Frans de Waal writes in Anders about sex and sexuality in animals

book cover of Frans de Waal

Unlike that It is by no means the first book written by Frans de Waal on monkey research, but it is the one with the most controversial topics. So he stays close to his area of ​​expertise: the social behavior of great apes and how this relates to behavior in humans. Note that many people are curious about what gender and sex differences in animals might mean for how human society works. In order not to raise unrealistic expectations, de Waal begins with a careful disclaimer: Observations of great apes do not serve as a model for how humans should act. Biologists don’t judge behavior, they just observe it.

Indeed, he continues the book with some observations on all kinds of animals, mostly on great apes, divided into themes. The book seems a little disorganized at first, but after explaining the context and definitions of gender, sexuality, and other key concepts, each chapter follows a similar thread. De Waal describes all kinds of interesting anecdotes and anecdotes of animal behaviour. It then explains which similarities can be seen in humans, or what influences ideas about animals over ideas about differences between the sexes.

sex versus gender

De Waal is clearly always aware of the distinctions between the terms “sex” and “sex” and when to use any concept. Gender relates to an individual’s biological sex i.e. male, female or intersex. Gender relates to social and educated ideas about what “masculinity” and “femininity” are. Gender also indicates whether or not you identify with your biological sex, for example in transgender people. Therefore, gender is an important concept if we want to study human behaviour. With animals, researchers always talk about sex, because an animal cannot explain exactly how it defines itself.

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For example, de Waal examines the cliché that women are modest, chaste, and loyal to men when it comes to sex. He gives an example of how chimpanzee mating proceeds. The woman begins to lie down with a bulge in her genitals (indicating that she is fertile at that moment) towards the man she is contemplating, as if she is resting there for a while. The man flawlessly notices this and through all sorts of detours they meet at a sheltered spot in the woods to close the courtship as quietly as possible.

This may sound cumbersome and secretive, and it is. Although the female is known to the rest of the colony to mate with a dominant male who is high up in the hierarchy, she often maintains a number of lovers. In addition to immediate causes such as excitement and pleasure, the biologist describes that it is evolutionarily advantageous for women to have sex with multiple men. If several men were to bear her child, they would all act protective and share food with her. So the idea that women only have sex to get pregnant is outdated. This also applies to people, writes de Waal. The statement that men’s sex drive is stronger than women’s has not been strongly supported by scientific research. Observations of the behavior of great apes, of which the above example is just one of many, further emphasize how diverse motivations for sex can be.

Surprise: We can’t know everything

Throughout the book, de Waal explores how ape behavior relates to human behavior. As a result, you, as a reader, sometimes begin to experience stories as if they were about people, which the writer warned about at the beginning of the book. It is precisely in those moments that I bring you out of this illusion by naming what we do not know. For example, there is no evidence that monkeys know that sex leads to a baby. Nor can we ask an old ape whether he realizes that he is about to die. This keeps you on the right track as a reader: scientists can observe and compare, but not know whether monkeys think the same way about concepts as we do, for example about reproduction or death. Great apes always remain different from humans in some ways.

De Waal concludes with a meditative and powerful final chapter in which he asserts that you can never separate mind from body. In humans, it is very difficult to separate the effects of biological origin on the one hand and pressure from society to conform to a certain image on the other. Research into great apes can provide surprising insights, because these animals are not subject to human cultural values. From this we learn of a number of seemingly universal gender/gender differences.

However, these differences are not absolute: there are always overlapping regions, de Waal describes. Not all men and women are exactly the same, and some feel unrepresented by either term. De Waal advocates accepting differences and embracing diversity, because life without it would be boring. Instead of focusing on differences, we should strive for equal treatment and opportunity. “Live and let live” isn’t always the case with animals, as this book also makes clear, but it does when it comes to sexual expression or preferences. Biologists have never mentioned about animals rejecting each other based on those traits. As humans, we can learn something from that.

Frans de Waal, Anders (translated by Albert Wittveen), Contact Atlas, 440p.

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