Book Review: Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender

Author: Frans de Waal

Published: 2022 WW Norton& Company (USA) and Granta Books (UK)

Reviewed by: Graham Kelly of the NPA’s Environmental Book Group 

Highly regarded primatologist Frans de Waal explores the biological and behavioural differences between the sexes in close living relatives of homo sapiens. It is based on decades of observations, primarily of chimpanzees and bonobos, and also including other primates and occasionally non-primates. DNA analysis indicates that great apes started evolving separately from monkeys about 30 million years ago (mya). Within great apes Orangutangs separated about 16mya, Gorillas 9mya, Humans 6mya, with the most recent separation between Chimpanzees and Bonobos 2mya.  

Key topics explored are dominance, power, keeping the peace, sexual signals, mating, violence, nurturing the young, and same-sex sex. The narrative is enlivened by many examples, good stories in their own right.  

Dominance is indicated by who gives way in potential conflicts, for example over mating or an item of food, and the use of submissive gestures. Chimpanzee males are dominant over females, while Bonobo females dominate. An individual’s ranking is relevant mainly for interactions within their own sex, as that is where bonds are greatest. The strong cohesion in Bonobo female groups explains female dominance. Bonobo males are physically stronger, but any male not respecting female dominance is quickly brought into line by the collective “sisterhood”.  

The alpha male and female are the highest ranking individuals within their own sex group. Fighting power is important for males to win and sustain their ranking. Personality, networking, strategic skills and family connections are also important for both sexes. A male can win alpha male status through fighting skills alone, but unless other skills are exhibited may not have long tenure. Multi-decade tenure has been observed for alpha females who win respect through age, leadership and wisdom. Chimpanzee females have significant power even though formally ranked below males. It is in the alpha male’s interest to look after the females, for example ensuring flow of food. Females often contribute to calming and repairing male relationships after conflict.  

Chimpanzee males initiate conflict much more often than females. Reconciliation soon after is very common, to maintain group cohesion. Females have deeper one-on-one friendships and seek to avoid overt conflict, as friendships are unlikely to survive it.  

These are examples of the many insights the author provides. He notes the commonalities between humans and other primates, a product of a long period of evolution.  He concludes that biological differences should not be ignored in debates about human gender roles and issues. A notable example is the strong nurturing instinct in females, evidenced by female behavior from a very young age in all primates. He does not believe, however, that biology can ever solely justify exclusion, for example learnt nurturing by males. His perspective is summed up in the final sentence…” it all comes down to mutual love and respect and appreciation of the fact that humans don’t need to be the same to be equal”. Members of the group found the book very interesting and fun to read.  

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