Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And Finally, On Chimps And Sticks. Take Three

I have noticed a clear trend during my years as a blogger. Anything vaguely smelling of science which supports traditional gender roles immediately develops humongous wings and flies all over the place, crapping on our upturned faces.

Anything not supporting traditional gender roles is presented in a few places, gets no attention and dies a a silent death. This even in the cases where the studies are equally good or equally bad.

The overall effect of all this is obvious: It props up the traditional gender role explanations as the scientifically supported ones. That lots and lots of studies beg to differ is ignored because they are not interesting enough to popularize. This outcome is serious. It is harmful to women and girls and it is ultimately dishonest to all of us.

But that's how things are.

My example of this was provided by Dan S. in the comments to the first chimp-n-sticks post, and I'm going to compare that example to the present one.

The two have points of similarities: First, they both discuss chimpanzees and sticks. Second, they both observe behavior which is more common in female chimpanzees than in male chimpanzees.

The similarities end there. This new study reinforces traditional gender roles so it's good and worth popularizing. The 2007 study worked against them so it's something we should forget about right away. But let's see what it found, in any case:

Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning deadly spears from sticks and using the tools to hunt small mammals -- the first routine production of deadly weapons ever observed in animals other than humans.

The multistep spearmaking practice, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that human forebears fashioned similar tools millions of years ago.


Using their hands and teeth, the chimpanzees were repeatedly seen tearing the side branches off long, straight sticks, peeling back the bark and sharpening one end. Then, grasping the weapons in a "power grip," they jabbed them into tree-branch hollows where bush babies -- small, monkeylike mammals -- sleep during the day.

In one case, after repeated stabs, a chimpanzee removed the injured or dead animal and ate it, the researchers reported in yesterday's online issue of the journal Current Biology.

"It was really alarming how forceful it was," said lead researcher Jill D. Pruetz of Iowa State University, adding that it reminded her of the murderous shower scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Psycho." "It was kind of scary."
Fascinating, innit? Sounds like a guy behavior, it does. But wait a second:

The landmark observation also supports the long-debated proposition that females -- the main makers and users of spears among the Senegalese chimps -- tend to be the innovators and creative problem solvers in primate culture.


Pruetz recalled the first time she saw a member of the 35-member troop trimming leaves and side branches off a branch it had broken off a tree.

"I just knew right away that she was making a tool," Pruetz said, adding that she suspected -- with some horror -- what it was for. But in that instance she was unable to follow the chimpanzee to see what she did with it. Eventually the researchers documented 22 instances of spearmaking and use, two-thirds of them involving females.
Very interesting. Note how the popularization takes its time before it points out the gender difference? Not like the popularizations of the new study which start with that, pretty much.

Do you remember the 2007 study going viral? I don't. But it's every bit as significant as the new stick study, only it shows female chimps as tool makers and as killers. So are we going to draw conclusions to human society from that one, too?