“Science Says Girls Like Dolls More”

Chimpanzees are characterized by being manipulators and have a high capacity for deception. For its part, the bonobo leads a very active sex life. Both are the closest primates to man. But do we still look like them? “We are only six million years apart. Socially and emotionally we are basically apes. Although in the way we love and hate, we are not so alike.” The speaker is the Dutch primatologist, ethologist and psychologist Frans de Waal (Bolduque, 1948), one of the greatest eminent persons in this field, having studied these animals for 40 years.

Although his long study of this species is not limited to knowing how they feed, breed and die. His analysis reached such pertinent conclusions as that matriarchy exists among bonobos, that there are quite a few animals that are homosexual, and that male chimpanzees prefer cars to dolls. In fact, in his new book, Different. What primates teach us about sex (Tusquets, 2022) deals with such valid topics as feminism, gender identity and transsexuality.

On the occasion of its recent publication, millions of people were able to see him interviewed by internationally successful authors such as Yuval Noah Harari or the controversial psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. However, before the end of the video call, the scientist makes a clarification: “I’m for equality”.

Why do male chimpanzees prefer to play with cars over dolls?

There are experiments that prove it. Male primates prefer cars and balls, while female primates prefer dolls and teddy bears. It is difficult for men to explain, since we do not find these objects in nature. With women though, I think it’s pretty easy to understand.

The same thing happens with humans. Girls are more attracted to dolls than boys. This is a statistically proven difference.

In his new book, he deals with topics such as transsexuality, bisexuality and other “thorny” issues. Did you ever feel the weight of self-censorship when writing this book?

Nothing of the kind. I try to be objective. That is, I explain what I know about primates and humans based on facts. This is why I believe that biology must return to today’s debates. Biology is much more flexible than people think. I feel like society is afraid of biology.

Don’t you think then that biology will re-enter the gender identity debate?

Yes, you should come back. In fact, it is already present in the debate about homosexuality and transsexuality. I believe that being transgender is also biological. This means that we are born with a gender identity of male or female. So yes, biology needs to be brought back into the discussion.

Frans de Waal during one of his viral interventions.


Why do you disagree with the use of the term gender?

Sex is biological and gender is a cultural expression of how you identify and express yourself. I agree that it is a useful term for people. And also for other primates, since they are cultural beings. The term gender should not be used only for gender. For example, I disagree with the statement that a dog has a gender. In any case, he will have sex, but nothing more. So when it comes to a dog, I don’t agree with that kind of terminology.

Are there gender roles in the animal world too?

Yes of course. People think that in primates you will only find biology, while in humans you will find culture. However, this process can also be repeated in reverse order. So with primates I can study their culture, just like with humans. For example, they learn how to behave as a man or as a woman depending on what they learn from their elders.

Would you say that chimpanzees have a patriarchy?

Yes, males are always dominant and females have nothing to say. This belief is based on very old research. And since then, people have thought that all animal societies have patriarchal systems. However, bonobos are the complete opposite of us in this regard. And even in all primate groups there are female hierarchies with alpha females. Female power is quite common in primates.

And homophobia?

It turns out that in primates we can find the same gender diversity as in humans. What if, I have never checked intolerant behavior on his part. They accept them as they are.

They are more tolerant than us.

Of course. And because they are not normative. We do, and a lot. We have rules of conduct and etiquette for everything. You are homosexual. You’re right. You’re a man. You’re a woman. We like to label. I think that’s why we have tolerance issues.

Can bonobos be considered the first bisexuals on Earth?

Bonobos and maybe dolphins too. They don’t seem to have a clear preference for one gender or the other. Although most species exhibit bisexual behavior, most are heterosexual. However, homosexuality is quite common among animals.

Do females have a maternal instinct before giving birth?

No, women have to learn it. They are not born with this maternal instinct. They need to learn from other experienced mothers how to care for their future cubs. In fact, they have to learn a lot to become role models.

Is friendship between a man and a woman possible without any sexual relationship?

I’d say it’s pretty common. Yes, it’s true that it can end in a sexual relationship, but it doesn’t have to. There are many periods in the female’s life when they do not have sex, because it usually takes about six years from the birth of the calf until it is fertilized. And then she really has a lot of sex with men. But during these six years they maintained friendly relations.

What does a primatologist like yourself think about theories like queer?

Well, I think gender studies doesn’t have good theories. They do have complaints, but theories need supporting data. The common pattern when we talk about transgender or homosexual people is that it’s a biological problem. And we use it as an excuse. We often say “this person was born gay or transgender, so you can’t change them”. We are removing biology from the debate. We say it’s all about culture.

I don’t think gender is just a cultural thing. But nothing is completely organic either. This is why it cannot be understood as a real possibility when people say that male and female behavior is purely biological. There is always an influence from the environment around you. Although society prefers to choose the easy answers.

Are there feminist behaviors in the bonobo world?

Women often need solidarity to have power. In bonobos, they help each other and are therefore dominant. In chimpanzees we can see the same solidarity, but because they live more dispersed in the jungle, it is harder for the females to have power. Also, because men have more physical strength.

Anyone who listens to him today can define him as macho. If they don’t know you’re talking about chimpanzees and bonobos, of course.

I’m for equality in society, of course. But in the debate about gender equality, we have focused on the wrong issue, that of gender. We believe that gender is the problem. And that’s not the case. The problem is inequality.

Perhaps we can reduce the gender gap by educating boys and girls in similar ways. Although what we need to work on is not gender, but inequality.

In Spain, the Trans Law is about to be approved, with which anyone can change their gender on the DNI only at their own will. What is your opinion on this gender identity debate?

Transsexuality begins in children at a very young age, around four or five years. They feel different. They resist change and it is very difficult to get them to change. It is in the depths of your being. That is why our society must respect their decision. And before the surgery goes into effect, which is usually at age 18, you need to make sure they’re clear.

How does the existence of God reconcile science?

I don’t think it’s a big conflict. I don’t believe in God. I don’t see it as a problem unless one takes the Bible literally. Because then we scientists would not agree, for example, that the world was created 6000 years ago. So I think it depends on how fundamentalist you are with your religion.

Although it seems like a primatologist would go unnoticed by most of the population, you’ve had some controversial moments in your career. Which one do you remember the worst?

Well, it had nothing to do with gender. This was when I proposed that animals have emotions and are empathetic. At that time, it was believed that an animal could only be aggressive and competitive, so it always faced the opposite. I have been told by many that this is not an acceptable statement. There are now studies showing which of the two sides was right.

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