Holly Dunsworth

Do animals know that sex makes babies?

Think about it.

Nature Channel fans might be inclined to say yes. Who hasn’t seen those shows where young lions or male silverback gorillas enter a group, drive off or kill the leader, and then kill their young? Why do they do it? Well, to obliterate a competitor’s lineage, and then to impregnate the females and ensure the survival of their own. That’s what they’re thinking, right?

But are they? Thinking, that is.

Does an animal, other than a human animal, think about procreating? Associate Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair Holly Dunsworth says no, animals do not have knowledge of the abstract that would cause them to act in a certain way. For instance, they wouldn’t know not to touch metal in a lightning storm for fear of electrocution. They wouldn’t know thirst is a result of dehydration. They don’t have the cognitive ability to reason about abstract concepts such as electrocution or dehydration. Just like they don’t have the capacity to understand that sex can lead to reproduction.

Dunsworth, who is one of the coordinators of The University of Rhode Island Honors Program’s Fall 2017 Honors Colloquium “Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything,” explains it this way:

“To comprehend unobservable phenomena such as gravity or impregnation, a creature has to be capable of complex abstract reasoning to transfer knowledge from one situation to another, which allows us to solve problems we have never encountered before and to even invent new diversions for ourselves,” Dunsworth writes in “Do Animals Know Where Babies Come From?” that appeared in the January 2017 issue of “Scientific American” and then again in May for a spring 2017 special collector’s edition of the magazine called “Secret Lives of Animals.”

“Although animals such as chimpanzees are far cleverer than scientists have traditionally acknowledged, they do not appear to have this particular cognitive skill,” Dunsworth concludes.

So while a lion’s or gorilla’s aggression may be observed as an aspect of sex drive, this aggression is not motivated by a conscious understanding of the process of reproduction.

‘How significant could it be?’

Dunsworth has been ruminating on the idea that reproductive consciousness is strictly a human phenomenon for about a decade. It caused her angst at times. “I kept thinking, ‘This is so obvious. How significant could it be?”

She began reading everything she could about sex and evolution, families, and kinship, reading to find that someone had already made the argument. Surely other scientists had examined this idea that the animal mind did not understand the process of reproduction. But no one had. The closest thing was University of Louisiana at Lafayette primatologist Daniel Povinelli’s studies of what apes understood of gravity. The short answer: There’s no evidence to suggest they do.

What is obvious is also pretty significant, as it turns out, and the media is taking notice (often with tongue-in-cheek headlines that echo Dunsworth’s observation that she’d called attention to something obvious). In addition to the coverage by “Scientific American,” digital magazine “Aeon” in its August issue ran a 6,800-word essay “Sex makes babies,” by Dunsworth and co-author Anne Buchanan, adjunct senior research associate in anthropology at Penn State, on reproductive consciousness and its influence on the development of human culture. And in August, Penn Jillette, one half of the famed magic duo, Penn and Teller, had Dunsworth and Buchanan on his podcast “Penn’s Sunday School.” The episode title: “Holly and Ann Tell Us Where Babies Come From.”

American philosopher, best-selling author, cognitive scientist and Tufts University Professor Daniel Clement Dennett III read the “Aeon” piece and promptly mailed Dunsworth a copy of his latest book on the evolution of minds. The scientist, whose two TED talks have a combined 4.3 million views, clearly recognized the importance of hers. And John Newbery Medal-winning author Neil Gaiman tweeted that Dunsworth and Buchanan’s piece was a “fascinating article on human awareness of reproduction making civilization.”

The idea of reproductive consciousness came to Dunsworth when lecturing. “I was a young professor teaching my class the way I’d learned to teach human origins.” She was telling the silverback gorilla tale that opened this story: young male arrives and kills off all unweaned babies sired by his predecessor.

‘Language gets in the way’

“And I realized that language gets in the way if you’re trying to understand how we’re different than animals.”

Dunsworth’s next step in developing her idea will likely be to write an article for peer review. And she plans to include her work on reproductive consciousness in a new book she is writing, which will cover human evolution more broadly.

The book “is our entire species’ shared biography. It tells the story of a human life, from birth (and before) to death (and beyond) through an evolutionary lens, making sure to blow up so many insidious assumptions and offensive misconceptions about how evolution works and about our evolutionary past that are perpetuated by pop culture,” Dunsworth said.

Dunsworth’s work on the idea of reproductive consciousness has had a profound effect on her teaching. Anthropomorphising sexual behavior in primates is tempting. To avoid it, Dunsworth has had to undo how we’ve learned to talk about evolution. It’s a case where language convolutes rather than clarifies. Fortunately, being human means you have the ability to reframe the argument.

“I’m reminded of the time an astute sixth grader answered my question about “Why don’t chimps play baseball?” not with their anatomical incompatibilities but with, “Because you can’t explain the rules to them,” Dunsworth said.

No argument there.