Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Sexual Harassment in the Animal World

Animals seek power by giving and receiving favors.

Female elephants run from all males. If they run fast, only the strongest males can catch them and their children get fathered by the stronger genes. Male elephants get especially pushy during a hormonal spurt known as "musth." Females can smell it coming and run. Female squirrels run from males too. During their semi-annual mating seasons, it's easy to see lots of high-speed chases.

I ran like the Dickens when my dissertation advisor harassed me in grad school. I lost two months of work but I was glad it wasn't two years.

Female chimpanzees don't run from male pursuers when they're offered gifts. Biologists struggle to put a nice face on this, but it seems female chimps are easily lured by males who share their meat.

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When I was a struggling young research assistant, the president of my company gave me opera tickets. I didn't even like opera, but he picked me up in a limo and it was the best offer I'd had that week. By the next week, I'd learned my lesson, and now I ignore men bearing gifts.

Female hyenas are extremely aggressive. A male hyena gets bitten by deadly jaws if he doesn't accept that no means no.

I've never had to bite anyone. I don't expect favors from men, so exchange-of-favors expectations don't develop.

But the fact is, we primates are always expecting things from others. Reciprocity is the foundation of primate society. Anyone seeking political power needs support from lots of people. They spend most of their waking lives giving and receiving favors. They get comfortable asking for things, and expecting to get them. Many people are willing to do favors for powerful individuals in the expectation of a favor in return. It's not a pleasant thought, but one that can't be avoided.

How can democracy-loving primates choose a leader who's likely to respect the rule of law? The female vote plays a surprisingly big role in the baboon world. When two males contend for the top spot, the one with the most female supporters typically wins. But the females aren't a bloc vote. They divide up according to their individual experience with the power-seekers. Alpha baboons and chimpanzees invest plenty of effort courting female allies. 

In the animal world, the alpha of a herd or pack or troop tries to dominate reproduction. This plays out in different ways. Males fight males. Females fight females. Males and females fight each other. The bigger an animal's brain, the more they avoid violence by substituting a mental accounting of favors given and received.

One animal species has been idealized for its alleged "make love not war" strategy- the bonobo. But their politics leave a lot to be desired. Young females must submit to the dominance of older females who make sexual demands on them. Females compete with each other to mate with the sons of dominant females. Male bonobos avoid open conflict with each other because their sperm battles it out with other sperm on its way to the egg.

This makes me wonder about rumor and innuendo battling it out with other rumors and innuendos on the way to the presidential prize. Journalists are primates too. Reciprocal alliances dominate their lives. Every journalist knows which slant will raise their status in the media world, and which slant will destroy them. How can we get good information about potential leaders?

It comes at a price. Monkeys in a laboratory exchanged chunks of food for pictures of their alpha monkey. They were willing to pay for the chance to check out their leaders. If you want good information about potential leaders, don't stop at the first entertaining story you hear. Invest yourself in the pursuit of information.

More on this in my book I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness. The chapter on Sex and the Status Hierarchy explains everything you always wanted to know but were too polite to ask.

This poster from the Shanghai Zoo is a strange introduction to gorilla social behavior.

 

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Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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