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Dominance and Male Behaviour


The concept of dominance hierarchies has anthropomorphic overtones, particularly when writers refer to male dominance over females or vice versa.

The usual definition of dominance is an individual's preferential access to resources over another. Clearly, if males dominate females, it is to restrict mating opportunities for other males.

A species in which the males consistently deprived the females, and hence their young, of food resources would be at a disadvantage in evolutionary terms.

Dominance is measured by the number of times individuals defer to one another in social or other interactions. Since it is measured in terms of a hierarchy, it is relevant only within groups not across groups. In particular, the idea of male dominance (over females) or vice versa is entirely artificial, since each has different needs and agendas.

A female may defer to a male, but only because he is bigger and stronger, but that comes about because of male competition. To be anthropomorphic for a moment, animals are total pragmatists and she has nothing to gain by opposing him. However, the dominant male of the moment is likely to be healthy and in his prime. She may, therefore, mate with him in preference to others.

Similarly, a recent television programme on ring-tailed lemurs, highlighted the aggressiveness of females and virtually portrayed the males as 'wimps'. But ring-tailed lemur males play no part in the lemur social group, and had nothing to gain from opposing the females. There was nothing passive in their behaviour towards one another when a female came into estrus.

While individual females may only nurture a few young, most males have the capability to produce vast numbers. In an environment where females were able to nurture as many young as they were able to, the behaviour of males would have little effect.

In such species, the sexes may forage separately, males perhaps joining groups of females when the latter are coming into season.

What tends to be obscured, however, in many evolutionary accounts, is that, even for males, it is not simply the number of offspring that are produced that matters, but the number that survive and, moreover, long enough to breed themselves. Thus, in a more difficult environment, if a behaviour appeared among males that assisted the success of their offspring, the behaviour would be represented in an increasing proportion of future generations.

Where the sexes forage separately, there is less direct competition for food resources. A male lemur may range over a large area, covering the territories of several females, and areas in between. Orang utan males compete aggressively to defend a territory and are much larger than females. However, their larger size also means that some of their diet is of the tougher vegetation that females cannot utilise.

Going one step further, among ring-tailed lemurs, the males play no part in the group. Whereas the females usually rely on threat displays, in one instance in a television documentary, a territorial dispute was extremely violent. Two of the mothers were carrying youngsters; both were injured, one fatally. It follows that, where males prevent access to females by other males, they may incidentally protect against predators - or other females.

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Bland J. (2002) About Gender: Dominance and Male Behaviour
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
Last amended 07.07.02