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The story hamadryas baboons tell, or the one we tell them: How women look further into the narrative

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) are unique. Scientists have long agreed that hamadryas females don’t form complex social relationships with each other, unlike all other species of baboon. Through total physical and mental domination by hamadryas males, the females have been categorized as completely independent of one another and subject only to male decision making. Because of this illustration of their behavior, made largely by male scientists, hamadryas gender relations are often used to discuss “domestic violence” mirroring in primates.

Recently, some female scientists have begun to question if hamadryas females are more than what meets the eye. I sat down with Katarina Evans, a PhD candidate in biological anthropology studying female sociality among hamadryas at Queens College to talk about it.

Male and female hamadryas. PC: DSA images

“I believe in the possibility that hamadryas females bond with each other. With more research, we can unravel that relationship, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their connections were stronger than they’re currently believed to be right now. It’s really easy to say that males are completely driving the system, but it’s also very likely that females are playing a significant role in social relationships, social bonds, and the dynamics within the system in general.”

Right now, in the world of humans, there are more women in science than ever. Especially so in biological anthropology, a white-male dominated field for over a century. A few female scientists studying the relationships among female hamadryas suspect their characterization is a result of a systemic ignorance of female roles.

Baboons are well known as representatives for human evolution in biological anthropology, because they currently live in the conditions early humans once did: grassy savannahs with a highly varied diet. Hamadryas are notorious for being a negative model of human evolution, using male-female domination as a social tactic to organize and maintain a functional order. Katarina believes that because of assumptions about how hamadryas behavior represents human patriarchy, the overwhelming amount of studies surrounding hamadryas male behavior resulted in a large gap in our knowledge of female behavior.

“Early primatology shows that there are these creeping narratives people want to spin or to fall back on. And we’re so indoctrinated with these narratives precisely because we may be drawing conclusions that mirror our visions of human society. Like, “Weak female, aggressive male, we know how this goes” instead of looking at what the data actually mean and being actively thinking about it all the time, to make sure we’re not spinning it in any type of way.”

Although it would be great to declare that sexism in the primate world is a result of observational bias, there is a tightrope walk between wishful hypotheses and genuine objective conclusions, whether they stand in the name of feminism or not. One of the questions I had for Katarina was about whether she was looking for anything specific in her own findings.

“With these males and females, we’re always thinking about human stereotypes. And in both ways. I’m doing this project, and I want females to play an important role. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. However, let’s say the data say hamadryas society is as male driven as people say. Even though that doesn’t fit the narrative I would dream of, that’s not my role. When you’re reporting results and doing analyses, it is important to be honest and objective. Of course, we’re human beings so we’re subject to biases and maybe they’re an inevitable part of the conclusion, but I do think there is a responsibility with this kind of work. I hope I get a sense of what is contributing to this variation. I’m not pulling for a giant genetic contribution or a giant environmental contribution, I think anything in the middle, which it most likely is, could be very interesting. Just to generally understand what factors are contributing.”

If we are honest with ourselves, primatology is usually entangled with human hypotheses and interests. When we consider hamadryas as a model for human evolution, we match it to our recognizable behaviors of abuse, and apply that narrative to the animals instead of investigating further. And sometimes, it can come vice versa. To Katarina, one of the hardest parts about studying primates with such an exaggerated social system is the implications of a sort of “ingrained” reasoning for human behavior.

“I think about humans a lot- as a biological anthropologist that’s something that’s always there. I think it’s important not to shy away from human implications, as long as we’re all aware there are aspects of it that can get really… tricky. You can definitely learn the origins of human behavior, but especially with respect to my kind of study, I think it’s easy to jump into “this is why humans are abusive” or “why humans are antagonistic to each other.” In that same context, these traits are not immutable. They are not inflexible, nor can we claim to control them. I think it’s a lazy and actually really dangerous thing to fall back and assume that genetic factors [in monkeys and apes] playing a role indicates a kind of “programming” of human behavior, which we know is absolutely not the case. The best we can claim is influence.”

It is unscientific to draw direct conclusions about humans from the study of baboons (and vice versa), but it can also be dangerous, especially for women. The concept of “hardwiring”, something that biological anthropologists constantly investigate, comes out often in popular science, and it can often scare readers into believing there is no hope for progress. Or worse, that there is a biological excuse for violence and discrimination. Although it is important and interesting to keep humans and the practical use of science in mind, claiming primate biology and human biology have interchangeable implications can have dangerous consequences.

A band of hamadryas baboons in the San Diego Zoo. PC: San Diego Zoo

Even on the modern road of anthropological study (which was paved with racism, sexism, and assumptions based on Western imperialism), there remains an interest in perpetrators of dominance. However, the dynamics are shifting.

“In academia, you do see [people] talking about male-driven systems. In anthropology, you definitely see (I see it in my program too) there are a lot of male faculty, but a lot of female students. I would say I see about 90% female students. We’re in an interesting era where we see a wave of female students coming into biological anthropology- and also to science more generally. And as a result of that, questions are being asked that weren’t before. And with hamadryas, I was especially interested in the role of females in [a male driven system.]”

As we speak, more evidence for strong female bonds in hamadryas baboons is coming out every day. Larissa Swedell, Katarina’s supervisor at QC and the founder of the Filoha Hamadryas Project- the only habituated band of hamadryas in the wild- is at the front of new research. There is evidence of some level of female [mate] choice- females end up in certain groups with their own kin more so than you would expect by random chance. There are also papers by Swedell on hamadryas female affiliation and social bonds, where she talks about variation in female social relationships and the underestimation of how strong those bonds are. According to Professor Swedell, some females even crossed unit boundaries to interact with one another. Clearly there is some level of ignorance when it comes to how we describe hamadryas relationships by gender. This evidence inspires Katarina’s push to further investigate the contributions of females to the hamadryas social paradigm, but she also has personal reasons for her drive.

“One of the reasons I pushed to include females in the project is because it’s just important to me. There’s something powerful about understanding the benefits of female relationships. We’re trying to understand evolutionary origins, why we are the way we are, and not just us, but why these animals are the way they are. It’s tough because thinking about the link to humans and my own biases, I am studying the role of females and I also am a female… I guess I am a little biased! But I want to know the role females are playing. And I think my interest also means I have a responsibility to be honest about what I find.”

Katarina feels a duty to her lab and to these monkeys, and that’s okay. Every scientist is subject to their own interests, beliefs, and wishes when they pour their heart into a project. It can cause false narratives, but it can also inspire very real and important questions that require diverse perspectives to gain the truth. Scientists’ varying perspectives should serve as a means for widening the scope of research, rather than narrowing it. That’s why it’s so incredibly inspiring to see more women pushing their questions in our field today, in the search for a more complete narrative.

A female hamadryas baboon grooming another female, holding an infant. PC: Karin Tilch, Deutsches Primatenzentrum

By Emma Gometz

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