Men, women and baboons


Thelma Rowell is a biologist known for working with baboons in the 1960s. Her work was groundbreaking, not only because she changed the way the scientific community viewed hierarchy and competition in primates, but predominantly because she was a pioneer for an ideological and political movement called feminist primatology. A movement which placed women in an advantageous position in ethology (the study of animal behaviour) in relation to men and turned compassion, which was considered a weakness, into a scientific strength.

Initially, she faced discrimination by the male establishment of scientists, due to her sex. It was nothing but the average discrimination a woman-scientist might be faced with in 1960s Europe, just what was going on at the time, so she opted for a career of field-work with baboons in Uganda (Ishasha). What was noteworthy about her approach was her skepticism towards previous studies designed by men who fashioned their experiments in such a way that would pretty much guarantee them the expected conclusion in a relatively brief period of time.

Thelma on the other hand attempted to minimise stress caused by her, the observer, thus minimising simplification and maximising the possibility of her observations being a realistic take of what goes on in the wild. What she found was that the rigidity of the previously described hierarchy in primates was actually a result of what one would expect in any mammal society faced with stress for resources. In addition, she found that what was previously considered a patriarchy was really a society where relationships between all members of the group was based on a constant process of kinship and maintainance through grooming and sharing. They even seemed to reconcile differences through affectionate gestures. Females were far from being subordinate in a resourceful natural environment, even though the sex of each animal played a role in how they would distribute their time.

Rowell in other words, proved that dominance is an artefact projecting the stress faced by humans and reproducing it. I suppose, the stress is indeed a reality in human societies, but the aggressive and manipulative manner in which human males take pride in dealing with it should one day be the object of extensive study by baboons.

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