Does new research into chimpanzee behaviour prove that the female of the species has a genetic destiny to be unkind to one another? - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 March 2013

Are women genetically destined to be unkind to other women, while competing with each other for male attention?

Does new research into chimpanzee behaviour prove that females of the species have a genetic destiny to be unkind to one another?

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 March 2013

Kerra Maddern

Are women genetically destined to be unkind to other women, while competing with each other for male attention?

Many would argue that this is nonsense, an unkind stereotype that reflects badly on women. But a new study of the behaviour of our nearest genetic cousins in the animal world, chimpanzees, suggests there may be more truth to this observation than some might like to admit – and it could be explained by evolution.

At the very least, the research into the gestures and body language of common chimpanzees at Chester Zoo in the UK provides food for thought about our relationships with the same and the opposite sex. Chimps share 98.4 per cent of their DNA with humans.

The study found that females "adopt a more negative" approach to other females, while males have a "more positive strategy" towards other males, according to researcher Nicole Scott of the University of Minnesota in the US.

The stars of Ms Scott's work at Chester Zoo were the five adult males and 17 adult females in the colony of 30 chimps. She observed them for three months in 2007 and her report has just been published in the American Journal of Primatology.

The cast of characters is extraordinary and includes a chimp called Dylan competing with Boris, who was caught in the wild in the 1960s and lived in a flat in New York as a pet until 1969 when he came to Chester. Ms Scott also analysed the lives of females Heidi, the extrovert, Cleo, the "auntie" of the group, and the youngest, Tina, born in 2009.

Certainly their behaviour throws up all sorts of questions about the nature of human interaction. Sonya Hill, Chester Zoo's animal behaviour expert, said it proved that males want to rise up the ranks of the chimp hierarchy, and rely on females to support them in these efforts.

They can inflict "hideous" injuries on them if they want to, so females tend to stay "on the right side" of males, she said. This means females often "suck up" to males, while competing with each other for male protection and food.

"This ties in with stereotypes about humans – that if you put a lot of women in a room together they will end up being really bitchy," Dr Hill added. "This could be an evolutionary throwback, which rears its ugly head even though we live in different times."


  • What behaviour do we typically associate with being female? What behaviour do we associate with being male? Make two lists.
  • Do these lists accurately reflect the men and women you know in real life?
  • Do you believe that human behaviour is influenced more by genetics or by society? Justify your answer.
  • How far can we make comparisons between human and animal behaviour? What factors need to be considered when drawing conclusions from studies such as this one?

Resources for you

Measuring animal behaviour

  • Explore primate behaviour with this pack from the Living Links Research Centre at St Andrews University, including lesson plans, posters, activities and videos on chimpanzees.

Gender roles and expectations

  • Get pupils thinking about gender roles, stereotypes and expectations with this lesson framework.

My mate's a primate

  • Consider the impact of human activity on the environment and other primates with these videos from Green TV.

Safari time

  • Take your class on an imagined safari with this PowerPoint resource introducing Africa’s wild animals, including lions, rhinos, hippos, giraffe, chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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