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Can Chimpanzees Teach us Anything About Differences Between Boys and Girls?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Whether there exist differences between boys and girls is passionately debated (for example, see this debate about gender disparity between Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke). Some studies have found that girls are more sociable than boys, but prefer to play with just one other person, while boys prefer a larger group to play with.

However, it is very difficult to say whether differences that we see in boys’ and girls’ behaviour has a biological basis, as boys and girls are also treated differently. Even before a baby is born, parents have often painted its room pink or blue, and bought gender-differentiated toys.  A mother is more likely to under-estimate her female baby’s crawling abilities, and over-estimate her male baby’s (he’s a boy, of course he’s going to be stronger and better at crawling?!). Perceptions on the personality and abilities of a baby also differ depending on whether the adult is told that the child is male or female. Given these differences in how people treat male and female children, it can be difficult to say whether the behaviours we see are have a biological basis or not.

However, we can look for certain clues to biological differences in child behaviour from our ‘cousins’ the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in communities of 20 to 180 individuals, with sub-groups within this. One recent study looked at the behaviour of eight female and twelve male chimpanzee infants to see if their behaviour differed from each other. They found that the young males were more sociable than the young females.

Male infants interacted more with others than female infants, even when the males’ mothers weren’t particularly sociable (it wasn’t just that they were following their mothers around and copying their behaviour). However, infant chimpanzees do generally stay close to their mothers for the first five years of their lives, so it is difficult to disentangle the possibility that mothers with sons just have more interactions than mothers with daughters. However, it seems likely that the males are initiating the interactions, and then their mothers are following them, rather than the other way around. The male infants also interacted more with adult males than did the female infants.

These sex differences last throughout a chimpanzees life, so it is interesting that they appear so early on. The researchers involved in this study argue that the differences seen in young humans may then also have a biological basis.


Of course, no one single study like this can tell us whether human infant behaviour has a strong biological basis or not. Further studies should look further into why such differences between the sexes may exist (both in chimpanzees and in humans), and see how widespread human infant behavioural differences are across different cultures.


Photo credits

Children playing: Aislinn Ritchie

girls and boys toys: Janet McKnight

chimpanzee photos: Tambako the Jaguar



Lonsdorf, E. V., Anderson, K. E., Stanton, M. A., Shender, M., Heintz, M. R., Goodall, J., & Murray, C. M. (2014). Boys will be boys: sex differences in wild infant chimpanzee social interactions. Animal Behaviour88, 79-83.

Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 8:03 pm 01/6/2014

    “Whether there exist differences between boys and girls is passionately debated” Hey lady – you have a cul-de-sac of Douglas, I don’t. Men crush each other in a contact football game, then go out for a beer together. Women cry, than hate you forever. Yeah, there’s a difference.
    Oh, wait! There’s another.

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  2. 2. JPGumby 10:23 am 01/7/2014

    Pan Trogolodytes or Pan Bonobo?

    For Uncle Al, people round the world all agree that men and women are differnt. They just don’t agree on how they are different!

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  3. 3. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 6:53 pm 01/7/2014

    Sorry, should have said – Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii

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  4. 4. Panimerus 6:55 am 01/8/2014

    Humans and chimps are of the same lineage and belonged to the same common population not too long ago. Observing similar behaviours in the two does therefore not necessarily imply that the behaviours are genetically hard-wired – given the data presented in this article they may just as well be deep-rooted cultural traits. After all, both chimps and humans treat offspring differently according to sex.
    I am not saying that gender differences necessarily are predominantly based in nurture; merely that this particular case study of chimpanzees does not provide any evidence for either side of the debate.

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  5. 5. LFP2000 6:18 pm 01/8/2014

    Panimerus: That’s weak. There are many other primate studies, not to mention studies of other mammals, anthropological studies of tribal people, and psychological research on gendered behavior in babies and toddlers, that support the existence of innate, gender-specific behaviors.

    Contrary to what academic feminists stuck in the 1970s think, “gender essentialism” is an inconvenient truth — at least in relation to reproduction- and mating-related behaviors.

    (Everybody should read the linked Pinker/Spelke debate — the win goes to Pinker, IMHO.)

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  6. 6. American Muse 9:35 pm 01/8/2014

    “Whether there exist differences between boys and girls is passionately debated …”

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  7. 7. American Muse 9:39 pm 01/8/2014

    “Whether there exist differences between boys and girls is passionately debated …”

    C’mon, Felicity – debated by who? Men are from Earth, women from a different galaxy – and they can stay there!

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