the discontinuity by introducing a new theory that could explain the behavior in familiar terms:  “kin selection theory made it possible to frame hypotheses about cooperative breeding in terms of competitive individualism and to test these hypotheses within a comfortable theoretical matrix”.[2]   How was this theory applied to cooperative breeding?  Scientists explained the altruism of helper birds in this manner:  “helpers might raise lifetime fitness by remaining with and sharing responsibilities for raising close kin”.[3]  Helpers did not establish their own breeding territories because of “habitat saturation”, which meant that, “in crowded environments young animals would experience higher lifetime reproductive success if they remained in their natal territories and awaited a breeding opportunity in their own or neighboring flock”.[4]   When the habitat saturation model did not explain the behavior of helping in field studies, many scientists deferred to the notion that available habitats must be of poor quality.  As evident, sociobiologists attempted to maintain theoretical continuity.

Lawton, Garstka, and Hanks studied brown jays and came to alternative conclusions about cooperative breeding.  Their field research, along with that of other scientists, first revealed that “helpers were not constrained to stay in their natal groups because there was no place to go…even in the presence of suitable breeding habitat, cooperative breeding and helping persisted”.[5]  At the same time that they challenged the habitat saturation model, Lawton Garstka, and Hanks also challenged the idea that helpers would assume this role because of poor quality breeding territories near their original home habitats.  These findings led the three sociobiologists to ask the questions, “Why was it always assumed that birds should leave their natal territories?  Why was sociality viewed as a default option, forced upon individual animals?  Why did group living and cooperation appear so problematic?”[6]  Lawton, Garstka, and Hanks then refer to Darwin to support their point that this behavior should not be problematic for evolutionary biology and need not be squared with competitive individualism.

Biologists found a way to “turn cooperation into competition via kin selection theory”, but this conversion did not have to occur.  Different questions needed to be asked in order to understand helping behavior from a new and more nuanced perspective, which allowed for better explanation of what was actually being seen in field studies.  Lawton, Garstka, and Hanks make the statement that, “the primacy of selfish individualism in evolutionary biology derives not from a conscious political agenda, but from an unconscious iconography of competition embedded in Western culture”.[7]   But these scientists prove that sociobiology in this vein, which provides a basis for evolutionary ecology, can see beyond the need for theoretical continuity, in this case concerning competition, and as such it can highlight other ways of relating.


The potential for over-emphasis of competitive individualism in evolutionary biology has ramifications in terms of gaining a real (more accurate) understanding of the organisms being studied and “conserved”, and it can also be used to justify human competitive individualism (which can then define the ways that we relate to other beings).

In the coming weeks, I will revisit primatology studies to provide an updated investigation, while also looking at the conclusions made about human behaviour as determined in relation to other primates (for instance, I would include Frans de Waal’s assertions about bonobos).    I have begun to develop the challenge to competitive individualism by presenting evidence of empathy and helping behaviour in primates in other blog posts and pages of the website (to be further developed under ethics pages).

[1] Haraway, 1991, p. 14

[2] Ibid, pp. 34-35

[3] Ibid, p. 30

[4] Tang-Martinez, 1997, pp.125, 126

[5] Ibid, p. 126

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pp. 124-125

[8] Ibid, p. 126

[9] Ibid, p. 127

[10] Haraway, 1991, p. 31

[11] Ibid, p. 32

[12] Ibid, p. 33

[13] Ibid, pp. 40-41

[14] Ibid, p. 19

[1]Lawton, Garstka and Hanks, 1997, pp. 65-66

[2] Ibid, p. 66

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, pp. 66-67

[5] Ibid, p. 67

[6] Ibid, p. 68

[7] Ibid


I’ve just been reading a few articles about de-extinction:

Bringing Extinct Species Back to Life – National Geographic

De-extinction critics at Scientific American have missed the point – The Guardian (Welz)

I am definitely a critic for a number of reasons, partly explained in previous posts:

1)  Irreplaceability – recognising that we cannot re-create what has been lost, and this provides impetus to cherish the organisms that still do exist on the planet (rather than relying on technological fixes).  At the same time, a cloned woolly mammoth introduced into a habitat now is not the same as the woolly mammoths that resulted from evolutionary processes.

2)  Destruction of existing habitats and loss of organisms due to development, hunting, etc, etc – as the National Geographic article rightly highlights, where will these de-extinct animals go?    If they are “re-introduced”, they may suffer the fate of the  oryx and go extinct once again.

3)  Environments and organismic relationships within those environments have changed since extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth roamed the earth – surely the re-introduction could be problematic for existing organisms, who have evolved without the presence of mammoths?

4)  Cost and effort – while re-creating megafauna long since extinct could bring in revenue (through curiosity value, etc), the money and effort thrown into these projects takes focus away from the real problems at hand.  We need to focus in the short-term on supporting endangered species, but in the long-term on changing how we relate to the natural world, and this is a massive task.

5) Being able to do something doesn’t mean we should do it (if that point is reached when it comes to de-extinction)!  Scientists should not be driven by ego, dressed up as concern for conservation.  De-extinction seems more about pushing boundaries for the sake of the scientists involved and bringing back charismatic species because they are “exciting”.

It would have been amazing to actually see a dodo or Javan tiger, but it’s purely selfish in my mind to try to bring creatures like this back to the earth through genetic manipulations in the first place (an amount of tinkering that is going too far) and even worse when other existing organisms, including the remaining primates,  struggle to survive in diminishing and degraded habitats.

Scientific American articles on the subject:

Will we kill off today’s animals if we revive extinct ones?

Expiration fate:  can de-extinction bring back lost species?