Evolutionary anthropology is a subject that has traditionally been dominated by a focus on males, or at least “masculine” behaviors like hunting. The most popular images of our own ancestors have often been of a group of males setting out for a hunt or crouched over a freshly-killed carcass. It is as if our evolution was driven by male ambition. Such tendencies have triggered some backlash, from the relatively absurd (i.e. the aquatic ape hypothesis) to more reasoned critiques (i.e. Woman the Gatherer), but it is clear that our understanding of our own history is most certainly biased by cultural beliefs and values.
News reports released during the last week have underscored this fact. A new paper published in the journal PLoS One described how female chimpanzees in Tai National Park mate more often with males that provision them with meat than those that do not. (Meat is a high-quality and desirable food source that is in short supply.) A number of people, especially journalists, took this to mean that the stereotype of males putting food on the table in order to get sex has some backing in nature.
As Eric of The Primate Diaries has pointed out, however, all the attention was on what the males were doing. Females were at best ignored and at worst regarded as prostitutes. Not only are these sexist notions disgusting, but they blind people to some of the most interesting parts of the study. Yes, the males shared meat with females and gained a reproductive benefit, but the females were also being very choosy about who they mated with and when they mated. It is not all about the males. As Eric concluded;
Rather than such hackneyed cliches as “Sex sells, even in the rainforest” (Cosmos) or “The way to a chimp’s heart is through her stomach” (both Wired and the Chicago Sun-Times) the real story was that female chimpanzees demonstrate flexible and opportunistic strategies to maximize reproductive success. Furthermore, because the sharing of meat was primarily with anestrous females, and because there was no relationship between the amount of meat provided and the number of copulations, suggesting that this had any connection to prostitution or buying someone an expensive meal in order to “get lucky” was to completely miss the point. In all likelihood, females were using these exchanges to determine who would be the best potential father for her offspring over the long term.