Thursday, April 09, 2009

HiHo, To Work We Go. More Fun Research.

Why the dwarves got into that headline I don't know. Perhaps because I'm angry. Here's a new study popularization to influence your perceptions of chimpanzees (and humans!) forevermore:

Chimpanzees enter into "deals" whereby they exchange meat for sex, according to researchers.

Male chimps that are willing to share the proceeds of their hunting expeditions mate twice as often as their more selfish counterparts.

This is a long-term exchange, so males continue to share their catch with females when they are not fertile, copulating with them when they are.

The team describe their findings in the journal PLoS One.

Get that? It's prostitution they found! But note, very carefully, that we don't actually know what the chimps are thinking, what their intentions and plans are, when they share meat and when they have sex. We don't know if the meat-sharers are just really nice guys, friends even, and if that's the reason why they mate with a particular female more often. Note that what the researchers observed wasn't quite what they wanted to initially observe:

The "meat for sex hypothesis" had already been proposed to explain why male chimps might share with females.

But previous attempts to record the phenomenon failed, because researchers looked for direct exchanges, where a male shared meat with a fertile female and copulated with her right away.

Dr Gomes' team took a new approach. In a previous study, she had found that grooming exchange - where the animals take it in turns to groom each other - happens over long periods, she related. "So we thought, why not meat and sex?

"We looked at chimps when they were not in oestrus, this means they don't have sexual swellings and aren't copulating."

"The males still share with them - they might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later."

Dr Gomes thinks that her findings could even provide clues about human evolution.

She suggests this study could lay the foundations for human studies exploring the link between "good hunting skills and reproductive success".

"This has got me really interested in humans," she said. "I'm thinking of moving on to working with hunter-gatherers."

Lucky hunter-gatherers. Soon we will learn that humans trade sex for meat, too.

Sometimes words matter a lot. Anyone describing what these chimpanzees do (long-term friendship, it sounds to me) as trading sex for meat should prove to us that this indeed is the case. For instance, there should be examples of a male chimpanzee stopping to donate meat when a female chimpanzee refuses sex or has sex with another male and so on. There should be analysis of all meat donations, even to other male chimpanzees, say, and there should be analysis of whatever else these chimpanzee pairs do together, preferably demonstrating that they don't do anything else together but these two exchanges before they are called such.

To call behavior like this something that humans regard a trade in the marketplace has connotations, and all of those are bad for women.