An Approach to Universals

Universals are "mechanisms of human behavior held in common among people all over the world..." (Boyd and Silk 2006: 590). The variability of human behavior has always bedeviled the search for universals, prompting Fox (1989: 116) to ask how we get beyond the "ethnographic dazzle" to the universals of general, biological importance? The problem is only magnified when we expand the taxo-nomic context of the analysis to include nonhuman primates, a mammalian order famous for immense diversity in behavior, reproduction, life history, morphology, and physiology. One might say that ethological dazzle threatens to obscure this comparative analysis: how can one discern anything about human universals from this extraordinary variety? There are two solutions to this problem of deriving our family resemblances (sensu Fox 1989).

One approach is to search for specific patterns of behavior shared between human and nonhuman primates. This orientation towards substantive universals necessarily concentrates our attention on a relatively small number of species most closely related to us, notably the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bono-bos (Pan paniscus), or perhaps the African great apes, or the great apes, generally. To remain useful, however, this approach, focused as it is on elucidating homologous patterns, cannot extend too far beyond this group of primates. This method offers advantages and insights (e.g., Goodall 1971; Wrangham and Peterson 1996; de Waal 2005).

An alternative approach, however, is suggested by Wittgenstein's (1953) theory of universal family resemblances, as captured by the "Churchill face" metaphor (Aaron 1965). Among members of a family, such as the Churchills, there is a distinctive Churchill face, which is recognizable as the same, in some sense, but which cannot be said to have any one feature common to all faces. In other words, there is no shared pattern per se. The crucial aspect of this view is its emphasis on a process generating predictable patterns not necessarily defined by any one feature or character. The particular patterns will depend upon distinctive features of a species' biology or a population's conditions. It is the process that constitutes the universal.

It is this second perspective on behavioral universals that frames this chapter's examination of nonhuman primates. Here, I focus on one process that I believe is paramount for understanding primate reproductive strategies: sexual conflict. Sexual conflict has attracted increasing attention over the last decade, and the studies of this process have now come to outnumber investigations of the conventional forms of sexual selection (intrasexual selection and mate choice) (Pizzari and Snook 2003). Most of this research has focused on invertebrates - particularly insects -although there have also been studies of sexual conflict in some vertebrates, such as fish, birds, and an occasional mammal (e.g., Arnqvist and Rowe 2005). In spite of an early landmark article (Smuts and Smuts 1993), research on sexual conflict in primates has not progressed dramatically.

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