The other week, Science Daily and then The New York Times reported on the growing evidence of a biological basis for gender-specific play in humans. I’ve been watching my 15 month old b/g twins for signs of gender and while I’m thoroughly convinced by the science that shows differences in the way boys and girls develop fine and gross motor coordination at this age, I hate where the larger thread of cliché-ridden thinking—boys do this, girls do that—commonly goes.
I also find it confusing.
Haven’t our feminist foremothers, and now my own generation, been working tirelessly at leveling the playing field so that things between the sexes could be fair? What good is all that talk about equity and equality if we’re all just programmed gender bots from the start?
According to a new study appearing in the journal Current Biology, scientists at Harvard University and Bates College have reported some of the first evidence that young, wild chimpanzees “may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do.” Biology, it seems, has a larger role to play in the gendering of childhood than we’d known—or cared to admit. While the evidence is called “suggestive,” it’s based on 14 years of data gathered on chimpanzee behavior at the Kibale National Park in Uganda and is being heralded as proof of “the first known sex difference in a wild animal’s choice of playthings.” This work adds to a growing body of evidence that human children are most likely born with their own ideas of how they want to behave, rather than simply mirroring other girls who play with dolls and boys who play with trucks.
In one swoop, the news reifies what some of us might wish to think of as retired gender codes of yore and scrambles feminist expectation.
So what, precisely, did the researchers find? Young female chimpanzees were treating sticks as dolls, carrying them around and treating them like infants until they had offspring of their own. They slept with the sticks. Some built the sticks a nest. Some even played a chimp version of the “airplane game,” lying on their backs with their “offspring” balanced across their upraised hands. The young males? Not so much.
Previously, toy selection among humans was thought to be due largely to socialization. Researchers have recorded robust sex differences in children’s toy play around the world, yet there’s been remarkable cross-cultural consistency in the choices boys and girls tend to make. The prior thinking was that this behavioral difference was due to the influence of peers, parents, and others in modeling gender-specific behavior. If you’re a girl and you see your mother, sister, and best girlfriend cuddling and making nest for sticks, chances are you will too.
But not so, according to the new evidence. Adult chimps use sticks for foraging or fighting. So the young females’ behavior in the Kibale National Park, it seemed, was not learned. Once the female chimps bore their first offspring, they stopped carrying sticks. The new findings clearly link juvenile play to adult behavior, since female chimpanzees, not males, carry infants more than 99 percent of the time.
Parlay the assumption to humans and you end up with the speculation that girls are biologically programmed to play with dolls.
Pretty convincing. But here’s the catch: researchers hadn’t seen anything like this in other chimpanzee communities outside the Kibale National Park, which raises the possibility that the Kibale chimps were copying a local behavioral tradition. “[T]his may be a lovely case of biological and social influences being intertwined,” one of the researchers said.
If you ask me, the conclusion that girls are doll-wielding gender bots seems a little premature. There’s a lot we simply don’t know.
(I’ve started to gather thoughts about the gendering of childhood and how it’s playing out in my own petrie dish at the Tumblr I created called The Pink and Blue Diaries. Come visit if interested! I’m still mostly just checking the whole Tumblr thing out.)