A recent study found that male monkeys, like their human counterparts, preferred "boy toys" like trucks and wheeled things over dolls, while the females gave equal time to trucks and dolls.
Ever since the feminist revolution, debate has raged about whether it’s nature or nurture that determines the behavior of young boys versus girls. Are young boys born with an urge to wheel toy trucks across the floor and crash them into walls, while young girls come equipped with a preference to cuddle Raggedy Anns — or does socialization create these differences? Now, a new study by the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, may have the nurture (versus nature) advocates a bit rattled.
The study found that male monkeys, like their human counterparts, preferred “boy toys” like trucks and wheeled things over dolls, while the females gave equal time to trucks and dolls (Danica Patrick was just less likely, not impossible). The researchers, led by animal psychologist Kim Wallen, studied 11 male and 23 female rhesus monkeys — most of them younger than four years old. They placed two toys near each other — one a “masculine” type of toy such as a truck, and the other something cuddly, like a Winnie the Pooh doll. They then allowed the monkeys to choose their favorites and timed how long each monkey played with each toy.
Not only did the male monkeys spend more time playing with trucks, but in the little time they did spend playing with dolls, it was to bash them around, not hug them. (Come on guys, I think we may need some counseling here.) That may be of some comfort for all those progressive parents who report gifting their boys with a Barbie doll in an attempt to be non-sexist, only to find the doll decapitated ten minutes later.
Dr. Wallen asserts that the monkeys, unlike children, don’t have social influences that might determine their toy preferences. “They are not subject to advertising. They are not subject to parental encouragement; they are not subject to peer chastisement,” Wallen said. Interestingly, a previous study with vervet monkeys found similar results, with the boy monkeys choosing “action” toys.
The implication, of course, is that across species, the urge to nurture is a girl thing, while the Y chromosome imparts a preference for things that go zoom and bang. As upsetting as this inference might be to those who insist that we make girls into sissies and boys into Rambos by the different ways in which we treat them, the Rhesus evidence can’t be monkeyed with.
The nurture advocates have said all along that because we steer girls to play with dolls and boys to play with macho toys, we create gender differentiation into adulthood — differentiation that rules career choice, for instance. Whether this is a valid point is beyond my expertise, but it’s sure interesting to note how men and women differ within a particular profession. For instance, within medicine, women account for 40 percent of all psychiatrists and pediatricians according to the Financial Mail Women’s Forum, a UK publication, but only 7 percent of surgeons. And so the question is — are women routed into specific medical specialties by a boy’s club hierarchy, or do their inborn preferences steer the choice?
If the monkey study does indeed tell us something about inborn gender differences, then perhaps women choose psychiatry and pediatrics because both of these specialties require physicians to display nurturing behavior, to display care and concern. At the same time, cutting up the body, as in surgery, isn’t exactly a nurturing activity. Following this line of argument, perhaps scalpels are boy toys, like guns and swords. Certainly, surgery requires practitioners to employ an arsenal of hands-on tools, and according to gender folklore, boys do like tools.
Obviously, we need a follow-up study in which we give monkeys a choice between an array of tools on the one hand, and crying patients on the other.