• Nancy K. Miller
  • [DIARY OF A MEMOIRIST] Lemurs and Leaders: The Cooperation Thing…
[DIARY OF A MEMOIRIST] Lemurs and Leaders: The Cooperation Thing…
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
March 2014
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
March 2014

I recently came across  the obituary of Alison Jolly, a primatologist who studied lemurs and wrote definitive studies of this species.

I might not have stopped over the obituary if it hadn’t been for the provocative headline “Alison Jolly, Who Found Female Dominance in Lemurs, Dies at 76.” I also happen to know Alison Jolly’s daughter, the feminist scholar Margaretta Jolly. I almost met Alison Jolly at Margaretta’s home last summer after a conference in Brighton, and I regret now more than ever our missed encounter.

I confess that I know―knew―nothing about lemurs; nor did I know that my friend’s mother was a world-renowned expert in her field. From studying the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar, Jolly concluded that all females of this species, “whether dominant or subordinate in the female hierarchy, are dominant over males.”  For details on what Jolly discovered and loved about lemurs, including their “ringtails in a question mark,” hear her interview.

Although according to the obituary in The Economist (March 1, 2014) Jolly did not label herself feminist, she admitted that “her interest in cooperation was probably a female thing.”

Her findings, she argued boldly, showed that “pace Darwin, evolution was not all about competition, tools and weapons led by males; but also about integration and cooperation, led by females. Intelligence had evolved from both.”

Because I’m always attracted to weird juxtapositions, I found myself pondering the contrast between the anthropologist’s findings and the piece in the Times about directors of art museums: “Study Finds a Gender Gap at the Top Museums.” I doubt that this disparity came as news to anyone―where isn’t there a gender gap in top whatevers?―but what struck me was the analysis that while “many of the skills that women bring are collaboration, working well with boards,” they “do worse on the visioning factor than men.”

You don’t have to believe that women in the social world are the natural descendants of female lemurs, who spend many hours establishing “social ties and hierarchies,” but it is interesting to contemplate why “vision” should weigh so much more heavily in the balance than cooperation. After all, if there isn’t cooperation and collaboration in a boardroom, chaos will reign. But the visioning factor―or what George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing”―seems to be code for male dominance: why men “lead with their ideas” and thus get the big bucks.

I’d love to live in a world led by lemurs.

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  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Just finished reading Gladwell's David & Goliath and started reading a graphic novel series left behind by my oldest son Y:The Last Man. The former is nonfiction and focuses on the exceptions in humankind, the people who succeed despite setbacks. For the majority of his chapters, males are the subjects and he gives some time and space to aspects of their personalities, especially "disagreeableness." Not sure it's the same as "vision" but I think it touches on it and is certainly the opposite of cooperative. In the latter fictional series a plague has decimated all the males in every species except for a crazy ass escape artist and his Capuchin monkey. You'd think he'd be having a swell time getting laid a lot. Not so much. In the U.S. all the infrastructure: the sewage treatment plants, the electricity grid, etc. stops working because not that many women were employed in those areas. The same with aircraft and the military (in terms of combat). It's not so bad in Israel where the non-orthodox females serve and work actively in all those areas. Militant female organizations spring up. The Daughters of Amazon vow to kill the last male. Female Israeli soldiers hunt for him to take him back to Israel to rebuild their country.  And so on. I'm only on Book 3 and the authors don't envision a U.S. where all the women are cooperative. I like cooperation and I like being disagreeable. The key is knowing when to be which. It's like being ambidextrous or bilingual. 

  • Thanks for this piece! And I don't necessarily believe that women have less vision than men. But their vision often lies in improving living conditions (most of the American social reformers of the nineteenth century were women) rather than in conquering something (e.g., space, cancer). The vision into which a culture invests its resources depends to a large extent on the distribution of power and wealth. It may not be an accident that nineteenth century reforms came during a time when a woman (Queen Victoria) ruled the dominant world power. Her reign emboldened women throughout the globe.