Part of the blogosphere that normally I keep under my radar has been carrying a lively discussion about a new paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London on domestic violence among chimpanzees in the wild. The paper is aptly titled, “Male coercion and the costs of promiscuous mating for female chimpanzees” but most of your attention should focus on Shelly Batts’ post, “Domestic Violence in Chimps.” If you want, here’s the abstract to give you a sense on what the authors accomplished in their study,

“For reasons that are not yet clear, male aggression against females occurs frequently among primates with promiscuous mating systems. Here, we test the sexual coercion hypothesis that male aggression functions to constrain female mate choice. We use 10 years of behavioural and endocrine data from a community of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) to show that sexual coercion is the probable primary function of male aggression against females. Specifically, we show that male aggression is targetedd towards the most fecund females, is associated with high male mating success and is costly for the victims. Such aggression can be viewed as a counter-strategy to female attempts at paternity confusion, and a cost of multi-male mating.”

Shelly does a good job summarizing the basis of the paper, which tries to give some evolutionary/reproductive success clarification for why male chimps beat up female chimps. She writes,

“during estrus, the competition for access to these few fertile females is intense. The leading theory, albeit a shaky one, is that the physical abuse is punishment for female chimps’ promiscuity. By bullying them, they are discouraged from seeking other males, making it more likely that resulting offspring is his. Another explanation is simply that the violence is the result of disputes over food resources.”

That’s what this paper tries to tackle and ends there, however as people read the paper or third hand reports of the paper they get a distorted sense of what was originally published. They quickly anthropomorphize this behavior.

Some of the comments at Shelly’s post show me how quick to interpret people are over an observed behavior. While some of the comments are really insightful, some of them are not so much, and some of them have moments of brilliance confounded with a truly reactionary comment. Take this one for example, it comes from feminazi… so you can see where this is going. At first feminazi starts out with an astute observation,

“Males have always possessed the desire to control female reproduction and they use violence or the fear of violence as a control mechanism. “

Then feminazi goes off the deep end with,

“Perhaps if male chimps could develope an artifical womb and make their own children would they finally stop trying to control females’s lives. But then they’d probably just sell the baby female chimps to other males and abuse them… Males suck. Truth hurts. Deal.”

In contrast, Joy Spoiler’s comment is excellent. It really gives me a sense this person can separate an observed behavior and its implications on a larger scale. Here’s what he/she wrote,

“…I’m really tired of science as victim narrative in anthropology. Scientists make distinctions between things that are different. Phrases like “domestic violence in chimps” are anthropomorphic fallacies and inappropriate value judgements that confuse people who aren’t trained to make such distinctions.”

Shelly’s not to blame she left the interpretation out of her post. And I don’t know who really is in this matter. Could feminazi and crew have read another report upon which they jumped to their irrational, outlandish conclusions? Perhaps. There’s a news article on this study over at Science Magazine by John Bohannon that perpetuates some of the misconceptions. John writes naively that chimps don’t “believe in monogamy.” That’s not the case John, it is hard to argue that chimps believe in a set lifestyle that we decide upon and to phrase the comment like that you subjugate people to start thinking as if chimps think the ways we do, and live the ways we do.

Chimps do not. They are one of our closest evolutionary relatives, we share a common ancestor with chimps… we have some similarities as far as social structure, behavior, morphology, and genetics for example. But we are different. We can’t take those similarities and apply them to the same situations that occur in our lives. We need to stop jumping to conclusions. Bonobos, a great ape similar to chimpanzees (actually more similar to us than we are to regular chimpanzees) do not have this ‘domestic violence’ in their society. What about that, how does this change feminazi and other reactionary comments?

What we need to understand is that chimps live in a completely different socio-cultural context from us. We need to drop this bias quickly if we want to study chimpanzees and other organisms in the context they live in… and not in the context we live in or see them living in.

Advertisements