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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution

Different What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender

By: Frans de Waal(Author)
408 pages, 12 plates with b/w photos; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Granta
Different draws on New York Times best-selling author and world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal's knowledge of chimpanzees and bonobos to reveal the primate roots of human behaviour.
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  • Different ISBN: 9781783787326 Paperback Apr 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Different ISBN: 9781783787302 Hardback May 2022 In stock
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

Though many scholars now argue that gender differences are purely a product of socialization, primatologist Frans de Waal illustrates in Different the scientific, evolutionary basis for gender differences in humans, drawing on his decades of experience working with our closest ape relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos. De Waal illuminates their behavioural and biological differences and compares and contrasts them with human behaviour: male domination and territoriality in chimpanzees and the female-led pacific society of bonobos.

In his classic conversational style and a narrative rich in anecdotes and wry observations, de Waal tackles topics including gender identity, sexuality, gender-based violence, same-sex rivalry, homosexuality, friendship, and nurturance. He reveals how evolutionary biology can inform a more nuanced – and equitable – cultural understanding of gender. Ultimately, he argues, our two nearest primate relatives are equally close to us and equally relevant. Considering all available evidence, we can learn much about ourselves and embrace our similarities as well as our differences.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A nuanced and refreshing look at gender issues
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Aug 2022 Written for Hardback

    Wading into current gender debates is not for the faint of heart, but that has not discouraged Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal from treading where others might not wish to go. In Different, he draws on his decades-long experience observing our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, to see what we can learn from them about us. As much as many people would like it to be otherwise, our ape heritage influences us strongly, also where sex and gender are concerned. Unbeholden to ideology, this nuanced book is a breath of fresh air that is sure to simultaneously delight and upset people on both sides of various gender-related discussions.

    Before delving in, it is worth highlighting a few disclaimers. In his comparisons between primates and humans, De Waal omits human behaviour without proper animal parallels. These comparisons are always made in the understanding that today's primates are not our ancestors, but models of our shared ancestor, and that "they offer a comparison, not a model for us to emulate" (p. 8). He also does not discuss the role of hormones or neurobiology for the simple reason these are outside his wheelhouse. De Waal reminds readers that studying the biological roots of behaviour does not endorse it—research should not be used to excuse bad behaviour. And then there is the linguistic confusion over sex and gender. Yes, the former is biological and the latter cultural, but "despite their different meanings, these two terms remain joined at the hip" (p. 13), you cannot discuss one without the other. Echoing the skillful distinction he made between feelings and emotions in Mama's Last Hug, De Waal here offers a similarly thoughtful description: "gender is like a cultural coat that the sexes walk around in. It relates to our expectations of women and men, which vary from society to society and change through the ages" (p. 42). Finally, he makes the useful distinction between gender identity (i.e. what you identify as) and cultural gender roles.

    What makes Different such a breath of fresh air is that science trumps ideology for De Waal. The problem he sees is that many gender debates ignore or flat-out deny biology because it clashes with their message. Except when it does not. So, feminists love bonobos as they can be presented as "proof that male dominance is not hardwired in us" (p. 104) but they dislike chimpanzee research that suggests the opposite, while gay communities welcome biological observations of animal homosexuality in their fight against homophobia. This is ideological cherry-picking, "why not let biology shine its light on all gender-related issues?" (p. 286). Let me add that De Waal acknowledges how senseless the nature/nurture debate is, most traits result from an interaction. But, like it or not, men and women differ and this book will not sugarcoat reality with political correctness. De Waal cuts across numerous heated debates at right angles, offering observations, insights, and results that will simultaneously upset and delight people in all ideological camps.

    Thus, some observations here will not be welcomed by feminists because they reinforce traditional gender roles. Yes, women are naturally more nurturing towards infants—this is simply a universal mammalian trait. Though, adds De Waal, calling this a maternal instinct obscures the fact that such skills have to be acquired in life, as exemplified by ape orphans in zoos who as adults have no idea what to do with a newborn. And, yes, play behaviour in primates and humans follows traditional gender patterns. But other observations might strike you as progressive. Do men have a bigger sex drive than women? This seems to be true of male chimpanzees but is exaggerated in humans. De Waal repeatedly criticizes psychological research in this book for relying on questionnaires and self-reporting. This rarely yields reliable data. There is similarly no reason to think that men are natural-born leaders; research on primates shows the influence wielded by female leaders.

    The fact that De Waal is not beholden to ideology shows in another way. Different is not a book to exclusively wade into human gender debates while flying the primate flag. For a primatologist, there are so many other interesting and important topics that come up once you start talking about sex and sexuality. De Waal recounts a fair bit of the history of primatological and anthropological research here. This matters because it explains where our ingrained ideas about our primate cousins and ourselves come from. Furthermore, he discusses plenty of research on chimpanzees and bonobos for its own sake as it is just incredibly interesting.

    For example, genetic paternity tests have revealed that many presumed monogamous species are not. But given the small number of infants born and the long care they require, why do female primates elicit illicit copulations from other males? The likely answer, which even primatologists were initially not prepared for, is protection against infanticide—no male will risk killing offspring he might have fathered. This shocking behaviour was first observed in langurs and only became an accepted fact after being documented in many other species (including, famously, lions). And thanks to research by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, we have an interesting explanation for the existence of menopause and grandmothers: evolution has gifted females with experienced helpers with time on their hands that are also related to your offspring, so-called alloparents. One more example. Homosexuality; an evolutionary puzzle? De Waal instead asks why we are so surprised by sexual activities that cannot lead to reproduction. He argues that, once it has evolved, behaviour can be multipurpose, just like anatomical adaptations. Sex drive can spill over into the attraction behind friendships. And, unlike us, primates have no hangups about mixing social and sexual behaviour. This is where our language is a curse, De Waal adds, we invent words and categories for everything and divide the world up accordingly.

    Much as we like to think that we have escaped our biological roots, our language and intellect are evolutionary innovations that have been grafted onto a primate body plan with different sexes. But this need not discourage us. It is hard to disagree with De Waal's take-home message: "equality doesn't require similarity. People can be different and still deserve exactly the same rights and opportunities" (p. 14). Some readers might be disappointed that the book offers no blueprint on how to achieve such a society. For De Waal, the starting point is acknowledging our biological roots which Different aims to do by providing fascinating insights into the behaviour of our closest primate relatives.
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Frans de Waal, author of Mama's Last Hug, is C. H. Candler Professor Emeritus of Primate Behavior at Emory University and the former director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

By: Frans de Waal(Author)
408 pages, 12 plates with b/w photos; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Granta
Different draws on New York Times best-selling author and world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal's knowledge of chimpanzees and bonobos to reveal the primate roots of human behaviour.
Media reviews

"A brilliant and fascinating book that brings a scientific, compassionate and balanced approach to some of the hottest controversies about sex and gender"
– Yuval Noah Harari

"Every new book by Frans de Waal is a cause for excitement, and this one is no different. A breath of fresh air in the cramped debate about the differences between men and women. Fascinating, nuanced and very timely."
– Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind

"This book is superb! Frans de Waal is not only one of the world's most respected primatologists – he's also a ballsy feminist who, in these riveting pages, ventures into territory where most writers in academia and letters fear to tread. Personally, I'm honored to be such a close relative of chimpanzees and bonobos, and eager to learn what they have to teach us about the evolution of our own behaviors. These pages are packed with great stories, fascinating data, and thought-provoking ideas. They are sure to spark the important conversations we all – male and female, queer and straight, trans and nonbinary – need to have to create a more just and equitable human society."
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus

"If you don't know your bonobo from your gibbon, Different has many surprises in store for you, surprises that will leave you humble about complex primate evolution has been, and how much we have yet to learn about how it shapes our lives"
New York Times

"This enlightened book looks at the emergent arguments in gender studies. Moving with fluidity and grace between animal and human models, Frans de Waal demonstrates how many common social prejudices that we deem "natural" are in fact anything but. His crisp writing, his skillful deployment of anecdote, and his deep knowledge of animal science inform this nuanced and profound consideration not only of difference, but also of sameness"
–  Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon

"Frans de Waal's Different brings a refreshingly calm biological perspective to the current debate around human gender differences."
– Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape

"With great clarity, insight, and wit, [de Waal] examines human sex differences, never once letting us forget that, at the end of the day, we are just another kind of primate. This is a superb, intensely stimulating read"
– Robert M. Sapolsky, author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

"[De Waal uses] a gift for story-telling, a sincere respect for culture, along with intimate knowledge of longtime bonobo and chimpanzee associates, to deftly negotiate this treacherous terrain. Wise and humane"
– Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of The Woman that Never Evolved

"Courageous [...] Quietly progressive [...] Offer[s] fascinating insights"
– Kathleen Stock, The Times

"Frans de Waal's magnum opus [...] [He] remove[s] the blinkers, and [his] readers will never see the world the same way again"

"A testament to de Waal's profound and sensitive understanding of our nearest evolutionary relatives"
– Angela Saini, Lancet Journal

"Very interesting: de Waal's often highly personal encounters with chimps and bonobos are fascinating [...] he is equally good on the blind spots of science and psychology"

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