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Females wield more power in primate societies than previously believed

The prevailing notion that males wield more power and dominance than females in primate societies has been a long-standing assumption in the scientific community.

However, a fascinating study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin is challenging this idea, revealing that female-biased power structures and social equality between sexes are not only present but may have been a part of primates’ evolutionary history across all major groups.

Studying the female power dynamic

This new research offers a significant shift in understanding primate social structures.

By analyzing 79 primate species and categorizing them into male-dominant, female-dominant, or co-dominant groups, the team discovered patterns that contradict the traditional view of male dominance.

They found that male-biased power is more likely in primate species where males are larger and have longer canine teeth than females.

Conversely, female power emerges in species where there is a scarcity of female mating partners compared to male demand, especially when size differences between sexes are minimal.

Professor Rebecca Lewis, a co-author of the paper and a renowned anthropologist, highlighted the importance of this shift in perspective.

“In the past, primatologists have often focused on the role of males and male power in primate societies. What has sometimes been overlooked is the important role of female power in primate societies,” Lewis said.

“Our work suggests that more economic forms of power might really come to the forefront in primate species in which males and females are similar in size and in which females are therefore less readily coerced by males.”

Upending previously held beliefs

This study also sheds light on the commonality of female power structures in various primate species, such as lemurs, gibbons in Southeast Asia, and marmosets in the Americas.

These findings dispute previous theories that considered female dominance in primates like lemurs an anomaly due to unique environmental factors.

Furthermore, the research team’s efforts to estimate the probability of male-biased power in ancestral primate groups yielded intriguing results.

They concluded that no specific pattern of intersexual power can be confidently attributed to the ancestors of many major primate groups.

This suggests that assuming ancestral male-biased power in primates may not be justifiable.

Significance of female power structures

Professor Chris Kirk, another co-author of the study, elaborates further on this point.

“Primates have been thought to be mainly male dominant, which would suggest that male dominance was present in primates from early in their evolutionary history. If this assumption is correct, then what would need to be explained is the occurrence of female dominant societies and those with greater equality between the sexes,” Kirk explained.

However, Kirk continued, “we show that this assumption of ancestral male-biased power in primates isn’t necessarily supported by the data. In fact, other types of intersexual power relationships are sufficiently common in primate societies that it’s not clear what the ancestral condition might have been. Thus, all types of intersexual power need to be explained, not just the presence of female-biased power.”

In summary, this research challenges the longstanding presumptions of male dominance in primates, while also advancing our knowledge of social structure evolution across different species.

The implications of this study extend beyond primatology, offering insights that could reshape our understanding of gender roles and power dynamics in the animal kingdom.

The full study was published in the journal Animals.


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