Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Rape in the animal kingdom

While it may never be clear why the Delhi rape and murder led to nationwide protests in a country that is so inured to violent attacks on women, it is quite clear that this particular assault stood out for its brutality.

If animals could protest, they would sue us humans for slander—because the word brutality, of 15th century Latin etymology, refers to the so-called ‘lower animals,’ a vague generalization that was coined at a time when man was considered a special creation of God and divinely ordained to lord over beasts and fowl.

Rape—though it exists—is a rarity in the animal kingdom.

No doubt there is such a thing as forced copulation in the animal kingdom that is often violent, and observed in many species of insects and birds such as the mariticidal praying mantis, and among ducks and geese; drakes, more often than not, force themselves on ducks.

Evolutionary biology usually explains such violence in terms of sexual access. Disgruntled males rape to maximize their chances of passing on their genes when the conventional methods of wooing, seductive bird calls and strutting, don’t seem to be working.

Yet, it is among the so-called higher animals such as dolphins and apes—who by virtue of their higher intelligence and sociability are more in the likeness of man—that females are harmed and coerced with the explicit motive of subjugation.

A revelatory set of studies in the 1980s and 1990s by Richard Connors, who is now at the University of Massachussetts, Dartmouth, on bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia showed how these extremely friendly and social creatures formed alliances to guard the females of their group against rape.

While one way to interpret such findings would be through attributing traits of chivalry and gallantry to these affable creatures, a more pragmatic interpretation is realizing that the males move as much to restrict sexual access to their females. Competing groups of dolphins may raid rival territories for their females and some may even pretend to be defenders only to turn aggressors.

Here’s how Barbara Smuts, a professor at the University of Michigan and a longtime observer of social relations in several primates—including hamadryas baboons, chimpanzees and orangutans—describes, in a seminal popular-science article in Discover magazine in 1995, masculine coercion of the female.

“…Sometimes, as I saw in Gombe (a wildlife reserve in Tanzania), a male chimpanzee even attacks an estrous female days before he tries to mate with her. Goodall (Jane, a pioneering ethologist) thinks that a male uses such aggression to train a female to fear him so that she will be more likely to surrender to his subsequent sexual advances. Similarly, male hamadryas baboons, who form small harems by kidnapping child brides, maintain a tight rein over their females through threats and intimidation. If, when another male is nearby, a hamadryas female strays even a few feet from her mate, he shoots her a threatening stare and raises his brows. She usually responds by rushing to his side; if not, he bites the back of her neck. The neck bite is ritualized—the male does not actually sink his razor-sharp canines into her flesh—but the threat of injury is clear. By repeating this behaviour hundreds of times, the male lays claim to particular females months or even years before mating with them. When a female comes into estrus, she solicits sex only from her harem master, and other males rarely challenge his sexual rights to her."

The full article is a brilliant exposition of the fascinating evidence of social control in non-human primates and concludes with the intriguing hypothesis that there is a marked difference of violence in primates where females form defensive alliances of their own, and in primate species where such a defensive coterie is absent.

Among the big outstanding questions in research endeavours that aim to explain behaviour in biological terms—as the extremely intriguing but divisive science of sociobiology tries to do—is whether the capacity for calculated violence that exists in humans is an inextricable flipside of our ability for selflessness.

After all, no other species plots genocides as well as consciously and routinely adopts unrelated infants as their own, or are able to sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice of their life for even abstract ideals such as nation or unrelated communities (think freedom fighters). The only other class of species that would happily die for their own are ants and wasps, as has been brilliantly documented by Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson.

It would, of course, be of immense relief if our capacity for evil existed separately, like an elusive tumour that could be traced and excised. If evil were a clearly definable, aberrant state of mind, it could be changed or manipulated by psychiatric intervention of psychological counselling, but it is immensely more difficult if prescriptions on how women in a society must be treated stem from a view that sees women as an essentially separate and distinct kind of human and only therefore deserving of a special kind of attention and protection.

The noble and pragmatic policy that encourages companies to have a certain proportion of women represented on their boards (even if they are equally and no more and no less qualified than their male counterparts) to promote gender sensitivity for its own sake, still follows from the perception that women are a different category of humans. The same essential idea, in its atavistic, polar extreme has men treating women as tradable objects.

That rape in its avatar as a psychological bludgeon is found in unhuman species shows that the patriarchal mindset that is often blamed for breeding a society that begets rape is then too deeply ingrained and cannot be easily addressed purely by the exercise of rational thinking, which, as of now, is still believed to be the preserve of human beings. It might then probably explain the tragic fact that NO country—however egalitarian, aware and wealthy—has been able to eliminate rape and violence against women.

Even if it is a biological fact that we share over 90% of our genes with primates, that doesn’t imply that female coercion is permanently hardwired into us, as Wilson might believe. The existence of a common set of genes across species that dictates the formation of the eye doesn’t explain monochromatic oxen, colour-blind snakes and our own multi-coloured visual acuity. However, an explanation for the formation of eyes will be incomplete without accounting for the role of genes and, therefore, it might well be that the elimination of rape may only lie ultimately in the elimination of violence itself.

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