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

There is a girl named Rose. No matter where she goes, Mercury follows. In the morning, while she’s getting food, Mercury is right next to her. She lays sitting with her daughter, and Mercury, indifferent to the child, pulls her away. He puts his hands on her to keep her close, and if she tries to run it will hurt. Contact with other men: forbidden. He dictates what she eats, how she spends her time, and who she spends it with. But at night, when they crawl together to sleep, Rose nuzzles her head right into the crook of Mercury’s neck, and he embraces her with warmth. They sleep together in peace.

This narrative, while certainly over-dramatized, might sound a little familiar. It occurs often in human relationships when a man takes hold of a woman’s life. But the story I just told was the story of two hamadryas baboons I observed at Queens College. And as a woman, it interests me.

Male and female hamadryas. PC: DSA images

Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) aren’t like the rest. Most baboons live together, with a large number of males and females, all traveling together and mating with one another. There’s still male-male competition, but this is to win the attention of the females. Most baboon females spend time with each other, grooming and handling infants. In fact, their species earns a classification that most other gregarious primates have: they are female-bonded. Meaning the females in the group stick together, and form lifelong relationships with each other, while the males cycle in and out and mostly interact to mate (with a few exceptions). Hamadryas, however, according to most scientists, are non-female bonded. To be non-female bonded means that the only socially impactful relationships in the world of hamadryas must involve a male. Hamadryas do not win the attention of females, but rather pull them into their units by using aggression and coercion, and employ a violent practice called “neckbiting” to harm them if they stray. A typical hamadryas female won’t come outside of 25 feet of her leader male during the day. There is evidence that hamadryas females are more prone to stress and anxiety than other baboon females, and there is also evidence that their behavior is a direct result of fear of male aggression, while male behavior is a result of genetics.

The current scientific narrative surrounding hamadryas sociality is completely and utterly shaped by male behavior. I sat down with Katarina Evans, a PhD candidate in biological anthropology at Queens College who is studying female sociality among hamadryas, as well as what role they play in the greater social system, to talk about it. She says that narrative is wrong.

“No, I do not believe that hamadryas females are non-female bonded. With more research, we can unravel that relationship, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were stronger than it is 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. And right now, a few of them are studying the complex relationships among female hamadryas. They want to know whether the narrative of practically non-existent female relationships is true, or a result of (perhaps unknowingly) a systemic ignorance of female roles that are not non-existent, but nuanced.

Katarina didn’t enter graduate school with a particular program in mind. However, she fell in love with hamadryas because of their fascinating model related to human behavior. 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 leading social tactic to organize themselves. Katarina believes that because of certain assumptions about how hamadryas reflect on humans, the overwhelming amount of studies surrounding hamadryas male behavior resulted in a 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, “okay, 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 any type of way.”

Although this sounds great, 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 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.”

Not only is it unscientific to draw direct conclusions about humans from the study of baboons (and vice versa), it can 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 in the modern world of anthropological scholars (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 in to 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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