Busting the Myth of Primate Patriarchy: The Nature of Sex and Gender in Our Ape Relatives 

World-renowned primatologist Professor Frans de Waal explores the nature of sex and gender among our cousins the apes, and how gender diversity is a common and pervasive potential on nature’s masculine-feminine continuum. In the quest to overcome human gender inequality, he suggests that our focus needs to be on the inequality.


Frans B. M. de Waal, Ph.D., is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist widely renowned for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. C. H. Candler Professor Emeritus at Emory University, de Waal has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was declared one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today by Time magazine in 2007. The author of numerous highly influential books including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape, his most recent is: Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist.


  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Production Assistance: Anna Rubanova

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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In this program, the world-renowned primatologist Professor Frans de Waal explores the nature of sex and gender among our cousins the apes, and how gender diversity is a common and pervasive potential on nature’s masculine-feminine continuum. In the quest to overcome human gender inequality, he suggests that our focus needs to be on the inequality.

I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Busting the Myth of Primate Patriarchy: The Nature of Sex and Gender in our Ape Relatives”.

Professor Frans de Waal

FRANS B.M. DE WAAL: This topic, gender: Well, I saw it, you know, let’s pick a topic that’s not controversial and that everyone agrees on. And so that’s why I picked it. And I’m going to be speaking at it from the perspective of primatology and biology. I’m a biologist by training even though I’ve been in the psychology department for 25 years.

HOST: It’s telling that one of the worst slurs you can hurl at someone is to call them an “animal.” As the professor of psychology Nick Haslam observes, yes, we are animals – but we’re animals who like to believe we’re not merely animals. 

Of course, he notes, calling someone a snake or a rat or a toad is very different from calling them lion-hearted or eagle-eyed. Then again, as the Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff once observed, “The best way to keep a sheep a sheep, is to convince it that it’s an eagle.”

We’ve sort of convinced ourselves that in some imagined animal hierarchy, we’re the eagles. Nevertheless, we are indeed animals. Rather than denying or defying our animal nature, we’d do well to understand our kinship with other close animal relatives. 

Professor Frans de Waal’s formidable lifelong body of work has vividly shown that we are definitely still apes. On the tree of life, we’re very closely related to our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins. We can learn a great deal about ourselves by studying them, as he has devoted much of his life to doing. 

He has woven his decades of study on the behavior and social intelligence in primates into best-selling books, including Chimpanzee Politics, Our Inner Ape and Mama’s Last Hug. Then he decided to take a fresh look at a very old and increasingly controversial paradigm: the relationship between sex and gender in primates. It resulted in his book, Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist.

Professor Frans de Waal spoke at a Bioneers conference…

FdW: So first let me say something about sex and gender. People confuse it and our language is beginning to confuse the two. Sex relates to the biology. Sex is binary, mostly binary, male and female. There’s an in-between category. It relates to genitals and sexual dimorphism, size, secondary characteristics, all biological characteristics, hormones and so on.

Humans are actually not very different, males and females. The males are physically a lot stronger, even the best-trained female athletes only reach average male strength. So there’s a huge difference in physical strength, but otherwise the differences are not nearly as great as we see in many other primates.

Now, gender, gender has to do with expectation. So this guy has an expectation that he needs to be taller than a woman, and gender has to do with social norms, education, culture, how you’re supposed to behave as a male or as a female, what we teach our kids, and so on. And so that’s the gender side. And unfortunately, in English, we have begun to confuse these two – gender and sex – because English unfortunately has only one word – having sex and being of a certain sex – has only one word for that, and that’s why people, I think, have started using gender now. Now they will say what is the gender of your dog? Well, my dog doesn’t have a lot of cultural expression. I think of gender characteristics. And so that’s an inappropriate question, actually. And gender-reveal parties is an inappropriate use of the word gender because before birth, children don’t have gender yet.

So in biology, of course, we’re very used to that debate. We have the nature vs. nurture debate, and in biology, we all know that you cannot tease them apart. I know that the media often does that. The media says this characteristic is 90% genetic. That’s nonsense. That’s an impossibility. You cannot tease these things apart. And so nature and nurture are always intertwined and always go together. So sex and gender automatically are related.

Now gender I usually divide in masculine and feminine, not male and female, and everything in between, and so gender is a far more fluid and flexible concept than sex.

HOST: In looking at gender in this fraught age of gender fluidity, pronouns and political and generational discontinuity, Professor de Waal goes where angels fear to tread.

Western science has a long and torturous history of abusing and distorting biology and animal studies for political ends. It’s been used to bolster racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and rigidly hierarchical gender social structures. The ideologies of Sociobiology and “biological essentialism” have served as justifications to dehumanize, exploit and subjugate people of color, women, and gay and non-binary people.

Western science has also promulgated the centuries-long myth that only humans are capable of intelligence and emotions. Today it’s hard to find a scientist who would agree with that.

Although these museum-quality paradigms have been fading in recent decades, the burdens of history still weigh heavily.

So with fresh eyes, what can we learn from our closest animal cousins?

FdW: In the other primates, our closest relatives are bonobos and chimpanzees. And the sex difference is not that great either. It’s not nearly as great as let’s say in a gorilla, where the male is twice the size of the female. And so they are more similar. People often forget about the bonobo, and there is a reason for that is that the anthropologies don’t like the bonobo. The bonobo is female dominated, is peaceful, and is very sexy, and the anthropologists have built a career on the evolution of the human species built on warfare and eliminating everyone and conquering the Earth, and the bonobo doesn’t fit in that picture. It’s sort of a hippy who doesn’t fit in the society.

But I pay attention to bonobos, exactly genetically, exactly equally close to us as the chimpanzee. There is really no good reason to eliminate them from the picture, and so they need to be part of it. And so let me first explain the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos.

Chimpanzees are very male dominant, first of all, but they’re also very dominance-oriented. They’re constantly working on their status, and this is, for example, here, you see two males, two male chimpanzees. They’re actually the same size, but the one on the left is the dominant one who stands up, puts his hair up, looks big, and tries to intimidate the other one, and that’s the dominance behavior between chimpanzees.

HOST: Frans de Waal’s decades of studies of chimpanzees and bonobos convince him that the great majority of the members of primate groups, including us humans, are clearly differentiated by sex. Those differences are fundamental and pronounced.

Yet at the same time, he finds that sexual and gender diversity abound. Same-sex relations are quite common among many animal species including primates. Genes can also be fluid, taking less common permutations that express nature’s non-binary spectrum.

He also points out that women primatologists, when they arrived in the 1960s, changed the way the discipline looked at primate societies and the role of female primates, which until then was neglected.

Which brings us back to the sisterhood of bonobos…

FdW: This is a bonobo. [BONOBO SOUNDS] The bonobo has a childlike voice, much higher pitched than the chimpanzee, and has very different behavior, and looks very different. Anatomically, they look more humanlike. They have been compared to australopithecine, and so even though genetically they’re equally close to us as the chimpanzee, anatomically, I would say, we are more like bonobos or bonobos are more like us, and they’re more similar to us.

The females are dominant. They have a collective dominance over the males. They don’t have an individual dominance. If you have, sometimes happens at a zoo, you have one male and one female bonobo, then the male is dominant. The male is bigger and stronger than the female. As soon as you add a second female, the females are going to be dominant over the male. So that’s how a bonobo society is set up. Basically a sisterhood and that’s how they keep the males in control.

So bonobos have a lot of sex. This is actually quite typical, belly-to-belly sex, between male and female in this case, but they also have sex in positions that you will find very hard to imagine, like hanging upside down by their feet, for example, something we cannot do. And so they’re very creative in their sexual behavior.

The sex serves bonding, and so there’s a lot of female-female sex in the bonobo, because the females have this powerful sisterhood which needs to be maintained, and sex and grooming is the way they do that. The easiest way to get sexual behavior in the bonobo is to give them food, because food introduces competition, as it does in all animals, and as soon as there’s competition, the bonobos will have sex to eliminate it, and then they share the food.

Bonobos grooming

HOST: In 1871, Charles Darwin concluded this: “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than women, and has more inventive genius.” His patriarchal viewpoint reflected the larger perspective of the 19th and 20th century male-dominated discipline of evolutionary science: that evolution created the binary of male and female, and our behavior and nature reflect this biological duality.

That binary has been translated into deeply unequal, cultural, political and legal structures that dictate how we’re supposed to be and act.

The problem is that does not mirror nature’s rich sexual and gender diversity and evolutionary potentials. Nor does it remotely match the actual living expression of human beings being human.

Professor de Waal found the role of play among young primates to be especially revealing about the nature-nurture gender dynamic.

For instance, in the wild, female chimpanzees and apes pick up rocks and wooden logs, hold them, and put them on their back and play mother with them. They build nests for them, and young females cluster around the babies like fervent babysitters.

FdW: If you have a discussion why boys are attracted to trucks and why girls are attracted to dolls. Certainly the attraction to dolls is natural in all the primates. We see the attraction to infants in young females. The attraction to trucks, by the way, this is a strange thing – these experiments have been done with dolls and trucks, and giving them to monkeys, and the males, they do play with the trucks. For me, it’s an amazing thing, because they—it doesn’t relate to anything in their natural environment, but they are attracted to these things. So what do the males do?

HOST: Frans de Waal finds that male primates are not particularly interested in babies. They spend a prodigious amount of time doing rough-housing and mock fighting, called “rough-and-tumble play.”

Professor de Waal says it’s found among all primates, including in human studies. Boys just like to wrestle a whole lot more than girls do.

Baby chimpanzees playing

But inevitably, evolution is way more complicated and nuanced than that. And so-called alpha males have gotten a bad rap in a politicized reality distortion field of badly done science.

FdW: The mock fighting of the males is a preparation for adult competition, but it’s also very important for them to learn skills of how to contain their strength and how to control their strength.

For example, a gorilla male, with this enormous physical strength, he only needs to press a little bit on a gorilla baby and he will kill it. But he does play with gorilla babies. Adult males play with babies, and everything goes well, which means that he has learned over his lifetime – this is not instinct or something – he has learned over his lifetime how to control his strength. It’s very important for males to get that kind of control because they have greater physical strength than other members of the society. So that’s what the rough-housing does, and it’s a very important part of development.

Now something about male affairs and how we got into the patriarchy, basically, the story that the natural order between men and women is that men are dominant over women because look at all the primates. In all the primates, the males are dominant over the females. This started with a study on baboons, a study of 100 years ago, which was disastrous. At a zoo in London, they threw 100 baboons together and in the wrong sex ratio. They put I think 95 males with 5 females, and it became a bloodbath. And the one who did it, Zuckerman, a very famous scientist at the time. He wrote books about it, and so that’s how we got to the story that patriarchy is what’s in our genes because that’s what all the primates do. It comes from baboons, which are monkeys. We are apes. We’re different from the monkeys, but regardless of that, it was a faulty experiment, basically. We know that even baboons in the wild, they don’t fight like that. It’s not the same kind of social order that Zuckerman observed.

If you look at alpha males in a chimpanzee society – I’m partly responsible for the use of the word alpha male in politics, because when I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, I used that word. And Newt Gingrich recommended it to the Republicans at the time, and I think that’s how the word got entrenched in political language. And then the business people picked it up and they wrote business books about how to be an alpha male, and reduced alpha male basically to bullies. Someone who beats you over the head every day and lets you know that he’s boss and so on, and that’s how they see what an alpha male is.

But, you know, most alpha male chimpanzees that I’ve known, and I’ve known many, they are very loved by their community. If they’re good alpha males, they keep the peace, they break up fights, they support the underdogs, they support juveniles against adults and females against males, they’re very empathic usually, they share food very easily. So a good alpha male can become extremely popular, and the result of that is that when he’s going to be challenged by another male, a younger male, the group is going to defend his position because they want to keep that alpha male. And it is very important for the harmony of the group and if you remove alpha males – we’ve done experiments with monkeys, where you sometimes for a day, remove high-ranking males, you get chaos in the group. And so it’s a very important part of the group structure.

Alpha females, by the way, because also every group has an alpha female, alpha females, they have a different way of resolving conflict. They usually do it afterwards. Instead of stepping in when the conflict occurs, which requires a lot of intimidation, they step in afterwards and bring the parties together. And so I described in my book, Mama’s Last Hug, how Mama, the alpha female, would bring parties together, literally drag a male to another male, to get them to groom each other and so on, and so fixed the relationships in the group.

HOST: Like the myth that a primate patriarchy is deterministically encoded in our human biology, it turns out that male care for offspring is common among primates, and gender diversity and gender potential are pervasive and accepted.

And what’s that got to do with gender equality? More when we return…

HOST: Although male primates are overall much less interested in babies, Professor Frans de Waal suggests that a closer look reveals a more complex picture. It comes down to what he calls the gender potentials that are always present – in this case, for male care.

FdW: I’ve seen on conservative media that they talk about how paternity leave is ridiculous. They can understand maternity leave but not paternity leave, because men are not supposed to be taking care of the children. And if you look at the other primates – and they sometimes use this argument – if you look at the other primates, it’s mostly a female job to take care of offspring, and males do very little except protecting the offspring sometimes. But, you know, sometimes a female loses her life, so the mother dies, and all of a sudden there’s an orphan available in the group, asking for attention. Other females will not adopt that orphan because they have their own kids and they have no room for an additional one. It’s very hard to live in the forest and travel through the trees with multiple children. And so the females don’t adopt that infant, but the males do.

So these males are usually not—we know that from DNA studies they’re usually not related to the infant that they adopt. They take care of them, not just for a few days, but sometimes for five years or two years, or five years. So it’s a real adoption. And I wanted to show that is because this is the potential of male care for offspring, which I think in our species is even more developed than in bonobos and chimpanzees because we evolved nuclear families. So they didn’t evolve nuclear families. The males are not fathers involved in the care of offspring. But we evolved that sort of system, and so I’m sure that in our species these paternal tendencies are much better developed. And so this whole nonsense of that care for offspring is not naturally present in the males, I think, is nonsense.

HOST: Another potential Professor de Waal finds among primates is gender variability. One instance he cites is Donna, a chimpanzee female who looks and acts decidedly masculine.

FdW: She had female genitalia. She had the long hair and the physical build of a male. She hangs out with males from very young. She is mostly asexual. She’s not interested in sex really, and she’s mostly peaceful. And so Donna, from very young – I’ve known her since she was a little baby like this, 3 years old – she liked to play with males. She liked to do this wrestling game that males do all the time. The adult males normally don’t play with young females, but in the case of Donna, they did, which already showed that she was different from the rest. And from that time on, she developed into a male-like character. From a distance she looked like a male, and she hung out with the males, and she acted like a male, even though she was non-aggressive in most ways. And so I cannot ask her her identity, sexual identity, but I think she acted like a male and she behaved like a male, and she was extremely well-integrated.

That’s another thing that’s very interesting is that we do have individuals who are more homosexual than heterosexual. That’s actually quite common in the primates and in the bonobo, I would say, they don’t have a preference for one gender or the other – so we do have that kind of individuals. We have individuals like Donna. We have males who don’t play the macho game, even though they’re big adult males. They don’t want to be involved in status struggles, and they stay out of them. And so we have all these exceptions, all this variability, and I’ve never noticed that the primates are intolerant of it. So that’s a big difference with the human society is that they have generally no trouble with it, and Donna was extremely well-integrated and well accepted in her group.

So the gender diversity, as we usually call it, I think if we start looking for it, because scientists haven’t really looked for it – we like typical behavior more than atypical behavior – if we start looking for it, we will see tons of it.

HOST: Along with gender diversity, another long-overlooked gender potential among primates is female leadership. Although psychology textbooks often assert that males are more hierarchical than females, Professor de Waal says that received knowledge is nonsense. It’s just different, ask any alpha female…

FdW: All animals that I know have female hierarchies, with an alpha female on top. The word pecking order comes from hens, not from roosters, and so female hierarchies are found everywhere, and I think women are just as sensitive to status differences as men are. But people say these things. And we have alpha females all over the primate world, and even in a species like the chimpanzee, which is male dominated, the alpha female is very important, and I think you always need to make a distinction between physical dominance, which in a chimpanzee is the males, and power, which can be many individuals. It can be these old males or it can be Mama, the female chimpanzee. And in my last book, Mama’s Last Hug, I write about her leadership and how she expressed it.

And then in the bonobos, of course, we have this situation that the alpha female is alpha over everyone, including the males. And so female leadership is really not hard to find in the primate world, and I think we do need to make a distinction between physical dominance, which is a different thing, I think, from power.

Bonobo mother and baby

HOST: The ground truth, says Professor de Waal, is that it all comes back to the basic nature-versus-nurture dynamic, which is another false binary. Nature and nurture are inextricable and ever-evolving.

And of course although there are close evolutionary ties between humans and apes, we’ve also evolved autonomously for millions of years. That evolutionary branching has obviously led humans onto our own unique pathway. Going ape only gets us so far.

That ineffable mystery of continuous evolutionary transformation – of the “nature-nurture” dance – is nevertheless deeply relevant to our human quest for gender equality on the masculine-feminine continuum.

FdW: Gender and sex are different things, and it’s very useful to distinguish them because one is the cultural side, the other one the biological side. They’re always connected. So when people disconnect them – that happens, of course, some people say gender is purely cultural, there is nothing in our life that is purely cultural; there is also nothing that is purely natural. And so I think they always remain connected.

I think gender—I haven’t talked about it, but I think the gender concept is applicable to other primates. You know, a chimpanzee or bonobo is adult when they’re 16 years-old, so they have an enormous long lifetime in which they pick up all sorts of behavior, including they model themselves on adults and pick up their behavior. And so the gender concept, a cultural transmission of sextypical behavior, let’s say, is applicable to the other primates.

I think there are behavioral sex differences. I mentioned, of course, the play behavior of the young, but there are other behavioral sex differences that we share across all these species and that are grounded in our biology.

And finally, there are behavioral potentials that we don’t always get to see but that are clearly present and that blur these sex differences that we see and that we should pay attention to, especially given that we would like to change society.

And finally, there are behavioral potentials that we don’t always get to see but that are clearly present and that blur these sex differences that we see and that we should pay attention to, especially given that we would like to change society.

And the last thing I want to say about that is that of the term “gender inequality” that we often use, which is a problem in society, and gender inequality is real and existing, and is more in favor, of course, of males than females, we have focused on the wrong part of the equation. Gender inequality, we are focused on gender. We’ve said there’s something wrong with gender. Let’s go gender-neutral. Let’s abolish gender. Let’s not pay too much attention to it or reduce it, or the gender differences. And I think the problem is really in the word inequality.  It’s the inequality and the injustice associated with it that’s the problem. It’s not gender itself that’s necessarily the problem. But people have turned that into a problem that they want to fight. And I thank you for your attention. [APPLAUSE]

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