Do Animals Know that Sex Makes Babies?

Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth
Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth

Does an animal, other than a human animal, think about procreating? 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? We assume that they do this to obliterate a competitor’s lineage, and then to impregnate the females and ensure the survival of their own.

But is this really what’s going on?

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair Holly Dunsworth is examining this familiar notion. As far as we know, she says, 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, or that thirst is a result of dehydration, because they don’t have the cognitive ability to reason about abstract concepts such as electrocution or dehydration. Similarly, she says, they don’t have the capacity to understand that sex can lead to reproduction.

Dunsworth has been ruminating on this 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, expecting someone had already made the argument that animals don’t understand reproduction—but no one had.

The significance of her question? It affects how we understand, and teach, sexuality in animals—and in people, too.

For instance, that familiar silverback gorilla tale is one that Dunsworth would often use as a young professor teaching her class human origins—that’s what she’d been taught to do. But we may need to reframe the story—and in the process, ask new questions. If the dominant new male isn’t seeking to ensure his genetic lineage, then why is he killing the young in his new group? We may know less than we thought we did.

Although Dunsworth has just started asking these questions publicly, they’ve already generated a lot of interest. This year, Scientific American included an article by Dunsworth in its special collector’s edition “Secret Lives of Animals,” and she co-authoring an essay in digital magazine Aeon with Anne Buchanan, adjunct senior research associate in anthropology at Penn State, on reproductive consciousness and its influence on the development of human culture. 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.”

Dunsworth’s next step will be an article for peer review, and she’ll include work on reproductive consciousness in a new book she is writing, which will cover human evolution more broadly. •