Sequelae: A Primatologist’s Perspective on Brett Kavanaugh

It doesn’t take a PhD in evolutionary biology to discern that in the human species males often sexually coerce females, but it does help one understand that our biology is not our destiny. Thanks to Dr. Blasey Ford’s illuminating use of the scientific word, “sequelae” (a condition that is the consequence of a previous disease or injury), females across the United States are auditing their own previous injury, and are contemplating the consequences of a societal disease. As a result of studying primates for the last thirty years, my more interesting sequelae is divining the animal nature of the human behavior around me. 

Darwin didn’t write much about humans in his 1872 book on sexual selection theory. But what he did write was enormously profound: “In the savage state, man keeps woman in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal.”

Across the animal kingdom, from insects to birds to mammals, males accost and coerce females in astounding and disturbing ways. For instance, some male orangutans never develop a fully adult male size and appearance. This allows them to “opt out” of physical competition with other males. The downside? Females don’t like to mate with these “Peter Pan” males who are so named because they refuse to grow up. These males pursue an “alternative reproductive strategy” of forcing females into copulations. Male chimpanzees, likewise, regularly launch vicious attacks on females that lead to both higher copulation rates with those females and also serve to discourage the female from mating with other males. To say that human males, of all animals, are the most coercive and controlling of their counterparts is especially alarming given what we know about the sexual dynamics of other species.

In the 146 years since Darwin first proposed that certain traits evolve, not because they aid in survival, but because they aid either in attracting the opposite sex (think bright colors, long tail feathers, beautiful songs, and courtship dances) or in competing with the same sex over access to the opposite sex (think big canines, heavily armored bodies, and large body size), scientists have realized that there are more variables to sexual selection theory than the first two that Darwin proposed. That males or females can be the choosey sex or the competitive sex is one important revelation. 

Even more profound, however, is that, thanks to Distinguished Professor Emerita at UCLA Patricia Gowaty and others, we now understand that males and females compete with each other in dynamic and dramatic ways. For instance, the pervasive threat of male sexual violence leads to the evolution of female counterstrategies that encompass physical adaptations such as: disguising themselves to look like males (damselflies); evolving increasingly complex genital anatomy that makes it harder for sperm to travel to the egg (which in turn leads to the evolution of “corkscrew” penises in ducks); or making the vaginal environment inhospitable to sperm through heightened acidity (fruit flies). Females also employ behavioral counterstrategies. They: associate with one male that protects them from other males (gorillas, savannah baboons); form alliances with other females (bonobos); avoid or flee from males (rocky mountain big horn sheep); or submit to the forced copulation to avoid further harm or risk of lethal injury (seals). 

In humans, rates and contexts of male sexual coercion vary by time, place, and circumstance. And, as in other animals, females vigorously employ counter-strategies. Thus, although male sexual coercion is widespread across the animal kingdom, it would be a mistake to characterize it as “innate” or inevitable in our species. University of Michigan Psychology Professor Barbara Smuts discovered that human females experience less male aggression when they have strong alliances with other females; kin are available to aid in their protection; male alliances are not especially important and well-developed; and when men do not control resources that females need. 

Biology doesn’t dictate our behavior, it responds to environmental circumstance. The polarity of the experience in our two closest living relatives illuminates this fact and exposes the dangerous absurdity of the recent claim regarding the Brett Kavanaugh allegations — that all 17 year old boys are at the mercy of their testosterone and uniformly act in coercive and violent ways to gain sexual access to females. “What 17 year old boy hasn’t done this in high school?” the hearing’s critics ask. In fact, plenty haven’t! Most haven’t! Sexual coercion is not fait accompli.

Our societal perspective on this issue can be informed by a better understanding of our biology and our evolutionary history. We have two closest living relatives: the bonobo and the chimpanzee. A chimpanzee male, according to Jane Goodall, can “almost always, unless he is crippled or very old, coerce an unwilling female into copulating with him.” In my twenty-eight years of research on bonobos, I discovered that female coalitions are so strong that males don’t even attempt sexually coercive behavior. Bonobo females embody the motto of the human feminist movement: there is power in the solidarity of sisterhood.

As a society we have a choice: we can discourage our inner chimpanzee by de-emphasizing exclusively male alliances and by upending systems where males broker most of the resources that females need. Instead, we can amplify our inner bonobo by fostering alliances, cooperation, and coalitions among women and by elevating more women to positions of power. Now that political leaders have once again taken the path of the chimpanzee, the sequelae from the Clarence Thomas hearings and the subsequent “Year of the Woman” loom large on our horizon. By protecting their all-male coalitions and condoning a culture of male sexual coercion, our senators launched the “Year of the Chimpanzee” in 1991 and did it again in 2018. As the saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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