Julie Teichroeb pictured above with an illustration of an ursine colobus monkey on her back. Photo-Illustration by Sal Ingram and Christine Hipp
Julie Teichroeb pictured above with an illustration of an ursine colobus monkey on her back. Photo-Illustration by Sal Ingram and Christine Hipp

Julie Teichroeb is a visiting assistant anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and has a masters and a PhD in primatology, or the study of primates. Her work mostly focuses on behavior and behavioral ecology of ursine colobus monkeys and Angolan colobus monkeys, two species of monkeys found in Ghana and Uganda. City on a Hill Press sat down with Teichroeb and discussed the evolutionary origins of courtship practices found in humans and the various relationships and romances we can see in our closest living relatives.

CHP: Why does courtship, especially the kind we have, exist?

Julie Teichroeb: Usually it’s thought of from a sexual selection angle. Females invest very heavily in offspring — especially in mammals — right from the get go. The egg is way larger and more energetically costly than sperm, so females invest more initially. Then they have long gestation, which takes tons of energy, and long lactation, which takes tons of energy. All of that makes females very choosy about their mates in a mammal situation, and males compete a lot to mate with individuals that will invest heavily in their offspring. It’s usually male-male competition and female mate choice, so males will do anything in order to win out in courtship —which sometimes means just fighting it out with other males, or sometimes means wooing the female. In a lot of animals, like birds, they use dances and struts and displays and things like that. You could argue that we have some of that, but a lot of wooing in humans is more about gift-giving, like nuptial gifts.

CHP: Is it always the male that does the courting? Or are there cases where it gets flipped around?

Teichroeb: Some species are what we call sex role reversed. It’s all about parental investment. These would usually be species where males can invest heavily in offspring. Usually there’s some sort of eggs laid, and the male can sit on them or protect them or put them in a pouch or something. So in those types of species, female-female competition for males to invest occurs, and males are much more choosy. In a male-male competition/female choice scenario usually males aren’t choosy — they’ll just mate with anybody.

CHP: Is there another species of monkey that you think is more similar to humans in western society?

Teichroeb: You can look at a lot of the monogamous primates where the males and females are usually pretty tightly bonded to one another, and they help each other in parental care. A lot of the time males will carry infants and sometimes feed infants and things like that and there is some cheating — for instance, monogamous lar gibbons. Twelve percent of the offspring are fathered by a male from outside of the pairing, but relative to some other animals it’s not a huge percentage. Sometimes the female gets good parental care from one male and good genes from another male. I think paternal testing in humans — not like Maury Povich or anything but paternal testing that’s been done in scientific studies — has shown a fair amount of children not fathered by the monogamous partner, so who knows how much of that goes on.

CHP: In these monogamous primates, do they still have general courtship with nuptial gifts and displays?

Teichroeb: Yeah, I would say nuptial gifts are important in terms of establishing a monogamous partner. During the process of getting together and dating in humans before the partnership is settled there would be more in terms of gifts and displays going on … maybe dressing nicely and showing that you have a nice car and a nice house. All of these things are resources females might be interested in because they aid them in their reproductive success.

CHP: Are there any things that monkeys do that you wish we did?

Teichroeb: I guess you could say the ultimate father — from the female perspective, where the male invests in you very heavily — would be great. A good example would be callitrichid males like marmosets and tamarins. They’re the ultimate fathers, probably better than any fathers in the animal kingdom. Females always give birth to twins but the second the twins are born the male carries them all the time and only gives them back to the mom to feed — and then he stands there wringing his hands and worrying that something’s going to happen to them and takes them back right away. As soon as they can eat solid food he feeds them and teaches them how to hunt. They’d be the models of the best primate fathers.

CHP: Is there still female-female competition in primates as well?

Teichroeb: It’s more of a human thing actually. I think it’s because males vary so widely in terms of quality and rank or acquisition of resources. It’s rare in primates for males to actually acquire any resources — that’s a type of mating system we call resource defense polygyny, where rather than defending the mates, males defend the resources to attract mates. That’s actually really rare in primates. It’s only found in humans and chimps and potentially a couple other species. When you can acquire resources you can have huge variation in between males but when it’s just about you and your studliness, there’s less variation between males. That’s one theory for why we have a fair amount of female-female competition in humans.

CHP: So getting off track a little bit, are there any monkeys that have really really cute courtship rituals?

Teichroeb: In terms of courtship? In gelada baboons are a polygynous society where they live in these big herds, but they’re all made up of these little polygynous groups within the herds, so one-male/multi-female one-male/multi-female one-male/multi-female. There’d also be an associated all-male band with the big herd, so those all-male band males are always trying to strut their stuff and evict the one males of the one-male/multi-female units, the family males or whatever you want to call them. So there are always these huge fights and displays among them and the males do the lip flip — where they flip their lips up and show off their canines — and they attack each other and run around so the males are huge relative to females. What’s really cool is that the females in geladas are all related to each other. They’re actually all in cahoots to get a really strong male. They get along really well, they groom each other a lot, they’re tightly bonded and so the male spends a lot of time trying to keep them happy. It’s not that he’s just the macho man who beats up women and takes what he wants, he’s constantly grooming them, and constantly carrying the infants and trying his best to stay on their good side — because if he’s not on their good side the females can actually altogether evict him and choose one of the bachelor guys from the all-male band. Gelada males are constantly going back and forth trying to be the super aggressive guy to fight off the all-male bands and being the super fatherly really sweet man in their actual one-male unit. It’s kind of a dance I guess, a courtship dance in some ways.

CHP: Do you think we’ve come a long way since we were in the trees?

Teichroeb: I think so. We’re so complicated that anything related to humans or having to do with humans — and even trying to use animal models — is so difficult because we are so many orders of magnitude more complicated in terms of what’s culturally appropriate and what’s not. Add our big brain, all of our psychoses into it, what we’re thinking all the time and our confidence levels and all of these things are really important in what plays out in humans and so it’s hard to even use any of these models. We know these theories apply to us, but in individual humans we’re just so incredibly complicated and neurotic that we might never act in a way that’s sort of evolutionarily fit or appropriate.

CHP: Have we come a long way since we were in the trees? You did mention that there’s a lot less violence and direct male-male fighting.

Teichroeb: Yeah, females have a lot more power in humans. I think we’re similar to the bonobo case in some ways. In chimps they’re very male dominated. Males fight for females, they’re very coercive and females have relatively little power in society, whereas in bonobos who have the same kind of social system females are very sexual with each other — but that’s sort of part of the bonding. The fact that females bond really heavily makes them really powerful relative to males, so I think that humans have a lot of that going on, a lot of female coalitions and tight female bonds that allow us to have ranks similar to males in most situations or higher than males. We’re kind of like bonobos, they say they’re either female-dominant or that the dominance hierarchy is mixed to be male/female/male/female, and it’s the same in humans. I would not call us female-dominant but I would not call us male-dominant either. If you’re in a monogamous family unit sometimes the man seems to be calling the shots and sometimes the female, but it seems to be very dependent on interrelationships. It’s like our hierarchies are mixed which is quite rare in primates actually. Lemurs are mostly female dominant, most monkeys are male dominant, and then the male-hierarchy is above the female-hierarchy. It’s only in bonobos and humans where you would see that the hierarchy is very mixed in terms of sex, so in that way we’ve come a long way and we have a lot of female power — of course I’m biased to think that’s good.