Primatologist Frans de Waal draws on decades of observation and studies of both human and animal behavior to argue that despite the linkage between gender and biological sex, biology does not automatically support the traditional gender roles in human societies. While humans and other primates do share some behavioral differences, biology offers no justification for existing gender inequalities. Using chimpanzees and bonobos to illustrate this point—two ape relatives that are genetically equally close to humans—de Waal challenges widely held beliefs about masculinity and femininity, and common assumptions about authority, leadership, cooperation, competition, filial bonds, and sexual behavior. Chimpanzees are male-dominated and violent, while bonobos are female-dominated and peaceful. In both species, political power needs to be distinguished from physical dominance. Power is not limited to the males, and both sexes show true leadership capacities.
The primate tales that de Waal uses to discuss gender are both fascinating and enlightening ... But as an argument about humans, I found Different less satisfying ... De Waal sometimes stretches evidence to fit his claims ... When De Waal asserts that male apes and men are both judged by the width of their shoulders, he doesn’t even offer a footnote ... Sometimes de Waal’s evidence for a link between humans and other primates feels more like free association ... Different would have benefited from less free association and more sustained argumentation ... It is hard to tell from Different to what degree our genders have been shaped by history before and after our split from our fellow primates. None of this is to take away the value of the stories of Donna and the rest of the primates that have filled de Waal’s life. If you don’t know your bonobo from your gibbon, Different has many surprises in store for you, surprises that will leave you humble about complex primate evolution has been, and how much we have yet to learn about how it shapes our lives.
De Waal turns again to the ape world, this time to explore the connection between gender and biology. As I said, brave. Whether he’s convincing is another matter ... He points to differences in the behavior of male and female primates as evidence that biology explains more of human gender differences than many would like to believe. That is not necessarily a baseless argument, but de Waal never provides a concrete definition of 'biology' for us to consider ... An explicit definition of biology, by way of hypothetical genetic mechanisms, would have gone a long way in supporting the central premise ... Still, de Waal’s book is a valuable addition to the public discussion of sex and gender. Analyzing the behavior of close evolutionary relatives is a scientifically sound way to understand the origins of our own behavior ... Even if Different doesn’t provide satisfying answers to our questions about gender and sex, it is still a valuable collection of amusing, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking anecdotes about our animal cousins.
There are readers who will walk away from this text more sympathetic to homosexuality and gender fluidity in humans and more open to the idea that women can be powerful and men can be nurturing. Amid the hypermisogynistic conclusions of most pop-evolution pundits, this is not nothing; I could imagine Different as a useful if mild prophylactic against, say, Jordan Peterson. But to be seduced by essentialism, and especially zoological essentialism, would be a mistake for feminists ... Surely, the right to live free from gender prescriptions does not depend on the existence of Donna the butch chimpanzee but instead on a basic human right to seek happiness where it does not imperil the pursuit of happiness in others. We do not need to search for a nonhuman precedent to permit ourselves gender fluidity any more than we did before forming democracies or writing lyric poetry. We, too, are animals; our behavior, too, is natural. I sometimes wanted to pull de Waal aside and say, The world that you labor to prove may someday exist already does ... in his frequent use of essentialist fallacies, de Waal seems simply in over his head ... It is a bad habit of essentialists to describe overlapping probability curves as mutually exclusive gendered traits, especially when the trait is suggestible and so the exaggeration self-fulfilling.