Naturalistic observation is awesome. Every day, you go out in the wild, pen and notebook in hand, discreetly writing down everything you see and hear. Occasionally, you take notes from audio or video recordings or rely on the work of your colleagues to stay up to date. And over the course of several weeks or months, you review your material, extract trends, and try to impart some meaning to all the information you’ve collected.
Honestly, it kind of sounds like a semester at Duke.
Our Evolutionary Anthropology department utilizes numerous facilities for observing non-human primates (NHPs), from partnerships with the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the Jane Goodall Research Institute in Tanzania, to our own massive army of lemurs just vibing off the US 501 highway. Dozens of scientists and students spend years and even decades observing NHPs, documenting their interactions and behaviors down to the time they wake up or the size of their poop. Over this time, Duke researchers publish what they have learned about these animals in attempts to better get to know our own species.
We have seen some crazy things in the wild, from bonobo cannibalism to lemur stink fights, where male lemurs literally flick a smelly, volatile “brown toothpaste-like substance” at each other with their tails. But arguably, one of the coolest things that several EvAnth research groups have studied is female dominance. That’s right, while relatively rare in the animal kingdom, in many primate species, such as bonobos and lemurs (and surprisingly also clownfish), the females call the shots. These females are not physically larger or stronger compared to their counterparts, instead harnessing the power of their own inner #girlbossery to maintain social order as well as the reproductive success of their colonies. And we have volumes upon volumes of data on these strong feminist queens working together to fight male aggression and violence in their communities.
How does one measure “female dominance,” translating the ineffableness of womanpower into a variable we can study? Some labs use a purely qualitative approach, employing a comprehensive inventory called an ethogram to categorize behaviors. Other labs use an algorithm called the Elo rating system, which assesses the relative rank of players in a zero-sum game, like chess. The value of the Elo score estimates the probability of an animal’s success at “winning” in a dominance interaction against another player, judged on an arbitrary numerical scale. Talk about harsh grading.
Both of these methods mainly focus on dyadic interactions or interactions between two animals, and both methods characterize dominance in a few different ways. For example, dominance can be represented by instances of aggressive behavior, like chasing, cuffing, lunging, fighting, biting (or getting way too cutthroat in Monopoly). Or dominance can be quantified as instances of “supplanting,” which is when an animal takes the spot of another animal by forcing them to move away, the quintessential “excuse me, but you’re in my seat” interaction we are all too familiar with. Or, there are always more biological factors such as scent marking or, of course, female genital swelling.
Over the years of collecting all this data on female dominance primates, we have learned that female bonobos form same-sex alliances that gang up on males who get out of line, which is thought to contribute to the apparent lack of male patrolling and territorial behavior in their communities. We know that blue-eyed black lemurs win in dominance interactions up to 99% of the time. And interestingly, these alpha behaviors in lemurs have been linked to elevated levels of androgen hormones like testosterone, which has led to a phenomenon that’s actually called “masculinization.”
Not all of our evolutionary cousins share this social organization. To name a few, baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas are notoriously male-dominant. Despite being some of our closest evolutionary ancestors, it’s incredible how these species have come to develop such wildly divergent hierarchies (pun intended). Determining a least common ancestor marking when and where such differences emerged is a critical area of evolutionary research. After all, who doesn’t love learning about the mysterious uncle we did not know we had?
Why is it important to study female dominance (or lack thereof) in primates? Why spend decades watching and rewatching these animals from a safe distance, highlighting every moment of madness or violence or tension like a quadrupedal reality show? To me, it all boils down to our own human, selfish need for individual discovery. We can never truly understand who we are without understanding where, or who (or whom?), we come from. It’s like how 15 minutes with your grandparents can teach you more about your life than 15 years with your parents, in pure Geico commercial fashion.
Perhaps most importantly, studying these microcosmic animal societies can potentially provide insight into how to better run our own. On a campus where 48% of female undergrads are sexually assaulted, is it foolish to ask if we have something from bonobos for preventing that? Is my internalized misogyny and sexism so bad that I have to look to ring-tailed lemurs for a boost in my own confidence? Of course, none of this is to say that one way of running a community is “better” or “worse” than the other. But perhaps it may be beneficial to look towards less anthropocentric (and way cuter) sources for leadership strategy.
We have learned a lot from our evolutionary cousins, and have a lot more to learn. We have unprecedented tools and techniques for analyzing genetics, hormones, gender dynamics, social cognition, and so many other really cool factors sparking a revolution in evolutionary anthropology. No, it’s not monkey business or gorilla warfare, but something much more expansive, discursive, and introspective. Yes, Duke has spent decades watching communities of bad bitch monkeys all over the world. And to continue doing that work, funding that work, and reading that work could be one of the best ways to inspire bad bitches in communities of our own.
Special thanks to Vanessa Woods for helping with the writing of this piece!
Monika Narain is a Trinity sophomore. Her columns typically run on alternate Fridays.
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