Off the Cuff with Amy Parish, Darwinian Feminist

Amy Parish delivered a talk this Thursday titled Reflections on Our Closest Relatives and Ourselves: Sex, Bonding and Dominance in Bonobos. Parish, a self-described Darwinian feminist, has studied bonobos for the past 23 years, drawing not only from evolutionary biology but also from anthropology, gender studies and psychology to examine human behavior and its origins.

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

What is Darwinian feminism?

Traditionally there’s been some antagonism between academics who call themselves feminists and those working on an evolutionary perspective as it applies to human behavior, because there’s an assumption that if something is natural that you’re saying … that somehow it’s cemented in stone. And I think feminists often have a problem with what they perceive in biology to be essentialism, so saying that all males are a particular way, … that’s actually a misunderstanding. Actually, what biology does is it looks at variation: Why do you see extreme patriarchy in one environment? Why do you see more female power under a different set of environmental or ecological circumstances? Unfortunately there hasn’t been a lot of dialogue between gender studies and biology because traditionally there’s been this kind of hostility to considering that humans are an animal and that we’re subject to the same kind of evolutionary forces of every other animal out there. Instead, this brings this idea that humans are kind of in their own sphere and that they operate entirely under free will and any kinds of disparity between sexes are entirely manufactured by culture. So a Darwinian feminist is someone who is both feminist and interested in evolutionary biology and wants to bring those two disciplines together.

You have an interdisciplinary approach to subjects. What are the challenges of approaching a topic from many different disciplines?

Not all universities are open to interdisciplinarity. … At many other universities there are sort of very rigid boundaries around each academic discipline and it’s pretty hard to transcend them, but I feel there’s a real value for the students co-opting the things that they’re learning from different disciplines and using more tools for analyzing the themes in each of those areas. … For me, as an evolutionary biologist, I was really interested in how you can look at human behavior and culture from this evolutionary perspective, and then branch out to see how it applies to medicine, public health, women’s studies, etc. What relationship do you feel the social sciences and the humanities have to the natural sciences? I’m not sure how often that relationship is thought about in a broad way. … My experience is that gender studies and fields like biology don’t often have conversations with each other and yet we’re actually asking a lot of the same questions: Who has power? How do you get it? What is it good for? How is it used? And we could actually inform each other if we were willing to pay attention to each other’s literature. … So it’s a pity that we’re not talking together more.

Why do you find bonobos so fascinating?

As soon as I started studying them I noticed something … interesting about them which was [that] females were able to bond with other females in the absence of kinship, and that’s something that very, very few mammals are capable of. … Females in general are either avoidant of other females, maybe tolerant of other females, but not necessarily interacting with them or downright aggressive towards other females unless they’re kin. So, if you think about species where there are strong female relationships … those bonds among females are based on being kin. Bonobo females were doing it in the absence of kinship and I got really excited about that. That’s where my broad interdisciplinary background really helped me to see that there was something new and interesting there because I was raised by a feminist mother … and so I could see how fascinating it was to discover a very closely related relative of ours where females were being successful at building coalitionary power through bonding with each other. … They accomplished the goals of the human feminist movement. They behave with unrelated females as if they are their sisters, and if you think about feminism, it’s all about sisterhood, right? We can talk about whether the glass is half empty or half full for human females, but for bonobo females it’s probably 95 percent full.

What do you think bonobo interactions tell us about humans, or is that even a question that should be asked?

I think it is a question that you should be asking, because we operate in anthropology under the premise that we can learn things about ourselves by studying our closest living relatives. … There’s a lot of value in looking at bonobos and chimps because each of them is equally our closest living relative. We’re somewhere between 96.5 and 99 percent genetically identical to them. So I think we can learn about ourselves, and it’s particularly important to know about bonobos because chimp work was done decades earlier than bonobo work, so most models about hominid evolution have been based on what we know about chimps. … Chimps are patriarchal, very focused on aggression between groups — there’s a lot of warfare and males are incredibly aggressive towards females, and sexually coercive, for instance.

So if you build your models of hominid evolution on all of those things, you’re really focused on the competitive side of our nature, which is definitely there. … But on the other hand, we’ve got this other closest living relative, the bonobo, where it’s females who dominate males and there is no warfare between groups and males are never sexually coercive towards females. It’s nice to know that we also share a lot in common with that relative, and so it opens up the possibilities of our own evolution. It doesn’t mean we have five million years of a very patriarchal heritage.