Sex is divisive, disruptive and often destructive. The urge to reproduce frequently manifests itself in aggression, shattering social groups and driving animals to lead independent lives. Males are especially violent, battling over territories, jealously fighting for what they regard as their own and making as many sexual conquests as possible. Females, too, are capable of spinning their own webs of intrigue. As each mother is rooting only for her own offspring, she may attempt to spoil a rival female’s chances of breeding, or even surreptitiously maltreat or murder another mother’s infants to enhance the prospects of her own. Such activities are hardly conductive to smoothly running societies.
And yet a whole range of creatures manage to live in communities of one kind or another. The question arises as to how sex as a major source of tension is kept under control in species which, perhaps for environmental reasons, need to live in highly organised communities? The lifestyles of the gelada baboon illustrates how the uneasy relationship between oppressive males and fearful females works out in this very social primate…
No member of the troop is immune from the male’s temper. His most violent attacks are likely to be saved for the confident young bachelors which dare to challenge him for the harem, but even his ‘wives’ are wary of his anger and may be beaten without mercy, especially if they refuse to submit when he tries to force them into copulating… Of course, the mother of all fights for the despot is his final-show down when, after perhaps two years in power, he is toppled by whichever of the bachelors feels confident and strong enough to mount a challenge for the females… The takeover generally heralds a period of instability for the harem. The victorious male is inevitably inexperienced at disciplining a group of females, so they tend to wander apart and become prey to the attentions of other overlords and feisty bachelors.
Despite all the violence and apparent chaos in gelada groups, these animals still live together in troops up to 600 strong—bigger than the societies of any other primate, barring our own. So why do animals live in such super-families if this means exposing themselves to daily lives fraught with tension?
In Renaissance Italy, the statesman and author Niccolo Machiavelli realised the virtues of oppressive rulers with no moral scruples in uniting human societies, and pondered the relative merits of being loved or feared. Love, he reasoned, is maintained by obligations which can easily be broken when it is advantageous to do so. Fear, on the other hand, never fails to command respect because of the dread of punishment. So it is with many of our closest relatives; in a number of primate species, tyrannical males constantly chastise insubordinate members of their troops and coerce reluctant females to mate with them.
Monkeys and baboons are among the cleverest and craftiest of all animals. Living in troops, they are big-brained, bright creatures, capable of playing politics, all attempting to influence those around them for their own selfish ends. Indeed, it is thought that the need for complex interactions led to the evolution of intelligence in the first place, rather than vice versa. While feeding or mutually grooming, these animals appear peaceful, but they are keenly aware of each other’s rank, who is friends with whom and who must be treated with kid gloves. Such considerations create tensions that are liable to surface without much warning into bouts of bickering, or worse.
Sexuality is a major cause of strife. The ever-willing mature males are constantly exposed to the females within their troops and, when the latter come into full oestrus, the highest-ranking male—or ‘clique’ of males in some baboons and macaques—dictates which mates with them; this means either the top male or those which have curried favour with him. Less fortunate rivals which try to get in on the action are beaten up.
This monopoly of copulation in groups where there are several mature but subordinate males is bound to lead to frustration; this in turn can explode into jealous rages in which animals may be hurt. If dominant males do not get their own way, they are likely to punish whoever they see as the culprit. Even females are frequently bullied because they are not willing to mate as often as the males would like them to—a situation which can lead to rape. In one study, almost half of all copulations in a group of wild orang-utans happened after fierce resistance by the females had been overcome by the males.
In many primates, sexual aggravation is rather subtle, but in hamadryas baboons—the sacred baboon revered by the ancient Egyptians—the harassment is often gratuitously handed out by males and easy to observe. Hamadryas are swarthy animals with rather stocky legs admirably suited to scrambling around the steep gorges in the Middle East and the adjacent part of Africa where they live. The sexes are quite different from each other. Although the females look like regular brown baboons, their overlords are dressed to impress, with dog-like faces and bare buttocks in matching pink. Their drove-grey fur is fashioned in ‘poodle cut’, with tufts on the head and a long cape flowing from the shoulders to the hips, making them appear as large and as formidable as possible.
These Machiavellian tyrants are dedicated polygamists, each shepherding as many as ten females to form his own personal harem, which he maintains during his prime years. Each keeps his females close by to satisfy his smouldering sexual demands. They in turn keep him company for fear of being trashed or bitten should they wander too afar from his side. Their fear is well founded, because the males are aggressive disciplinarians and frequently threaten violence by eyebrow-raising, thumping the ground, ‘yawning’ and whetting their upper canines against the teeth of their lower jaws. Any breach of etiquette incurs the male’s wrath, often resulting in a humiliating neck bite for the offending female or a trashing for an immature male.
Machiavellian male. The dominant male hamadryas baboon is a bully, but has complete access to all the females of his harem. Females depend upon him to protect them.
The females exploit the male’s permanent interest in sex. They are able to vie with him for food and escape punishment simply by proffering their pink hind quarters. Presented with such an erotic appeasement gesture, the male is more likely to mount than to lash out. However, a female hamadryas which refuses to copulate with her male when he wants her to does so at her peril. Even so, many mating encounters look more like acts of aggression.
But why do females and low-ranking males stand for such oppressive treatment? As explained at the end of the last chapter, fierce males have their uses.