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Biological Determinism

Young chimps play make-believe games in which they pretend that a favourite stick is a baby for nurturing and even putting to bed, according to a 14-year study of the animals in Uganda.

Biologists watched the chimps in the forests of Kibale National Park in Uganda and found intriguing differences in the way young males and females passed their time – providing evidence that differences in the way boys and girls play may have a genetically hardwired element.

“There are predispositions, biological influences, that lead females and males to treat sticks differently,” Richard Wrangham, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, told the Guardian. “What we’ve got here is evidence that without any kind of socialisation by adults, females seem to be predisposed to react to sticks as though they were dolls.” This could reflect more female interest in infant care and playing at mothering.

An irritating story in the Guardian today which reports that the discovery of gendered behavior amongst Chimps stands as ‘evidence’ for the biological basis of gender difference. As it’s presented in the article, this is a patently stupid claim: infant chimps do undergo socialization and thus there’s no prima faciereason to explain away gendered behavior in reductively genetic terms. As far as I was aware the former is an entirely uncontentious claim. In fact a quick glance at the biologist’s research interests show that much of what he studies actually relates to this process which makes the above quotes really rather weird. So given the principle of charity, perhaps the results of the study have been misunderstood and/or stripped of context by the journalist writing about it? The worrying thing is the role that articles like this can play in shaping popular debates about gender and biology.

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Mark