Contraception, jungle style

Female baboons self-medicate with a natural contraceptive that descreases "sexual swelling."


Carol Lloyd
July 27, 2007 2:30AM (UTC)

Alert to the anti-contraceptive hominoids everywhere? Maybe "playing God" isn't just the purview of "unnatural" modern feminists, but an evolutionary strategy we share with some of our ancestral sisters. According to this story in Cosmos Online, Nigerian baboons seem to be "self-medicating" with a natural contraception -- African black plum -- in the first known instance of animals purposefully eating a contraceptive substance.

The study, which will be published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, found that wild plum directly decreased "sexual swelling" in wild female baboons, thereby making the males less attracted to females. The researchers also noted that the period of consuming black plums correlated with a subsequent six-week period when no births were recorded.

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A little family planning to cool that jungle fever? Not exactly. Although the scientists believe the baboons are eating the plums and the leaves of the plum tree as a form of self-medication, they won't go so far as to assume that the baboons have figured out that a steady diet of plums this month will mean no little monkeys jumping their backs several months from now. Since the plants have other medicinal properties -- including lessening the discomfort associated with sexual swelling -- the baboons may have more immediate reasons to ingest them.

For scientists, of course, the implications are huge in terms of the study of primate reproduction. For this humble feminist blogger, however, I can't help seeing the discovery as a ready-made refutation of the crap excreted by the small but growing anti-contraceptive activists. Like the antigay activists who attempt to shore up their bigotry with pseudoscientific ideas about "the way nature really is" when oodles of studies have shown that heterosexuality is hardly the only sexual behavior found in the animal kingdom, the idea that some animals have evolved to slow their reproduction seems like one more argument against unthinking naturists.

Not that Planned Parenthood should be FedExing membership cards to the jungle anytime soon. As the current story about bonobos in the New Yorker this week shows, it's always dangerous to attempt to use animal behavior to justify or explain our own. But in the this God-eat-dog world, where religion and science commingle with an obscene lack of boundaries, a little reminder that Mother Nature isn't working for the American Life League can't hurt.

Update: This post originally said that the relevant article was published on Cosmo Online. It was actually published on Cosmos Online. The error has been corrected.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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