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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Is Gender Identity Unique to Humans? | The Crux - Discover Magazine

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license
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Evidence from our closest evolutionary relatives suggests that we might not be the only animals with a sense of gender identity, argues Jay Schwartz, Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department at Emory University.

Photo: Oleg Senkov/shutterstock)
This summer, in the introductory course I teach on the evolution and biology of human and animal behavior, I showed my students a website that demonstrates how to identify frog “genders.” I explained that this was a misuse of the term “gender”; what the author meant was how to identify frog sexes. Gender, I told the students, goes far beyond mere sex differences in appearance or behavior. It refers to something complex and abstract that may well be unique to Homo sapiens. This idea is nothing new; scholars have been saying for decades that only humans have gender. But later that day I began to wonder: Is it really true that gender identity is totally absent among nonhuman species — even our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos? 

Before tackling this question, it is necessary to define “sex” and “gender.” Sex refers to biological traits associated with male and female bodies. Sex isn’t a perfect binary, but it is relatively simple compared to gender.
Gender is multifaceted, complex, and a little abstract, and not everyone agrees on exactly what it means. That said, there are a couple of aspects of gender that most experts say are essential. The first is the existence of socially determined roles. Gender roles refer to the range of behaviors that society deems normal or appropriate for people of a particular gender based on their designated sex — the norms that (at least in many Western cultures) cause us to expect men to be assertive and brave, and women to be caring and accommodating, for instance.

It’s common for people to believe that gender roles are natural or innate, ranging from religious claims that they are God-given to the argument made by evolutionary psychologists that On the contrary, while some aspects of gender-correlated behaviors are probably largely genetic in origin (researchers don’t have a great sense of which are and aren’t), most experts agree that many gender-related expectations, such as that girls play princess and boys pretend to be soldiers, are socially determined — that is, we learn them from our culture, often without even being aware of it. This socially learned aspect is as fundamental to gender as the roles themselves...

First, let’s look at the question of socially determined roles. Plenty of nonhuman species show sex-based differences in behavior. From beetles to gorillas, males of many species are more aggressive than females, and they fight with one another for access to resources and mating opportunities. Males are also often the more flamboyant sex, using showy body parts and behaviors to attract females—for example, take the peacock’s tail, the mockingbird’s elaborate song, or the colorful face of the mandrill (think Rafiki from The Lion King). Females, on the other hand, are in many cases more nurturing of offspring than males; after all, by the time an infant is born the female will have already devoted significant time and energy toward forming, laying, and subsequently protecting and incubating her eggs—or, in the case of us mammals, she has gone through an intense process of gestation. The costly nature of reproduction for females limits the number of infants they can have; that’s why it generally behooves females to be conservative, expending their time and energy on mating with only the highest-quality males. Being choosy in this way has, over evolutionary time, generally yielded fitter offspring. As a result, females of many species have evolved to be the choosier sex, and their mate choices can direct the course of evolution (an idea that scandalized Victorian England when first proposed by Charles Darwin)...

It’s been said that if chimpanzees are from Mars, then bonobos are from Venus. Bonobo society is generally female-dominated. Unlike female chimpanzees who mostly, though not always, keep their noses out of politics, female bonobos reign by forming male-dominating coalitions. They bond partly through genito-genital rubbing (it is what it sounds like), forming stronger relationships than female chimps typically have with one another. As for male bonobos, they are much less violent on average than male chimps. Unlike with chimpanzees, lethal aggression has never formally been observed in bonobos (though there has been one suspected instance); bonobos are more likely to share food (and maybe sex) with a stranger than to fight.
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Source: Discover Magazine (blog)