I found our old DVD of the BBC’s Walking with Cavemen the other day, and I decided to watch it with Max. He’s supposed to study prehistory this year, so I thought it might help. Also, I loved the Walking with Dinosaurs.
It was beautifully done, and I learned a lot : I’d had no idea there’d been so many different kinds of Ape Men , nor that they’d been around for so long and evolved so slowly !
But I wasn’t entirely impressed. A lot of the narrative was needlessly sexist. No, I don’t mean that Baron Winston was oggling the naked ape girls. He did, however, assume that the males of the tribe regarded them as the sexual property of whichever one of them was strongest. There was a lot of talk of alpha males, leaders, and mating priviledges.
The BBC series was supposed to be controversial in that it formulated hypotheses about why certain species survived longer than others, and in particular that the reason the Homo Sapiens are still around is their powerful imagination which enabled them to adapt and survive climate changes. But the kind of sexist discourse which sees females as mates is not new. In fact it has long been typical of theorizing about prehistory, and never regarded as particularly controversial, simply because no one bothered to look for proofs.
Yet, it is incredibly harmful for an educational program to portray our ancestors as such. Of course, we all know that we’ve evolved, that it’s no longer the case that the stongest man around has the right to shag all the females. And yet many of us still look to our roots in order to understand our behaviour : what our ancestors were like is seen by many (because it is presented as such) as a clue to the problems we face now.
So a little girl may have great difficulties dealing with the thought that a few million years ago, women were just sexual property, and reconcile this with modern feminism. It’s almost like saying that millions of years of civilisation have covered us with a veneer that means we all look a bit more like each other but that our true nature is deeply unequal. How are children supposed to deal with that ?
Children, of course, do have to deal with unpleasant facts of life : there is no point pretending to them that life is rosy when it is not, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rewrite prehistory so as to made life easier for little girls. Except that no one has presented us with any evidence that this was a good way to write prehistory in the first place. How do we know that males fought each other for copulation priviledges ? What evidence for this can there possibly be ? Did Ape Men and Women leave around little black books, with the names of their conquests ? Or did they scratch out the numbers of sex slaves they acquired on the trees they lived in ? All we have from them is bones. And later tools. Surely that’ s not enough to go on about their sexual habits ? Sure, we can tell which females gave birth, but not who the father was, nor how the father was chosen.
Why are prehistorians so unquestioning about this to the extent that such comments are allowed to be made on an educational, wide-reaching, BBC program ? Well, they might say, ape men were little more than animals, and we know that this is how animals choose their mates.
Except we don’t. We are just as sexist in our interpretation of animal life as we are in our theorising about our ancestors. Feminist biologists and animal scientists have shown convincingly that most evidence of male domination in animal life can be overturned by a little scientific scrutiny.
I’m not a biologist, but it’s quite clear that males do not always get to pick their mates in the animal world.
I give you Monty, the Dyfy Osprey. Monty appropriated a nest by the river Dyfy in 2007. He then spent a year doing it up and for two years, shared a nest with his male friend Scraggly. In 2011, he started a family with Nora, a young female Osprey. She found him and the nest when she came back from her winter travels. They fished together, had a lot of sex, until it was time for Nora to lay an egg, then two, then three. Nora then settled herself down until the chicks were born, relying on Monty to fish for her, and take over when she needed to stretch her wings. Once the chicks were ready to go, Nora left before Monty.
The following year, Monty was the first back and waited for Nora. She came, had had three more chicks, only one of whom survived the dreadful Welsh summer. Then this year she didn’t come. Monty waited, looked around, but either Nora had tired of him, or she had died. Then another female came. She stuck around a few days, played around, let Monty impress her with his fishing skills, and left. Then another one came. She left too, then came back. A third came, and the two females had a bit of a fight, but eventually, both decided to look elsewhere. Finally, a young female, who had not laid eggs before decided to give Monty’s nest a try. Glesni has just laid her first egg. Monty, who has had to work very hard to impress all these females so as to convince one to stay is no doubt relieved that his nest is now filled. Hopefully Glesni will come back next year and he won’t have to work so hard.