Anthropology Brings Back Bestiaries
For gender activists, clownfish and orangutans operate as just-so stories guaranteeing proper moral orientation rather than empirical challenges to evidence-based accounts.
About the Author
Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta.
In September, several colleagues and I were pre-emptively booted from the 2023 joint meetings of the American Anthropological Association and Canadian Anthropology Society in Toronto. Our panel, titled “Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby: Why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology,” was scheduled for Sunday, November 20. I have already detailed this regrettable situation elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here.
Instead, I want to focus on a specific point about why our panel was said to fly in the face of the “settled science” in anthropology: the contention that evidence from orangutans demonstrates that the great apes, humans included, are not sexually dimorphic species. In a joint letter, three anthropologists—Kathryn Clancy from the University of Illinois, Agustin Fuentes from Princeton, and Robin Nelson from Arizona State University—wrote, “We see three forms of the adult orangutan. Does this represent a sex binary?” They proffer this rhetorically, expecting the reader to assent that the answer can only be “no.” I am indebted to my co-panelist, Elizabeth Weiss, for sharing and discussing the relevant literature on this with me.
Clancy, Fuentes, and Nelson are referring to a phenomenon observed among male orangutans whereby junior males will not always develop secondary sexual characteristics if a dominant senior male is present. While these junior males are reproductively capable, and will impregnate female orangutans when the opportunity arises, they do not develop the larger body size, heavy jowls, and “laryngeal sac” that produces the loud, resonant calls typical of dominant males. Consequently, female orangutans are much less willing to mate voluntarily with these developmentally arrested junior males than with dominant senior males.
The mechanism that induces developmental arrest in junior males in the presence of a dominant senior male is unknown. Initially, it was hypothesized that this was a stress response. However, dominant males produce more stress hormones than developmentally arrested junior males.¹ This suggests that the lack of mating opportunities for junior males might be offset by a significant reduction in violent conflicts with other males. Dominant senior males are relatively tolerant of developmentally arrested males but engage in aggressive combat during encounters with other mature males, resulting in injuries and sometimes premature death. This behavior may be a canonical example of what evolutionary biologists have termed the “sneaky fucker” gambit, observed in many species, where some males monopolize mating opportunities with females through aggression, forcing unsuccessful males pursue alternative strategies that avoid direct male-male competition. The arrested development observed in some male orangutans may be a particularly highly developed example of this strategy.
Are orangutans, then, a trimorphic species proving that primate sex is not binary? This species exhibits three adult body forms; however, two of these are male, and one is female. Consequently, orangutans, like humans, have only two sexes. The alternate male body forms likely represent reproductive strategies evolved to access the limiting factor for the production of orangutan offspring. This limiting factor is the bodies and capacities of female orangutans, including their large sessile gametes, uteruses for gestating baby orangutans, mammary glands for nourishing young over extended juvenile periods (orangutan offspring can be breastfed for up to eight years), and the devoted care from orangutan mums necessary to rear orangutan offspring to maturity.
The story of the trimorphic orangutan, therefore, doesn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny as a slam-dunk example that refutes the sex binary. Instead, it serves a different purpose. It contributes not to scientific literature but to the evolving canon of a postmodern bestiary.
Perhaps the most prominent example in the emergent bestiary is the clownfish. These memorable animals are inscribed upon the evanescent surface of the internet rather than in manuscripts made of vellum, but the postmodern bestiary to which they belong unconsciously imitates the medieval tradition in providing lavishly illustrated manuals of moral instruction. The orangutan and the clownfish are to the twenty-first century what the befer, the wudu-bucca, and the gat-bucca were to the eleventh.²
Consider the indefatigable befer (beaver). When pursued by hunters interested in a medicinal substance contained in his testicles, he’d bite his own balls off, stand on his hind legs, and display his denuded underbelly to his pursuers to induce them to leave. It would be silly to challenge this tale on grounds of scientific rigor, as it was intended to provide a striking image to accompany moral instruction. The beaver demonstrates that only by casting away one’s own predilection toward sin—painful as this might be—is it possible to discourage the hot pursuit of Satan.
Ponder, now, the gat-bucca (domesticated goat). This literally and figuratively horny creature, who grubs about eating any old thing and giving in to randy impulses, is nevertheless kin to the noble wudu-bucca (wild goat). The wudu-bucca is far-seeing, discerning about seeking out health-promoting fodder, and even knows which herbs heal wounds. To critique the idea of a ruminant possessing pharmaceutical knowledge is to miss the point. This memorable contrast was meant to convey a lesson about ethical conduct: If fated to traverse this earthly plane as a humble goat, it is far better to emulate the wild than the domestic variety by exercising one’s faculties of judgement in order to lead a goodly life.
I’m hardly the first person to observe that the reasoning powers of the contemporary gender ecumene appear to have much more in common with the enchanted worldviews of premodern societies than with the gimlet-eyed skepticism attempted, of course not always successfully, by modern scientists. Rollicking yarns about the clownfish and the orangutan operate as just-so stories guaranteeing proper moral orientation (i.e. “sex is not binary”) rather than empirical challenges to evidence-based accounts. You aren’t supposed to actually go and read about orangutan sexual behavior when Clancy, Fuentes, and Norton prompt you rhetorically any more than medieval bestiary perusers were meant to follow up on the beaver story by asking how clearly hunters could see the business end of an upright beaver, or ask what sample size of wound-recovered wudu-buccas underpinned the postulated goat hypothesis.
When gender ideologues rifle the annals of animal science in hope of rumbling a plausible tale about white-throated sparrows or bearded dragons, they are looking not for evidence but for allegories. Tracking down their sources is like asking Aesop if foxes ought to eat grapes even if they are within easy reach (they definitely should not, by the way). Such narratives are not aimed at advancing animal ethology or biology, but at telling humans how to behave and what to believe about their own natures.
On these grounds, what are the actual merits of Clancy’s, Fuentes’, and Nelson’s assertions? Not their scientific merits, obviously, but the moral criteria by which they ought more correctly to be assessed? Say what you will about the facts of the fable of the befer, its underlying message—that self-examination is a good starting point for staying out of trouble—is timeless good advice. Contrasting the Goofus with the Gallant of goats offers similarly wise counsel: exercise good judgement, don’t give in to every impulse.
What kind of morality is enjoined by the parable of the trimorphic orangutan? A creed that says giving kids drugs that erode their bones is groovy. One that urges us to free our minds, man, about where and with whom Marina Volz should be housed. An ethos that claps like a trained seal every time WPATH issues new “settled science” from on high.
Anthropology is currently failing spectacularly on both scientific and moral grounds. The good news is the discipline can only go up from here.
If you’d like to watch our panel, we held it over Zoom on November 8th, with the kind support of Heterodox Academy: LINK
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