There was a report back in April of this year – Meat for Sex in wild chimpanzees – in which researchers claimed females chimps copulate more frequently with males who share meat. I posted a brief excerpt and plead guilty to making a glib joke. It was not the big story of the day from my perspective. Sharing or altruism has been pretty well established as having evolutionary benefits for groups of primates. Drawing parallels between humans and other higher primates is inevitable. Jokes aside chimp behavior, which might be very similar to human behavior and provide insights into same, one should be cautious about seeing those behaviors in terms of mirror images and human cultural norms. Evolutionary Anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson writing at Seed in a post entitled Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion? explores both the bizarre mainstream media interpretation of the Planck study and what the study actually said,
The larger story lay not in the fact that females preferred to mate with males who provisioned them, but that they were opportunistically shifting their mating strategies for their own reproductive interests. In earlier studies by Boesch at the same site it was demonstrated that 84% of undesirable advances were rejected by females (Stumpf & Boesch 2006;), promiscuous mating was reserved for the early part of estrous and that 93% of all copulations were terminated by females (Boesch et al. 2006; pdf here). Females chose who they would mate with, when they would mate with them and how long it would last.
Some of the reporting documented by Johnson from the media and even pop-science sites was over the top.
From the press introductions alone, you would have thought you were in a 19th-century gentleman’s club enjoying cigars and brandy. “There’s nothing like a prime rib dinner to boost a guy’s chances of getting lucky,” boasted ScienceNOW as he cleaned his monacle. The Daily Mail agreed with a harrumph, “As every Romeo knows, laying on a delicious dinner for two is one of the best seduction ploys.”
[ ]…Ostensibly, these articles were talking about chimpanzees, but it was made perfectly clear what they were getting at. Rupert Murdoch, naturally, got straight to the point. “The oldest profession isn’t restricted to humans,” FOXNews asserted, while The New York Post headline simply shouted “Chimpanzee Meat Market.”
In other words, dating is just another form of prostitution and evolution proves that he that pays gets play. For some reason the barriers were down. Talking about chimpanzee sexuality allowed journalists to let loose and express views they would rarely utter otherwise. Evidently people got the message, if the comments on Slashdot are any indication.
I don’t want to take too much advantage of Johnson’s thorough examination of the data on sharing, group rank and other variables in chimp mating, suffice it to say that the young teen level of gym locker humor clouded the actual details of primate mating strategies. Its human nature to snicker and get snarky with subjects related to sex. Its sometimes an indication of our discomfort with serious discussion of the subject – a product of our socialization, but reportage on the Planck story should have been at least a little above the fray.
This is interesting in light of something we all face everyday, that some people can be so smart and insightful about some skill or academic endeavor yet be less then bright about anything outside their special area of knowledge, Bobby Fischer: Chess Genius and Idiot
Consider Isaac Newton. He was certainly a genius in the fields of mathematics and physics. On the other hand he devoted most of his life to studying the prophecies of the Bible, calculating the year in which God created the entire universe in six days, and determining the probable year that Jesus would return!
Consider Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a brilliant writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, yet he firmly believed in the reality of fairies. He even wrote an entire book defending the authenticity of several crude photographs of the tiny winged fairies taken by two little girls.