Apes socialize gender roles. So do monkeys.

Today I was catching up on Quirks and Quarks, and heard a psychiatrist talk about the study he had done on rhesus monkeys. The jist of the study is this:

He gave a group of monkeys various toys, one at a time, and observed who “volunteered” to play and interact with each toy. The toys were loosely grouped into “masculine” (e.g. wheeled) toys and “feminine” (e.g. plush) toys. He found that while females did not display a strong preference, males showed a strong preference for wheeled toys. He repeatedly stated that this was “very similar to what we see in humans”, though he offered the usual caveats. (It doesn’t take much searching to find quasi-official personages making that link for them.) He suggested that this indicated that preference may have a biological basis. He also stated that socialization could not have been involved, since rhesus monkeys “don’t pay attention to advertising” and did not get reinforcement (implied: from humans).

Can you spot the experimental assumptions?

1) He presumes that rhesus monkeys are not able to be socialized.
2) He presumes that socialization must be overt and in a way that he recognizes.

Both of these assumptions are empirically false. Rhesus monkeys learn from observation (including observing each other) – which is inherently socialization. Further, rhesus monkeys (my wannabe anthropologist wife tells me) also have gender roles – just like humans. (Note: Socialization of gender roles in rhesus monkeys has already been documented – way back in 1979.) Socialization can create preferences where none existed before – even without the original reward/punishment mechanism in place. Socialization is not just advertisements or overt things either – it’s mimicry, implicit, and gradually learned.

Or in other words, all that is definitively shown in his experiment is that rhesus monkeys are also socialized into gender roles with specific preferences similar to the ways that humans are. Gee, imagine that. We think rhesus monkeys are close enough to humans (y’know, hairless apes) to generalize “biological” experiments… but can’t comprehend that we’re close enough that they have social mechanisms too.

Speciesism being used to justify sexism. Great.

I think the most interesting thing, though, is that not mentioned: the female rhesus monkeys did not show a preference- THEY PLAYED WITH ALL THE TOYS. If one desires to use experiments like this to justify sexism, then one has to realize: guys suck, women rule. Instead of limiting women’s activies, this gives an argument to limit the roles of men in society as the “inferior” gender.

Oh – we’re all in favor of equality again? That’s what I thought.