Frans de Waal on what apes can teach us about sex and gender

Having studied chimps and bonobos for decades, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that variation in gender-typical behaviour is likely to be more common than we thought in humans

Humans 4 May 2022

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Nabil Nezzar

WHERE once we thought of ape behaviour only in terms of sex and war, we now understand that our closest relatives live a much more nuanced life. A huge part of that understanding comes from the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Over the past five decades, he has shown that cooperation is at least as important as competition in explaining primate behaviour and society. His work has revealed that the great apes might fight, but they also reconcile their differences. They have a capacity for empathy and a concept of fairness that de Waal proposes is the foundation of the human moral compass. He believes that chimps, bonobos and humans are simply different types of ape and that empathetic and cooperative behaviours are continuous between these species. Now, he has turned his attention to gender and identity in his new book Different: What apes can teach us about gender. We spoke to de Waal to find out what he has learned.

Rowan Hooper: You are well known for writing about the inner lives of chimpanzees and bonobos, but your new book is a bit different, because it discusses gender roles, gender identity and biological sex differences in both apes and us. What do we mean by gender in non-human primates?

Frans de Waal: Well, some people insist that we have genders and chimps and bonobos have sexes, and that is the end of the discussion. I think that is nonsense. Gender as a concept exists mainly because we are a sexually reproducing species. Sex is predominantly …

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