Darwin Evolving: Distinguished Naturalists

Dr. Amy Parish April 14, 2011

Amy Parish

"Bonobo Sisterhood: Lessons on Sex, Bonding, and Dominance from Our Closest Living Relatives"

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) societies are typically characterized as physically aggressive, male-bonded and male-dominated. Their close relatives, the bonobos (Pan paniscus), differ in startling and significant ways. For instance, female bonobos bond with one another, form coalitions, and dominate males. However, among researchers there is a reluctance to consider, let alone acknowledge, female dominance in bonobos. Because both species are equally "man's" closest relative, how do these findings change our views of human evolution?


Dr. Amy Parish is a Biological Anthropologist, Primatologist, and Darwinian Feminist who has taught at University of Southern California in the Gender Studies, Arts and Letters, and Anthropology programs and departments since 1999. She received her undergraduate training at University of Michigan and her graduate school education at University of California-Davis and then taught at University College London. She conducted post-doctoral research at the University of Giessen in Germany on the topic of reciprocity. The Leakey Foundation, the Volkswagen Foundation, the Center for Feminist Research, and Sigma Xi have funded her work. Dr. Parish has been studying the world's captive population of bonobos for the last twenty years. The bonobo, whose name derives from the ancient Batu word for ancestor, is one of the two species comprising the chimpanzee genus. Bonobos and chimpanzees are the two closest living relatives of humans living today. The social system of the Bonobo is unusual in many respects: females form real and meaningful bonds in the absence of kinship, females attack and dominate males, and all possible age and gender combinations participate in sexual interactions. She has also studied the mating system of white-handed gibbons in a rain forest in Thailand for two and a half years. Dr. Parish also has a project on female mate choice decisions in human females. In all of her research, Dr. Parish uses an evolutionary approach to shed light on the origins of human behavior. Over the last twelve years, Dr. Parish has taught forty-eight classes on eighteen different topics in six fields (Anthropology, Gender Studies, Arts and Letters, Health and Humanities, School of Education, Psychology). In all classes, Dr. Parish has developed her own syllabi and original teaching material. Dr. Parish currently teaches courses at USC on love, marriage and the experience of being a wife and on the cultural impact of Darwin's theories. Her course for graduate students in the School of Education teaches future marriage and family therapists about human sexuality. She also teaches courses in USC's new alternative premed major in Health and Humanities as well as courses in Preventive Medicine in the Keck School of Medicine. In 2008, she received a Mellon Award for excellence in faculty mentoring of undergraduate students. Dr. Parish teaches with the goal of helping students to internalize learning enough to pursue it in the future in their own ways. She wants active learners to emerge—students who make sense of the world through their own eyes, experiences, and values, so that they might be significantly enriched by their educational experiences. She also hopes to engage the students in activist pursuits that might lead to more community involvement in their post-campus lives. Dr. Parish is Co-Founder of WorldWideVisionaries.org, an online forum for young people to develop and exchange ideas about working on social justice and environmental causes. The website will launch in late Autumn 2010. Dr. Parish is on the Board of Directors for the Arusha Project, a non-profit organization devoted to helping HIV infected women in Tanzania. Other activities include a position on the Board with the organization Up the River Endeavors, which is devoted to addressing sustainable development, global peace and social justice. Her work has been featured in Ms. Magazine and she has appeared on Nova, National Geographic Explorer, NPR, and Discovery Health Channel productions. She gives numerous public lectures: the most recent and upcoming include: giving the keynote addresses at the "Women in Science: Molecules to Ecosystems" conference at Indiana State University and the "Science of Gender" conference at Lewis and Clark; lectures in the School of Medicine and the School of Journalism at USC; and a lecture for at the Human Ethology meetings in Bologna, Italy. Dr. Parish recently completed a project in Malawi on childhood growth and development where she supervised USC Master's in Public Health students.