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The Brutal Ape vs. the Sexy Ape?

Craig Stanford

Mirrors or Projections?

In recent years, some anthropologists have placed human beings at an evolutionary crossroads. One path leads to a chimpanzee-like world of male brutality and violence, where might makes right, and subordinates must grovel to avoid a beating. The other path leads to a kinder, gentler vision of humanity, one in which violence is not strength, and compassionate bonding is not weakness. It's not Camelot; it's bonobo society. This starkly black-and-white view of the two apes has become well entrenched in the public mind and in the mind's eye of many behavioral scientists. Sexy apes versus brutal ones represents a dichotomy that appeals to us—our possible evolutionary paths laid out in plain and simple terms.

The popular view, however, may have more to do with ideology than science. There is currently a trendy caricature of the human male and female as being so distinct from one another as to be from different planets—"men are from Mars" and "women are from Venus," the saying goes. Such notions are fine in a pop-culture setting, but do they serve us well in science? Are we projecting such simple conceptions a little bit too much on our primate cousins?

It wouldn't be the first time that idealized notions of ourselves have influenced the interpretation of data among evolutionary biologists. In the 1960s, the brotherhood of predominantly male anthropologists foisted "Man the Hunter" on students and the public alike, arguing that the male role of bringing home the bacon accounted for the rapid expansion of the human brain in hominid evolution. It wasn't until several years later that female anthropologists weighed in with the reminder that something had to account for expansion of women's brains in the course of our species' evolution. Such lessons remind us that we would do well to consider how our depictions of primate societies may become intertwined with our own political views.

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