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16 February 2022

The messy sex lives of monkeys

A delightful mix of science, history and feminism, BBC Radio 4’s Political Animals explores what animal sexuality reveals about the female libido.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I’ll be honest, I’ve never thought much about the sex lives of capuchin monkeys. But once the zoologist Lucy Cooke introduces the topic, I can’t get it out of my head. Political Animals opens with horny females pouting and primping to seduce as many males as possible. Darwin’s evolutionary theory purports that they should be coy, letting the males compete for their affections. But no one seems to have told them that.

A delightful mix of science, history and feminism, this show is all about “celebrating stories of females in the natural world that defy sexist stereotypes”. Many of our assumptions about gender dynamics in the animal kingdom are, Cooke explains, the product of outdated Victorian misconceptions. Darwin was a genius, but also a man of his time. His assessment of “dominant” males with “stronger passions” than those of their mates has incorrectly influenced evolutionary biology since.

[see also: Marian Keyes and Tara Flynn provide warmth and wisdom in Now You’re Asking]

Cooke’s effort to correct the record throws up some astonishing findings. To return to the capuchins, female promiscuity that would have horrified Victorian sensibilities is actually a form of maternal protection: a male is less likely to attack an infant if there’s a chance it might be his offspring. And lest we think it’s all about mammals, a female Jacana bird enjoys copulating with a harem of males, who all then help to raise her chicks.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the female libido isn’t confined to human beings; the evidence has always been there, yet the female scientists who have pointed it out have found themselves dismissed as attention-seeking or driven by feminist bias. (One of Cooke’s male guests makes exactly this claim, barely aware of how his own prejudices might have influenced his work.) But it’s not ideological to note that animal sexuality is a lot more vibrant, messy and complicated than 19th-century moralists would have you believe. And next time someone tries to peddle outdated views about human women and their innate submissiveness under the guise of evolutionary biology, I’ll have my ammunition ready. Thank you Lucy Cooke – and thank you capuchins.

[see also: BBC Radio 4’s Night Watch offers insight into female fear – but is it useful?]

Political Animals
BBC Radio 4,
18 February, 11am

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War