Chimpanzees too use sex tool

Chimpanzees too use sex tool

After carefully trimming a blade of grass, the chimpanzee poked it into a passage in the termite mound to extract his meal. No longer could humans claim to be the only tool-making species.

So what have we actually done now? In a 50th anniversary essay in the journal Science, the primatologist William C McGrew begins by hailing the progression of chimpanzee studies from field notes to “theory-driven, hypothesis-testing ethnology.”

He tactfully waits until the third paragraph to deliver the most devastating blow yet to human self-esteem. After noting that chimpanzees’ “tool kits” are now known to include 20 items, Dr McGrew casually mentions that they’re used for “various functions in daily life, including subsistence, sociality, sex, and self-maintenance.”
Sex? Chimpanzees have tools for sex? No way. If ever there was an intrinsically human behaviour, it had to be the manufacture of sex toys.

Considering all that evolution had done to make sex second nature, or maybe first nature, I would have expected creatures without access to the Internet to leave well enough alone.

“Flake, flake, flake.” “There’s gotta be more to life.” “Nobody ever died wishing he’d spent more time making sharp rocks.” “What if you could make a tool for... something fun?”

I couldn’t imagine how chimps managed this evolutionary leap. But then, I couldn’t imagine what they were actually doing. Using blades of grass to tickle one another? Building heart-shaped beds of moss? Using stones for massages, or vines for bondage— well, I really had no idea, so I called Dr McGrew, who is a professor at the University of Cambridge.

The tool for sex, he explained, is a leaf. Ideally a dead leaf, because that makes the most noise when the chimp clips it. “Males basically have to attract and maintain the attention of females,” Dr McGrew said. “One way to do this is leaf clipping. The sound is nothing spectacular, but it’s distinctive.”

OK, a distinctive sound. Where does the sex come in? “The male will pluck a leaf, or a set of leaves, and sit so the female can see him. He spreads his legs so the female sees the erection, and he tears the leaf bit by bit down the midvein of the leaf, dropping the pieces as he detaches them. Sometimes he’ll do half a dozen leaves until she notices.” And then?

“Presumably she sees the erection and puts two and two together, and if she’s interested, she’ll typically approach, and then they’ll mate.”

My first reaction, as a chauvinistic human, was to dismiss the technology as laughably primitive — too crude to even qualify as a proper sex tool. But Dr McGrew said it met anthropologists’ definition of a tool: “He’s using a portable object to obtain a goal. In this case, the goal is mating.”

Put that way, you might see this chimp as the equivalent of a human (wearing pants, one hopes) trying to attract women by driving around with a car thumping out 120-decibel music. But until researchers are able to find a woman who admits to being anything other than annoyed by guys in boom cars, these human tools must be considered evolutionary dead ends.

But, there has been nothing comparable to the evolution observed in distributors of human sex tools: from XXX stores to chains of cutely named boutiques to mass merchants like CVS and Wal-Mart.

So, we may not be the only tool-making species, but no one else possesses our genius for marketing. Now let’s see how long we hold on to that title.

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