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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 274

Frans De Waal on Sex and Gender Across the Primate Spectrum

Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist (book cover)

What is gender? How different are men and women? Are differences due to biological sex or to culture? How do they compare with what is known about our fellow primates? Do apes also culturally learn their sex roles or is “gender” uniquely human?

Shermer and de Waal discuss: sex and gender in humans, primates, and mammals • who you identify as vs. who you’re attracted to • binary vs. nonbinary vs. continuum: how fuzzy can human sex categories be for a sexually reproducing species? • gender differences in physical and mental characteristics • why would homosexuality evolve? • chimpanzees and bonobos • what is the “purpose” of orgasms in women, nipples in men? • myths of the demure female • rape in humans and other primates: what is the purpose — sex, power or both? • murder, and human violence: how do men and women differ? • dominance and power • rivalry, friendship, competition and cooperation • maternal and paternal care of the young • same-sex sex • monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, etc. in humans, primates & mammals • grandmother hypothesis • primates & primatologists, humans & anthropologists: bias in science • the future of primates and primatology.

Frans de Waal has been named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? among many other works, he is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

About the Book

In Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist, world-renowned 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 that exist in human societies. It certainly doesn’t justify the gender inequalities in those societies.

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.

Different is a fresh and thought-provoking approach to the long-running debate about the balance between nature and nurture, and where sex and gender roles fit in. De Waal peppers his discussion with details from his own life — a Dutch childhood in a family of six boys, his marriage to a French woman with a different orientation towards gender, and decades of academic turf wars over outdated scientific theories that have proven hard to dislodge from public discourse. He discusses sexual orientation, gender identity, and the limitations of the gender binary, exceptions to which are also found in other primates.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on May 24, 2022.

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