Male violence towards female chimpanzees, in regards to promiscuity

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.

4 thoughts on “Male violence towards female chimpanzees, in regards to promiscuity

  1. I’m honored that someone of a scientifically inclined nature took at least part of my comment seriously, thanks. Also amusing that I happened upon your post about it.

    Yes, that last bit I was being snarky. Only a tiny percentage of men (and women too) are real jerks, but I’m still ticked about it. I try to control myself, mostly I succeed but sometimes I fail.

    I find myself frequently meditating upon various aspects of gender relationships, history, biology, you name it. One thing for which I have no answer is why women have had the legal status of cattle for 6000 years in almost every place and time in recorded history. People assume I’m attempting to lay guilt or blame when I say that; sometimes yes but most times I’m just wondering, trying to figure out the “why” part and looking for clues.

    Some people try to blow off the significance of that question with variations of “family unit/division of labor efficiencies”, but that doesn’t really address the obvious inequalities in legal status. Reducing the problem to “culture” merely excuses behavior without explaining the mental gymnastics required to validate that behavior.

    If you want to discriminate against a group, all you have to do is first make them different from yourself -even if that difference exists only in your mind- so that you no longer have empathy for them. It’s easy to make a group into “the other” if they live across the ocean or on the wrong side of the tracks, whereby face-to-face interaction is either brief or nonexistant; but I do not understand how someone can make his sister or his wife or his daughter into “the other” if they are standing right in front of him, or perhaps even sharing his bed.

    It’s impossible for me to dislike, disrespect, or discriminate against an entire group of people after getting acquainted with even one member of that group and experiencing a positive relationship. I do not understand how a majority of men could have lived among females on a daily basis and yet continued to justify women’s unequal legal status for so very many years.

    But back to the apes, and the people who study them. It doesn’t surprize me at all that a scientist who practices careful research methodology would be offended when random strangers purport to see more in the results than what a study actually indicates. What does amaze me, however, is how scientists usually remains courteous dispite whatever wacky gibberish those same random strangers often spout. Is there a class I can take, do you think, so I can learn how to do that? 🙂

    Yes, I also thought about the bonobos. Simplisticly, I’d compare their way of interacting with a more matriarchal human society, and the chimps would be the patriarchal. Oh ho, you see this train of thought all started when I questioned how and why a group of human females would voluntarily enter into a patriarchal system in the first place. That would be where “the fear of violence as a control mechanism” comes into play. Apparently, even male chimps know how to use that technique to their advantage.

    However, in case you’re wondering, I have just enough sense to know that there’s this cute leetle thing called speculation without proof, – and what you said about chimps being different from humans. How different, is yet another question. If I were to attempt a theory to understand my questions on gender, I’d probably leave the animals out of it -too many people take offense at the suggestion that humans are animals too.

  2. Feminazi,

    I apologize for not responding to your comment sooner. In all honesty, I was taken aback and really humbled by your thoughtful comment. I’ve actually been digesting what you have wrote for the last week or so.

    In regards to your thoughts on various aspects of gender relationships throughout all time and place do have tangents back into the animal world. There are species of animals that technically have ‘harems’ and the female of the species is corralled much like the cattle analogy you have used. Examples of such are often gorilla tribes, lion packs, etc. There are some interesting sociobiological tangents one can draw, and most often people summarize the evolutionary significance (excuse, or story telling in my opinion) of why we see this: females have the eggs, which are finite in number and something to be competed for. A male with a comparably infinite number of gametes must gather as many females as he can in order to be evolutionarily successful…. To be a bit more candid I don’t understand what the story ultimately clarifies, in contrast it just compounds an already evasive phenomenon with another. I guess we should be asking why a male or a species wants to be successful? What does success mean?

    Anyways back to the topic at hand… This situation doesn’t apply throughout all of the animal world, but it is largely observed that males compete with one another to have control to females. If in case you never heard that, I hope then, that it is somewhat informative to why some of the gender relationships are the way we see this.

    I want to also comment on your observation that for the last 6,000 years females have been treated poorly. There are documented cultures where that wasn’t the case, some groups of people in South East Asia live under matriarchal social systems. But the predominant cultures for the last 3,000 years have been patriarchal (at least the ones that have won the wars) and as cultures spread and were assimilated into on big “Western” culture, this male-centered tradition became more and more dominant. I’m sure you don’t need to know this, but where I’m getting at is that gender relationships are social constructs and are passed down socially. There isn’t anything directly biological to make males discriminate females.

    Socially constructed things are roles and behaviors people adopt by being acculturated into a system of living. The very term woman is a socially constructed term that can be opposite from the biological term female, should a culture decide too. Roles like ‘washing dishes’ or being the ‘bread-winner’ vary from time and place. Moreover, these socially constructed terms do not translate into primate life.

    Ultimately, primates do not live in the social environments we do, at least not to the extent that humans do. Humans for the most part exist more in a social environment than they do a natural one. To say male chimps are violent towards females and so that’s an analogy for human behavior is faulty for that very reason. Again, there are (and have been) cultures where human males act more feminine than females.

    I don’t mean to down play the importance of feminism whatsoever, all I mean to emphasize is that there is little to be drawn from the animal world as far as these matters go. Femininity, and adverse attitudes towards it, was constructed by us and it is us who adopt it or do not.

    Anyways, I’ll get off my soapbox for now. I appreciate your comment again. As far as your curiosity where scientists get their communication skills, if you ever spend some time at a scientific conference you’ll definitely get a sense the lack of communication skills.


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