Here’s some fascinating science to ponder as you're doing last-minute shopping in the pink aisle at a big-box toy store and wonder if toy preferences are learned or innate: Young female chimpanzees carry and cradle sticks as if they were dolls, Harvard researchers say, behaving like little mothers before they give birth themselves. Male chimpanzees don't. It’s the first report from the wild of sex differences in how primates play.
Sonya Kahlenberg, now of Bates College, and Richard Wrangham of Harvard University write in the journal Current Biology about observing young chimpanzees in a national park in Uganda for 14 years. The animals used sticks in other ways -- to probe the ground for water, display aggression, or to actually fight -- but young females were more likely than males to carry sticks around for hours at a time. On 100 occasions it looked to the researchers like rudimentary doll play. One young chimpanzee made a nest for her stick while she napped. Adult females who carried sticks stopped doing so once they became mothers themselves.
Our common ancestry with chimpanzees, and not simply social forces, may be why girls prefer dolls and boys pick trucks to play with, the authors conclude. In this case, nature just might explain nurture.
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