Sex: The Silent Bell
From her Canadian father SALLY CARRIGHAR has inherited her lore of nature, and from her more than twenty years of living in wild habitats and working in biological laboratories have come her sensitive, observant books. We have selected this vivid and exciting paper from her new book, WILD HERITAGE,soon to be published by Houghton Mifflin.
In a way he is fortunate. He has inherited no religious taboos, and he won’t have his natural way contused by fashions in loving — fashions temporary and artificial, which are a pressure exerted on young human animals by movies, television, advertising, popular songs, and books. A wild creature does not have to reconcile such conflicting notions of love as Casanova’s and Romeo’s, or those of conflicting live models that he might want to copy. And no psychiatrist analyzes any animal’s sexual difficulties, reducing to the small, precise dimensions of words what the lover probably feels as amorphous — and dark and immense. Strictly, completely on their own are all animals, male and female, when sex overtakes them.
Yet they do have a guide, the one within: instinct. It does not shout, and some animals have to learn how to listen. The more complex, highly evolved mammals may do more than a little fumbling in their approach to first mates. We often assume that the coupling of animals is abrupt, brief, and fully effective from the beginning. That is not always true. And many of them go through a preliminary anguish that would seem familiar to the parents of adolescents. A human father or mother would recognize the irritability, tensions, and tantrums; the strange eating habits, fasting one day and stuffing the next; the benumbed attachment to one individual, who may appear even less prepossessing than others. As some animals enter their breeding cycle, they show these signs of disturbed emotions. Nevertheless, they develop a responsiveness to the prompting of instinct that is almost incomprehensible to a human being. We who are human have lost the ear for those signals — to such an extent that the peak of the average civilized woman’s receptiveness does not even come, now, at the time when she could conceive. Hers is a deafness that would have caused any other species to become extinct. Let us watch a porcupine, one of the mammals who is most sensitive to the sound of her bell. She is necessarily so alert because her internal program allows her only a very brief time to mate.
This one is rather young, having had but one previous pregnancy. Now in July she is her normal self and could be described as a happy little creature with a considerable talent for amusing herself. She lives on a farm in New Hampshire, one abandoned these many years by its human owners. Here a company of a dozen porcupines have established several dens, in the cellar of the old house, in the barn, and in two or three rock piles. Although there are no close companions among them, the porcupines treat one another with tolerance, and they have flexible social habits. On one night a group of six or eight may sleep in one of the dens together; on the following night, three or four. Some like to sleep alone. Our female prefers a crevice among the rocks into which, she has found, she just fits. But when the weather is stormy she may cuddle in with some others.
Food is no problem; the leaves and bark of the trees in the woodlot, and now in summer the soft green meadow plants, keep the colony nourished with only the effort of chewing up the fibers. And the porcupines fear no enemies. Dogs come around sometimes; if they could get to the porcupine flesh, they know by its scent they would find it delicious, but the porcupines have an easy defense. They just back up to a dog, raise their quills, flip a barbed tail in his face, and he runs away howling. The male porcupines enjoy wrestling, but they are careful to remain facing each other, there being no quills in the fine, soft fur of their bellies. They like to challenge the females, but when they do, they make sure that the game is welcome.
The one that concerns us will not often wrestle. She prefers other ways to let her energy boil up in play. Now in the moonlight she lies on her back at the edge of the meadow, and with all four feet in the air she fools with a stick. She bats it around, tugs it, gnaws it, and throws it away. Next she pretends to defeat an enemy: this old stump, couldn’t it be a dog? She backs up to it, raises her quills, and thrashes her tail against it, enjoying the rattling, a warning, made by the quills.
This is one of the better nights. She will go and gnaw on an old rusty oil drum beside the drive. It makes a splendid loud clanging, and like all porcupines, this one delights in any resonant sound. She likes something else: rhythm. She stands upright and marks time with her hind feet, swaying from side to side and giving her own particular twist to the dance — a turn of one wrist and the other in time with her steps. Two of the porcupine colony join her. One keeps reaching down, also in time with his steps, as though he were lifting things. Another male walks past the dancers. He acts as if he were not seeing them; then he wheels suddenly, seizes the female, and holds her and bites her neck — gently, for this is not sex play, not in July. She wriggles away from him. Sensing that she is not angry, he chases her in a little game, like a pup playing tag, but more cautiously, never ignoring those epulis.
A free season, now, with her young one looking after himself and the new mating program not yet beginning: a sweet season, but short.
BY THE middle of August the porcupine is becoming nervous. The ease, the lightness are gone from her mood. She still goes through some of the motions of playing, but now it is with an urgency. Even when she is well fed, she bites into sticks and the bark of trees, often impatiently. She climbs the trees for no reason, going up and coming right down again. She and the other porcupines do their dance several times a day, and faster. They do everything faster. A new whining sound often is heard in the woodlot and meadow, a complaining about the mate-hunger that grows within them. The female whines are subdued; the males’ are more shrill and louder.
The hunger is generalized at first, a diffuse restlessness. The males fight rather frequently with each other, not ever now with the female. She won’t stand for much. By the end of September the hunger is starting to be a torment. It is more localized; our porcupine tries to get some relief by touching herself to the rocks, to the stump, to the ground. After she puts her scent on the ground, one of the males is likely to come by and pick up that bit of earth in his forepaw and smell it. But no male pursues her. They will leave her alone until she has given a sign that some one of them is acceptable.
Still the tension continues, the hunger increases. The porcupine has a new trick for relief. She goes around riding a stick, walking upright and dragging one end of the stick on the ground, between her hind legs, holding the other end in a forepaw. The males have similar, solitary diversions.
Why are the sexes so slow to approach each other? Are they stupid? No, they are very smart, exquisitely sensitive to the inner instructions. However difficult waiting is, they will delay till the final bell, which will ring for the female when her physical preparations are quite complete.
She now enters a different phase. She becomes very quiet, seeming unnaturally subdued. She stops eating. She “mopes,” as one observer described her. It almost seems as if she has suffered some grief, but the explanation is otherwise: she has become still in order to let her emotions gather for one brief and explosive release.
It is November. Among the males in the colony she has made her choice. She spends most of the time sitting near him. But not for much longer.
At last the moment for coupling arrives — almost inevitably, for it seems that there are few frigid porcupines. The female takes the initiative, as she must since she is the one whose internal event sets the time. Rather suddenly she comes out of her waiting mood. She sniffs the male in significant ways. He responds. They touch noses, retreat a few steps, rise on their hind feet, walk toward each other, and, standing upright, touch noses again. This touch is the trigger. With the speed of a fire storm the female is down and the male is atop her.
With his mate armed so awesomely, he is brave indeed. She is cooperative. She has flattened her quills and has drawn her tail over her back so that he partly lies on its soft underside. Nevertheless, this is one time when the female, as Ernest Thompson Seton remarked, “has complete control of the situation.” The male does not try to restrain her, as the males of some species do, by grasping the female’s sides with their forelegs and taking the fur of her neck in their teeth. The porcupine female may end this embrace whenever she wishes . . . but she isn’t impatient. It may last for as long as five minutes and be repeated, but only during a span of three to five hours. Then the female is through. She will no longer receive this male, or any other, until a year from now. So perfectly has she timed the coupling, however, that her pregnancy almost certainly is assured.
What seems most remarkable about porcupines is not the long emotional preparation for accepting the male, but the female’s alertness which finally tells her that this is the day. For there will be only one day in all the year when receiving the male will result in a pregnancy with the assurance of perfectly formed young. She has, in fact, less than a day in which to note the signal, reveal her willingness to the male, carry out with him their brief mating ritual, and then come together. Yesterday would have been too soon; tomorrow would be too late. Only today will do, but there is little chance that she will make a mistake.
VARIOUS species may give psychological and emotional tone to their male-female relationships. Not much is possible to a creature, such as a porcupine, who associates intimately with a mate for so short a time. But see what occurs among elephants: true “friendship,” which has a chance to develop because of the female’s long breeding season. Furthermore, elephants have a quite-high degree of intelligence, a delicacy of manner, and even something like altruism.
It is fall when we find this female. Her life, if not stimulating lately, at least has been busy. She has been raising a calf of her own and helping to care for the smaller calf of another mother. Both females nursed both of the young (the calves fed from the sides of their mouths, pushing the breasts with their short little trunks to help swell the flow of milk); but the chief need for the double solicitude had been, until now, the danger of tigers’ attacks. For several weeks after an elephant calf is born, tigers are ravenous for it. Two adult females, therefore, always keep a calf between them wherever they browse. Both of these calves, however, were large enough to defend themselves. They still needed guidance but not continual guarding by both of the mothers.
The herd had come down from the higher slopes in Burma, where they had spent the monsoon season, feeding up there on bamboo. Now they were in a foothill swamp of kaing, tall “elephant grass,” in the bend of the river. The grass was tender and succulent, and the calves were munching along quietly. One mother stayed near them; the other grazed here and there, seeming not satisfied with the luscious fodder.
A number of males were attached to this herd of adult females, calves, and adolescents of both the sexes. The males moved with the others on their migrations; when they stopped, the males kept to themselves on the edge of the group but depended upon the females in several ways. If a male elephant should be sick or injured, one or several females would come to his aid. A weak elephant was in terror of lying down, since with diminished strength he could not raise his huge weight off the ground again. If he did go down, the cow elephants, and perhaps a bull, too, one on each side and behind, would lift him onto his feet again. Another thing: the cows’ wisdom was reassuring. Almost always it was a sensible elderly female who decided the time when the herd should move to a new feeding place, and the route. Besides male reliance upon the cows in such practical ways, there was always the chance that one of them might accept a closer companionship.
The mother’s grazing had taken her near the edge of the swamp, toward the open grove that surrounded it. One of the males was pushing over a tree with his forehead against the trunk. A smaller tree breaks; this one came up by the roots in a cloud of dust. The male had wanted the tender leaves at the top. An elephant always is willing to share a tree he has felled, but now, as this one started to browse on the upper twigs, the swing of his tail and a certain friendliness in the way he was watching the female made it appear that he wished she, especially, would eat his leaves, too.
He was quite a magnificent beast — he weighed seven tons, a ton more than the female, and he had one very fine long white tusk. The other tusk had been broken off in a fight with another male. It was not a fight between sexual rivals, which does at times happen: both of the elephants then were “on must,” as men describe a male’s periodic attacks of madness. A sign of must is a brown discharge from a gland near the elephant’s eye. A male’s hostility can be gauged by the amount of secretion, and a guess has been made that it is this acrid fluid, draining into his mouth, which enrages the animal. Most of them act at the time, however, as if they were more than irritable; indeed, literally insane. The attack of must lasts for about two weeks, during which the elephant is a danger to all living things, including the females of his own species. Otherwise, there is a gentleness in the elephant’s disposition which is not surpassed in that of many wild animals. This female, who could observe that the male was not now on must, had no reason to fear him.
He removes a twig, and see how he does it: the two rounded knobs at the end of his trunk close like fingers around the stem and with the least possible force pull it off. The branch hardly stirs. A vine is encircling this bough. He unwinds it, again with a fine and precise, always patient touch. After eating the vine and more leaves, he has an appetite for a root. The tip of his trunk pushes away some of the loosened soil and curls itself under the root, which comes free with earth clinging to it. He knocks the dirt off on his foot, and coiling his trunk, puts the root in his mouth. There is no hurry about this foraging. He will need about three hundred pounds of food today, but the food is everywhere, and by working steadily, even slowly, he will get all he wants.
He throws with his trunk, through which he breathes and drinks and with which he feeds himself, but it has a more subtle capacity. The female, now eating grass, has not strayed very far, and after he chews and swallows the root, the male stands still for a moment, watching her. Is he moved by her soft ways? Perhaps. He comes forward and gently runs the tip of his trunk down her back. She lifts her head, meets his eyes, and with the tip of her own trunk she touches his neck. That is all that will happen today. The two will resume their feeding, and when she returns to the swamp, he will go with her. He is willing to take his time, but something momentous has started.
From now on they spend all their days together, and their nearness seems almost enough. There are, however, more and more frequent caresses, a fondling which seems as yet to express no more than affection. The male’s trunk will brush her side, a touch that she almost always returns. Or the forehead of one will give a little push on the side of the other. They nibble each other’s cheeks — the play is growing a bit more stimulating. Tails swing and ears flip, and the pair are communicating with sounds. In the male’s throat is often a murmur of satisfaction, and she answers with a soft chirping, surprisingly light for one of her size.
WEEKS pass with such expressions of tenderness but no real excitement. When a more sensual stage is reached, their trunks show their true versatility. They are often entwined. They are tied in a lovers’ knot over the elephants’ heads. The tips are put into each other’s mouths, an elephant’s kiss.
The dalliance becomes more intense. Her motions are more inviting — so provocative that female elephants have been called the most sophisticated of all wild animals in their courtship. And finally they play with their trunks erotically. They tease. But when the climax is reached, even then in the male’s embrace there is no coercion.
With his forelegs along her back, he half kneels behind her. Smoothly he rises. There is no other visible motion (though the male organ itself is motile), and during the union no sound. At the end he is almost upright, with his forefeet resting lightly upon her hips. Only a short time has passed, not even a minute. When it is over, he walks away a few steps, noiselessly. For this is the hour when mysteriously the jungle becomes utterly silent. Even the insects are still. The female, making no sound herself, stays where she is, but a brief little movement shows her excitement.
In the next day the pair will unite again, perhaps several times, and then the female’s sexual cycle will go into a quieter phase. But her breeding season is not at an end. If conception has not taken place during this estrus, and it often does not, there will be other occasions a few weeks apart. Meanwhile the two elephants are inseparable. Great and slow and gray they move through the jungle shadows, and quietly trusting time to wait, they love each other — possibly very much.
For this mated pair obviously are joined by more than the simple physical urge which subsides as soon as it has been satisfied. Reports vary regarding the length of time that elephant mates associate; up to four months says one observer, up to ten says another. No one knows whether it ever continues after pregnancy has begun. But finally the female starts breaking away, showing a wish to rejoin the herd. She will stay with the herd during her pregnancy, which will last twenty-two months, and when the birth takes place, the other females will surround her with their protection. While she is in labor they will stand close about and trumpet loudly, with the purpose, it is believed, of warning tigers and hunters away.
The female will carry no torch. Some flexibility in her temperament seems to let her replace the companionship of her mate with that of the herd, and later the daily association with the one friend who will help to defend her calf. The male has given her up reluctantly. He has tried to hold her, but since he could not, he will seek a new female. The male elephants go through a succession of deep, if not permanently enduring affairs until they are fifty years old or more. After that age they join with one or two other elderly males, aloof from the herd and perhaps missing what they have had, for their tempers are apt to become quite short.
Although altruism, a psychological trait, affects the quality of the elephants’ male-female relationships, the physical cycle determines how long the pairs stay together. The male’s fertility and desire are continuous; yet the female, absorbed with maternal cares, removes herself from his company for three years at a time. Such an arrangement doesn’t offer much hope for monogamy. Monogamy among animals requires a different physiological pattern.
OF MOST significance to human beings is the mating of other primates besides ourselves. None of the monkeys and apes that exist today are direct ancestors of ours, but we have received some of the same physical and psychological traits from a common relative further back on the primate line. One of our functional similarities is the female’s estrous cycle, which comes about once a month in most of the primates, and another is the uninterrupted fertility of the male. These conditions, allowing the sexes to attract each other more or less continuously, have presented the primates with new emotional opportunities, and new problems. In the primate sexuality, will the constant association of males and females make it easier for them to live harmoniously, or otherwise? Will it mean simply more of the same kind of sex other animals know, or will it be different? Will monogamy become more, or less, prevalent? Most important from nature’s own standpoint, what becomes of the female’s instinctive caution to restrict conception to the hours which produce maximum quality in the offspring?
Among pre-primate mammals, sex is a sometime thing, very intense while it lasts, but when it subsides, the whole business seems to go out of mind. During the recess many male animals find their companionship with other males (not often in homosexual relationships, although those do exist in some species: the house mouse, some bats, rhesus monkeys, in males; the brown rat and some others, in females). Together or singly the males forage, build shelters against winter storms, wander about, and do a certain amount of mild battling with other males to determine which is the stronger. After a while they start to get ready for the new sexual encounters, sometimes by growing natural weapons, such as the antlers of deer and moose, with which they will light off rivals. And some of their masculine energy is consumed in just being, and in becoming, splendid fellows so that they may appeal to the females when they have become ready.
There is not much sociability between male and female animals during this time, though they live in the same areas and of course they meet often. Between them there is no animosity. A female would never, conceivably, attack a male, and the males have some built-in hesitation about attacking a female. An example of this reluctance is familiar to anyone who has lived in an apartment house with a dog. The elevator stops at your floor, where you wait with your pet on a leash. If the opening door reveals another owner and dog inside, you ask. “Female?” If it is, you and your male dog go in with no possibility of a fight. Should the inside dog be another male, both owners tighten their leashes and pull back on the growling opponents. Two male dogs would have had to decide by a show of antagonism, or actual combat, which one was dominant. A male and a female are always interested in each other, but not as contestants.
At the time of their mating the pre-primate sexes seek out each other, in most cases still in only the friendliest spirit. In a few species — some squirrels, weasels, shrews, and members of the cat family — there is a last-minute fracas, often so noisy that it attracts attention (those alley-cat fights on the fence), and it has caused a widespread impression that mating among all wild animals is accompanied by these skirmishes. That is not true; and even in the species which seem so antagonistic, the male does not become really aggressive until the female indicates that she is ready. Often she starts the whole thing, and whatever her size or strength, she determines the outcome. For without her cooperation no union takes place. In most animals ovulation precedes the coupling, but in the combative species mentioned above, the scramble provides a stimulation which apparently is required to release the egg from the ovary, a sequence of events that biologists call induced ovulation. Incidentally, it is now believed that intercourse may occasionally cause a woman to ovulate outside the time when normally she would be fertile.
As soon as the female has become pregnant, she ceases to be receptive, and in all but the monogamous species she parts company with the male. Her associates during the rest of the year may be other females or, more likely, the young she bore in a previous litter. In any case she is very much her own woman. She catches her own mice and digs her own roots. She goes and comes as she pleases.
It is not a male’s world that she lives in, or a female’s world. It is just the world, and the male and female are two self-reliant creatures who share it. They may be together permanently, or very infrequently, but in neither case are they competitors or, of course, enemies. There is room for both in their habitat and enough food for both. They will need each other from time to time, and neither will try to prove himself, or herself, by outstripping or by subduing the other.
THE statement often is made in biology textbooks that true rape is unknown among any animals except the human. The reason is anatomical: in the prehuman pairs the back-to-front position in copulation allows the female to move away. When human beings began to walk upright, a forward shift in the feminine genitalia made face-to-face mating convenient — convenient, but it renders the female helpless, at the mercy of any male. Speaking solely of physical force, it may be accurate to say that rape is only possible to the human species, although some prehuman primates found that rape could be accomplished by intimidation. The male would threaten and attack a female in various nonsexual ways till she learned to submit to his will because of her fear of him. Actually, the intimidation might not have been necessary because the female, too, had discovered that she wanted more sex. He often attacked her anyway. Perhaps he enjoyed exercising his new sense of power.
No biologist was there to observe and report the steps by which the new regime came about. Nevertheless, we see in the rhesus monkeys (not in all species of primates) what happened when instinctive controls had been lost and sufficient intelligence had not yet evolved to supplant it. These monkeys belong to the Old World group found in southern Asia and Africa. The various species arrange their sex life somewhat differently, most, however, treating their mates in ways that may have given rise to our adjectives “brutish” and “bestial.” Sometimes the words are applied to all animals, but I don’t know of any they properly fit except Old World monkeys.
The rhesus monkeys have nothing that even approximates family life. They live in large bands (sometimes as many as eighty-five animals) consisting of one dominant male, subordinate males, and females and young. All the females are accessible to all males except that the dominant male has first choice. As among animals below primates, the female indicates when her estrus has come, although the males would know anyway because her sitting pads then become scarlet. They attack her when the arrival of her receptive period leads her to seek one of them; when the relationship has become established, the male partner attacks her if she turns to another, even though he himself may have become depleted; as her estrus wanes and fatigue overtakes her, she is attacked again. In forty-five copulations of free-ranging rhesus monkeys observed by C. R. Carpenter, the females were attacked in twenty-two cases. In sixteen they were injured, twice seriously.
One wonders why a female goes through with all this. The answer may be that in spite of the danger, she is so desirous during her fertile period that she solicits attention anyway. She may have developed a masochistic tendency that keeps pace with the sadism of the males. In any case all these monkeys seem to be hypersexed. In the same group that Carpenter watched, one male had consort relations with fifty-five females in a period of two months. Homosexuality is common among them, especially among the males, the subordinates often soliciting, sometimes for favors and sometimes for protection against other males, for the males attack one another, as well as the females, almost constantly.
INCREASING control in sexual matters is found in the chimpanzees, who, being apes, are further advanced than monkeys. They are quite various in their individual temperaments. Some are cruel and belligerent; others form friendly and loyal attachments, and their goodwill includes some protectiveness of their companions. In mechanical aptitude chimpanzees “have a gift approaching genius,” wrote Robert H. Yerkes, who spent a lifetime studying these apes in captivity and was fervent in their defense. L. Heck, who observed them in Germany, wrote: “The chimpanzee is not merely curious, but is eager to know. . . . He understands how to draw conclusions, to follow from one thing to another, to carry over certain experiences purposefully to relations new to him.” Heck adds, “He is sly, crafty, self-willed, but not stubborn.”
He is an unstable animal, as W. T. Hornaday describes him: “Except when quite young either nervous or hysterical . . . rough, domineering, and dangerous.” When the apes reach maturity, they are masterfully strong and “quickly become conscious of their strength. . . . The male is given to shouting, yelling, shrieking, and roaring and when angry rages like a demon.” It is not surprising then that, at least in captivity, a male chimpanzee sometimes threatens a female into submission at off times in her breeding cycle.
Yerkes described the approach of chimpanzee mates to each other: “In sexual play and premating activity the male . . . may stand erect, sometimes with hair rising and arms swinging. He may strut about, stamping, with shoulders back and chest expanded. Often he shouts, rushes about, jumps, strikes or pounds objects within reach, or even his female companion. . . . Sometimes she marches about with him . . . and at other times she avoids him as il fearful of violence. In general, his postures and actions are roughly and menacingly demonstrative, strongly self-assertive, and expressive of physical strength, while hers are relatively gentle, self-effacing, ingratiating, and selfprotective.”
There is more than meets the eye in those adjectives which describe the female. For the chimpanzee, reasoning powers, as well as craftiness, are in the head of the female as well as the male. If the male can attempt to rule her through fear, she can understand that sexual desire as strong as his gives her a weapon. She can use her attractiveness to get her own way and win special concessions from him — and she constantly does. For illustration, when she is in estrus, he often lets her have first chance if any especially delicious food is available. At other times he tries to prevent her from getting anything, except occasionally scraps that he doesn’t want, such as banana peel. However, then she will frequently offer herself, and, with his attention diverted, slip in for a stolen bit. This maneuver is very typical. Yerkes found that the female chimpanzee in estrus indicated her willingness first 85 percent of the times that there were copulations, and even during the infertile periods of her cycle, she made the advances 65 percent of the times, usually to secure some advantage. Thus prostitution entered the primate scene. But the male chimpanzee often demands that the female be acquiescent, even against her instinct.
IN South and Central America live several species of monkeys which are similar in structure and mental development to those of the Old World, and yet the males are completely without the aggressive, despotic qualities that make sex in the Asian and African monkeys so full of stress. The aversion of the American monkeys to fighting is interestingly shown by the way that adult males will separate two young animals when their play becomes rough enough so that one might get hurt. At times there are controversies between neighboring clans, but they are settled by shouting, not by hand-to-hand fights.
Their peaceable temperament is expressed too in their sex life. They mate promiscuously for the most part, and no male of an American species considers himself to have any “rights,” and therefore shows no hostility toward another male who is engaged with a female. The male usually, although not always, takes the initiative in the pairing. The female sometimes exhausts more than one male during her estrous period, and then if she wants to turn to another, she is quite free to go. As Frank Beach says, the New World female monkey “does not employ sex as a social device to avoid injury by a male.” She would have no reason to do so, since the males do not threaten her.
Also typical of a gentle relationship between primate sexes is that of gorillas. Gorillas are more intelligent animals than the New World monkeys and no more belligerent. These were the least known of the apes until they were studied a few years ago in their African habitat by the astute young biologist George B. Schaller, who has described them in great detail in his book The Mountain Gorilla.
For nearly two years Schaller literally lived with one group or another of these enormous animals (males weigh up to 450 pounds), which hitherto had been thought to be fearfully vicious. He found them most amiable; he associated with them so closely that he slept at times within thirty feet of a clan, yet he was never threatened seriously. When he inquired of the local African natives, he learned that gorillas rarely if ever attack a man unless the man is attacking them, and even then they do not seem to have any desire to kill. A gorilla retreats after one punitive bite, which may be fatal, although usually it is not.
The same tolerant disposition is typical of their relationships with one another. Gorillas live in small companies consisting of one dominant male, subordinate males, a few females who “belong” to no male in particular, and the youngsters. Except for the leader, the hierarchy is rather loose, and its organization appears to depend more on the personality of the individuals than on size or strength.
Dominance is shown chiefly by preceding the others on trails or by demanding the better place to sit, such as one protected from rain. If the subordinate animal does not quickly give up his advantage, he is often reminded with a light slap from the back of the hand. Schaller once saw a female appropriate a dry spot that was occupied by a juvenile and then lose it to the dominant male, who pushed her out into the rain herself.
Though not chivalrous, he was not angry. When excited by some strange situation, conceivably dangerous, all the gorillas make the defensive gesture of beating their chests and shouting. The dominant male does this loudest and longest, one of several ways he expresses his sense of responsibility for protecting the group. At most times he seems to be rather aloof, but one is impressed by the amount of affection his followers show him. The little ones play around him and on him; the females generally sit or sleep near him, sometimes leaning against his body, and even the other males may sometimes move closer. The dominant male is, in the true sense, a leader, no despot. When he gets up to go on to a new feeding place, the rest fall into line behind him immediately; they stop when he stops, and usually they go to sleep in their separate nests and awaken when he does. Yet he does not restrict the activities of his companions. Schaller observed two instances in which females were copulating with other males only a few feet from the leader, and he showed no sign of objecting. Obviously he is not the lord of a harem in the way of the dominant male baboon.
And there seems to be no more duplicity in the female gorilla than there is in the females of New World monkeys, for the female gorilla is not attacked either; she has nothing to dread. The dominant male expects deference from all the other animals in his clan, but he shows in nature the same disposition that a well-treated gorilla shows in a laboratory: “He is very stable emotionally, a constructive animal.”
The sexual chaos of rhesus monkeys, the frequent viciousness in the baboon harems, the armed truce of the chimpanzee males and females, and the permissive paternalism of the gorillas: this is strangely diverse behavior for animals who all belong to the same primate order. None of these monkeys and apes have adopted the monogamous state to which most human beings aspire.
Among all monkeys and apes the females follow the rule of the pre-primate females: even after the sense of acute timing has been lost, they still have an instinct to make the advances. Among the hypersexed species, the rhesus monkeys, baboons, and chimpanzees, these approaches can seem very insistent, though they never involve threats or any suggestion of force. Among gibbons, gorillas, and New World monkeys neither males nor females are much absorbed with sexual activities. Many biologists speak of the milder species as having “a weak sexual drive” — a comment which may reflect the civilized modern attitude that there hardly can be too much sex. But “moderate sex drive” would seem more accurate, for these animals have no difficulty in maintaining their populations; they are among the primate species that are given the best chance of surviving and perhaps of continuing to evolve.
Those evolving males who found that they liked to intimidate mates were responsible for putting their females on the defensive; they were responsible for replacing joy and freedom in sex with fear and deviousness. But their aggressiveness was not the sole reason why nature’s bell became silent. In ignoring the instinctive timing there was risk of blighting one’s species by bearing cripples, but the chance was taken by other primates besides the despotic males. Many monkey and ape defectives are born, animals which have abnormalities of the spinal column and ribs, misshapen skulls, deformed limbs, in some cases the incomplete formation of an entire limb — these in the New World monkeys, gorillas, and gibbons as well as in species whose males demand submission at off-cycle times. With increasing intelligence, obviously, the sexes became aware of each other more consciously, and then warmth of feeling may have become a motive as strong as the coldness of lust.
Would it not be amazing if the Fall, that mythical event which has so troubled mankind with a sense of guilt, were no more than this: that the primate’s evolving mind began to overrule nature’s restrictions? In many cultures and many religions there is a clouded memory of a lost Eden. In the Golden Age in all of those golden worlds there were no women. It was the coming of women that was believed to have destroyed innocence. Sex itself does not appear to have been the source of the guilt; homosexuality, sometimes prevalent in simpler societies, did not seem to arouse the anxiety but rather the sexual experience of males with females.
The locales where the myths originated are too widespread for all of them to have been influenced by Hebrew sources. In many it was the eating of certain forbidden plants, or despoiling of flowers, that was the unforgivable act assumed to have loaded a sense of sin, forever, on all the sons of the transgressor. Food is one of the most familiar symbols in the myths of primitive peoples. It stands, of course, for sexual intercourse between men and women; and the plucking of prohibited plants was a taboo among natives as scattered as those of Mexico and Australia, Madagascar and Tibet, and of Greece (the Golden Apples, stolen by Heracles; and even the serpent was there in the person of the hundred-headed dragon). One can appreciate the French lamentation Tant de bruit pour une pomme!
But it was more than an apple. The psychological burden called in Christianity Original Sin becomes easy to understand if one believes that the real violation was the seeking of intercourse during nature’s forbidden time.