Do hyenas smash the patriarchy?

June 22, 2018 • 9:00 am

UPDATE: In the comments, reader PJ calls our attention to a piece showing that Wu even gets the biology of hyenas badly wrong. Click on the screenshot:

The criticisms Herzog outlines, which come from experts on hyenas, are far more serious than the logical fallacies I identify below, for it shows that Wu, a graduate student in biology, can’t even get the basic biology right. Vox really should take down that article.

See a related critique by author and illustrator Beth Windle (click on screenshot):


Here we have an article (click on screenshot below) that demonstrates two things at once. First, that Vox, where it was published, is not only a Control-Leftist site (it’s been that way for a while), but also has very low standards for publication. Second, that we should never draw lessons from nature about how to structure human society.

The author, Katherine Wu, a graduate student in microbiology and immunology at Harvard, is also a 2018 AAAS mass media fellow at Smithsonian Magazine. And she manages, in this dog’s breakfast of an article, to not only characterize the matriarchal society of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta; also called the “laughing hyena”) as infinitely superior to any patriarchal animal society, but then says that (in light of #MeToo and other recent demonstrations of male sexual malfeasance), we should take a lesson from hyenas. In other words, we should be more like hyenas in terms of sexual equality.

Perhaps we should, but we don’t need hyenas to tell us that! The idea that we should take lessons about human morality and society from nature is called “the naturalistic fallacy,” often characterized as “is equals ought”. That is, the supposed peacefulness and other advantages of matriarchal hyena society—supposedly including greater genetic variation and a larger population size—should compel us to be more like hyenas—to treat women better. To be sure, Wu isn’t favoring a matriarchy, but more equality of the sexes.

The thing is, we’re all in favor of that, but we don’t need hyenas as a model system! In fact, we should never make the argument for equality from observing animals. And I’ll tell you why in the rest of this post.

You can read about the matriarchal society of spotted hyenas at Wu’s article. In this species, females are dominant and males subordinate. This is not common in the animal kingdom, but is not vanishingly rare, either. Males are smaller than females, must leave their groups to join others (lions do the same thing, and in some ways, like hunting, lion society is matriarchal). Female spotted hyenas also have a well-known pseudopenis, which is an enlarged clitoris through which they copulate, urinate, and give birth. Males copulate with females by inserting their penis into the pseudopenis. In fact, the female structure so resembles the genitalia of a male (including an ancillary false scrotum), that it’s hard to tell the sexes apart. Here’s what the female genitalia look like:

This is a female.


Here are some aspects of hyena biology and social behavior that, claims Wu, are things that, in one way or another, offer lessons to human society:

  • Females run the show; males are subordinate (to be fair, Wu says, “I’m not suggesting that we try to emulate hyena societies. We’re striving for gender equality, not a reversal of traditional subjugation.” Yet she also says “We could stand to take a leaf or two out of the hyena playbook”).  It’s clear she’s using hyenas as something we should emulate, at least in part.


  • Spotted hyenas have complex social behavior and great intelligence. This is true; they are far more intelligent than most of us think, although not as intelligent as some primates that have “patriarchal” societies. Wu seems to feel that there is a connection between matriarchal societies and high intelligence, saying that “perhaps it’s no coincidence”). I doubt this, and at any rate she cites no studies correlating matriarchal societies with the intelligence of their members. I can’t see an obvious reason why matriarchy would select for more smarts than patriarchy. Octopuses, after all, aren’t matriarchal. And honeybees are, but aren’t particularly smart.


  • Spotted hyenas have large populations, outnumbering all other carnivores in Africa. I’ll take her word for it, though I don’t see huge populations as something we need to emulate.  Wu, however, at least sees large populations as a consequence of “female empowerment.” This is an instance of her wish-thinking overwhelming her scientific judgment again, as there are no data that I know of correlating matriarchy of species with their population size.


  • Wu argues that the matriarchal society increases the genetic diversity of the population. Her hypothesis is that because males are subordinate, they are less likely to show a high variance in reproductive success (some males having far more offspring than others), which would lead to the successful males spreading their genes more and reducing genetic variation below that which would obtain if the species were closer to being monogamous. Leaving aside whether the question of higher genetic diversity is a good thing once above a certain level, there is no evidence for Wu’s speculation. The paper she cites to support her claim simply shows that comparing two spotted hyena populations, one that went through a population bottleneck and the other didn’t, there was no significant difference in genetic diversity. But the authors attribute this to male dispersal as well as social structure, and also note that other species—species that aren’t matriarchal, like turtles, eagles, and mouflon sheep—also don’t show appreciable reduction in genetic diversity after bottlenecks. There’s simply no evidence across species that matriarchal societies maintain more genetic diversity than patriarchal societies.


  • Females must cooperate with males to effect copulation; as Wu says “sex doesn’t happen without the female’s full consent and cooperation.”  This is unlike ducks, for example, where copulation is often forced. We shouldn’t be like ducks!

What Wu shows is that a stable and numerically successful species can survive despite a matriarchal organization. We’ve known that for a long time, though, and there are of course other matriarchal species, as well as populations of humans that are matriarchal.  She then makes a misstep (and derails her article) by tying this to the #MeToo movement and other forms of mistreatment of women:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spotted hyena this year — and not just because of the mind-boggling fact that these ladies push multiple 3-pound cubs through a fake penis and live to tell the tale. In many ways, their complexities echo so many human notions about the roles women can and cannot occupy. The idea of a woman at the helm remains a hard pill to swallow in our own society.

This past January, hundreds of thousands across the world marched for the second year in a row to protest the constraints on women in all walks of life. Fifty-five years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, women still make only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — a gap that widens into a chasm for women of color. And in the prolonged wake of the #MeToo movement, stories of sexual misconduct by powerful CEOs, Hollywood stars, and White House staff continue to appear in the news week after week.

The scandals surrounding Harvey WeinsteinLarry Nassar, and countless others have empowered women everywhere to speak out. But every woman who has come forward to share her story also reminds us that ignorance and female marginalization are still the norm rather than the exception.

. . . I’m not suggesting we try to emulate hyena societies. We’re striving for gender equality, not a reversal of traditional subjugation.

But we should not have to succumb to the binary of patriarchal or matriarchal. There is a middle ground, and it’s completely achievable. To someday reach that compromise, our male-dominated society needs to study female empowerment.

We can start by acknowledging that patriarchy isn’t a necessary natural order. Powerful females abound in nature and govern complex societies of intelligent individuals. A culture led by women is not doomed or damned.

In spotted hyena clans, male stalking, harassment, and aggression toward females are taboo. These tactics simply don’t work. If a guy wants to woo a girl, he waits patiently and earns her respect through deference and altruism — because he knows he is not entitled to her affection or anatomy simply by virtue of being male. When it comes to hyena sex, it’s the considerate guys who get the ladies. Human males, take note.

You get the idea. We should be like hyenas, and maybe studying and learning about hyena behavior will compel us to be more like them.  But, of course, if you studied patriarchal societies, and accepted the naturalistic fallacy, you’d say we should be more like elephant seals or gorillas.

Wu has gone badly wrong in underlining the wonders of a matriarchal society and then asserting that this should tell us to be more like hyenas.  Why is she wrong? Because she brings to her analysis a view that precedes her study of biology: that women should be treated more fairly and equally. In other words, she’s picking out an animal society to buttress what she already believes.  And I agree with her about the preconception: we should certainly strive for greater equality between the sexes, more respect towards women, and equal opportunity for all sexes and genders. But we don’t need hyenas to tell us that! And we shouldn’t USE hyenas to support that argument!

We come to the conclusion that sexes should be treated equally not from seeing how well hyena societies work (because, after all, patriarchal societies work well, too), but from rational contemplation of how people should be treated, and the bad consequences if they’re not treated equally.

We should never draw lessons about how to structure human society by looking at animal societies, for an “is” is not an “ought.” (We can, of course, help understand human societies by studying our evolutionary past, but from that we’d conclude that the patriarchy, in the end, is biologically based: males originally dominated females because of sexual selection: males are larger than females, and females are constrained by the fact that they reproduce and often take care of the offspring). While biologically based patriarchy can be and is indeed reinforced by social strictures—once males have power, they can use it to disempower females even more—I believe that the dominance of males ultimately goes back to our biology and to sex differences created by sexual selection. But of course we needn’t blindly follow that pattern, and we shouldn’t. Being a modern human means doing many things to overcome our biology (contraception is one, medical intervention to cure disease and injury is another).

In my view, then, Wu has erred badly, and mislead her readers by asserting that we should try to emulate this and that aspect of this and that animal society. And what she’s done is commit a scientific version of the Euthyphro fallacy: the fallacy that God is the source of morality. Plato refuted that fallacy by showing that there is a pre-God morality that comes into play when you make that claim. If God told you to do something like kill an innocent child, for instance you wouldn’t do it simply because God ordered you to. That’s because we have an idea (evolved or cultural) that committing such an act is bad. If you then argue that “God wouldn’t ask us to do that because God is good” (but see the case of Abraham v. Isaac), then you are espousing a notion of good that precedes your notion of God.

Likewise, Wu has a preconception that women should be treated no differently from men. I agree, especially if we’re talking about civility and opportunity. She starts with that idea, and then finds support by describing in extenso the supposed wonderfulness of matriarchal hyenas. But we don’t need the damn hyenas! What Wu has done is simply find a species that conforms to what she wants human society to be more like, and then say, “We should take a lesson from that society.”

What she’s doing shouldn’t fool anyone, though it apparently fooled the editors of Vox. And it’s absolutely terrible science writing because it commits the naturalistic fallacy. The sad part is that Wu gains no more traction for feminism by describing hyenas than if she simply made the moral argument. I doubt that learning about hyenas is going to make a sexist say, “You know, hyena societies really do work well. I’m going to be nicer to women.”

I agree with the moral argument that really underlies Wu’s lucubrations. But her use of biology to support it is fallacious, tendentious, and misleading.

If I were a postmodernist, I’d say that Wu’s article is a great example of the Euthyphro Phallus-y, instantiated in the lived experience of hyenas.


63 thoughts on “Do hyenas smash the patriarchy?

  1. The female hyaenas take on the attributes & characteristics of males in other species… so what she is saying is that one sex has to be dominating?

      1. I just Googled that. Gang-banging hermaphrodite molluscs!

        Another entry for the “If G*d created that, He was seriously twisted” list.


    1. That is a pertinent point. Female spotted hyenas are filled with testosterone to the rim, and have a male morphology. What does that tell us, if anything?

  2. “this dog’s breakfast of an article,”

    Oh, nicely put, PCC!

    For some reason I’ve always detested hyenas (prob’ly because I like lions) but I swear that’s got nothing to do with their alleged matriarchal society. But it’s absurd to suggest that animal societies of any description should serve as models for human society. Pick your species and you can find any sort of social behaviour you want. What can elephant seals tell us about how we should organise our society?


    1. Yes – there is absolutely no reason why hyenas should provide the model to follow beynd the fact that she likes the way that species’ social behaviour is organised. The large population size criterion is particularly baffling. There is no obvious reason why this should be a good thing and in any case Homo sapiens for all its patriarchy is already a highly abundant species – far more so than any other mammal species with the possible exception of a few rodent species that are commensal with us.

  3. The “but see the case of Abraham v Isaac” had me laughing – I’m more like a hyena already!

  4. Here’s what the female genitalia look like …

    Wow. I imagine some adolescent male hyenas have had a real Crying Game moment while rounding second base and heading for third.

    1. This would have been a far better choice, with a more finely tuned analogy that fits what she was ultimately trying to get at.
      And yet she chose an example of inequality and domination. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

  5. I somehow get the impression that Ms Wu wrote this (at least half) tongue in cheek.
    What she doesn’t mention is that female hyenas have very high testosterone levels. Testosterone a bad boy makes.
    So she’s proposing high testosterone levels: she wants a clitoris the size of a penis (through which she’ll have to give birth), a beard and moustache, extremely violent behaviour, strict hierarchy and sibling killings. Good lessons to take from our hyena sisters!
    Female Hyena cubs (yes, spotted hyena cubs come with strong killer jaws) tend to kill female siblings, but not (or less) male ones. It has been proposed (by SJ Gould IIRC) that that is a reason why female cubs ‘try’/tend to resemble males. I do not see how that could work, since all resemble males now.
    If we would want to emulate an animal society where females are dominant, I’d rather go for Bonobo’s: more sex, less violence, and more closely related to us 🙂
    Thank you for a good deflating, and I admire how you could even get the Euthypro argument in, kudos to you!

      1. I know Bonobos are not as peaceful as some want them to be. And I think no primatologist contends they are ‘egalitarian’, they are not. It is just they are much more peaceful than the other chimps*, and have the tendency to solve conflicts with sex, instead of fights, which is quite extraordinary, I’d say (no, I didn’t say they don’t fight). And there is no denying that female coalitions are dominant in their society.

        *Students of chimps could not believe their eyes observing bonobos.

    1. I don’t know why you think she wrote it tongue in cheek; I see no sign of that. Yes, it’s wonky, but that’s true of so much of this Control-Left journalism. I think she means every word of it!

      1. Maybe because it is so much over the top, and she is a biology student (who would know better) after all.
        Note, I said it was an impression I have, like McEnroe: ‘you can’t be serious!!’, can she?

  6. Yes, cannot argue with anything you say here. It’s like this biology trained individual has confused a problem with an apple and oranges solution. She has done as much for the me too movement as Melania did for the Immigration problem caused by her husband.

  7. Just a couple of quick thoughts.

    As animals too (like hyenas) we have biological determinants. As social animals too (like Homo sapiens)they have cultures.

    One is given, and changes but slowly. The other is much more malleable and can change more quickly, as our history over the past several millennia has shown.

    Some mythographers, notably Robert Graves, have argued that early eastern European cultures were largely matriarchal (say, in the 3rd or 4th millennium BCE), but were gradually yet forcibly turned patriarchal by centuries of invasions by tribes from the east and north. At least based on mythology and mythography, there is no reason to conclude that matriarchal groups were in any sense more ‘civilized’ than were the patriarchal.

    I guess my point is that however Homo sapiens organizes its societies, the call to equality is a transcendental one, based on our highest aspirations as a species. In short, a belief that this ‘ought’ should become an ‘is.’

    1. I do not believe there were any human societies that were matriarchal. Full stop.
      Maybe some are/were less ‘patriarchal’ than others, but no matriarchal one to my (admittedly limited) knowledge.

      1. There could be small matriarchal societies here and there. Thor Heyerdahl described one on Rapa Iti, founded by refugee women and their children. This said, there were certainly no large-scale matriarchal societies at any point of history.

  8. I saw this garbage the other day.

    Wu’s nonsense angered the Hyena Project ( who had this to say about Wu’s piece;

    “One of the worst pieces about hyenas + hyena society in the last years! Angry that our institute’s and project’s names appear in it.”


    Here is point by point dismantling of Wu;

    1. No, our host is arguing against modeling our society on any other animal society, if I read it correctly.

  9. Hyenas? Pah. Also-rans. My bees are a much more matriarchal society than hyenas.
    They are over 95% female and you never saw bees not allowing women in charge.
    We should obviously all be like bees. And by “like bees” I clearly mean we should move around in huge swarms,sting anyone who messes with us in kamikaze death dives, and kill the males in the wintertime. It only makes sense
    “Smash the patriarchy! Or, at least, cover it in honey”

      1. The elephant matriarchy is another obviously viable reference species for humans to emulate. On the count of three everyone wil show their loyalty to the cause by willing their ears and noses to noses to grow…

        1. As I recall, the ears and noses growing happens naturally in humans over time!

          However, I would also opt in to the Seahorse society and let the males carry and deliver the babies.

  10. Wu’s techniques of finding a square peg ( hyenas) to fit within her particular version of round hole (how society “should” function) are familiar techniques…hmmm…Perhaps we could name her method Wu’s woooo-woo-woo?

  11. and not just because of the mind-boggling fact that these ladies push multiple 3-pound cubs through a fake penis and live to tell the tale.

    I saw a programme on the BBC about hyenas a while back and I’m pretty sure they said that a lot of female hyenas do not survive child birth because of having to push the cubs through a fake penis.

  12. One can, without the naturalistic fallacy, use another species to show that we *could* be like some other way, to refute the idea that the human pattern (as it stands or forever) is the *only possible one*. Some people *did* used to think that all animals were male-dominant, after all.

    But that’s pretty weak sauce, since today that would likely be used to argue against a strawman.

  13. Ok ladies, line up for your surgically constructed pseudo-penises! Or is the plural penes? And while we’re at it, why not go full-matriarchy and emulate the New Mexican whip tail lizard Cnemidophorus neomexicanus, eh? I can hear the protest chants now… “We don’t need the ERA, parthenogenesis all the way!”

    Not to make light of the real problems facing women all over the world, but it is impossible to take this sort of hack science seriously.

    But on the bright side, at least she did actually call for equality rather than female domination. I often get the feeling that there is a strong vein of male hatred and a desire to punish all men by making them as bad off as women have been in the past. Same goes for the LGBT movement, which used to have the “equal rights, not special rights” motto on bumper stickers, which seems to have been dropped by the regressive control left. Of course she’ll probably catch hell online for not calling for complete domination of men…sins of the father and all that.

  14. I occasionally encounter males who seem to favor a deep-sea anglerfish based society. I’ve been encouraging my wife to find a job that pays more than mine, so maybe I could be accused of the same thing.

  15. “I believe people ought to mate for life…like pigeons or Catholics.”
    – Woody Allen’s character (Isaac Davis) in “Manhattan”

    The key fallacy in the article is that we need hyenas to tell us that matriarchal societies can be successful.

    And this sentence is a tad troubling “Much like the Greek Amazons and Wonder Woman, hyenas are a lineage of queens that prove the human assumption that patriarchies are inevitable — or even natural — completely wrong.”

    However, I got a kick out of this sentence “Even after copulation, if the female decides the male wasn’t actually worth her time, she can take advantage of the fact that the long urethra and vaginal tract converge … and simply urinate to flush out undeserving semen. As male-looking as the pseudopenis is, it’s one of the most strategic tools in the female arsenal.”

    1. As I recall reading about in “Nature’s Nether Regions” by Menno Schilthuizen, the females of a wide variety of species do something similar when they mate with a lesser male, known, I believe, as a “sperm dump”. Pseudopenes need not apply.

  16. Here’s a useful article written in angry response to Vox’s nonsense:

    “In fact, the matriarchy theory was denounced in 2002. Following from this, further research from institutions like the Hyena Project in Tanzania revealed that spotted hyena society was far more complex than female > male.”

  17. Three cheers for Beth Windle, who reminds us that reality is far more complex and interesting than make-believe, especially ideology-driven make-believe.

  18. If you have ever seen a pack of Hyenas kill you will see no sex discrimination at all. And no ideology.
    Talk about “Red in Tooth and Claw”. You ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen Hyenas take down- for instance a Giraffe. Or Cape Buffalo. Or a Lion.
    They do NOT mess around!

  19. I love it! Occasionally the mask slips, and Katherine J. Wu’s article is a great example.

    “I found empowerment in an unexpected place: through the tale of the spotted hyena’s evolution — possibly one of the most inspirational examples of feminism in the natural world.

    In the queendom of the spotted hyena, it’s ladies first

    Unlike most other mammals, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) live in matriarchal societies led by alpha females. In these clans throughout sub-Saharan Africa, females do the majority of the hunting, dictate the social structure, and raise cubs as single mothers. Even the highest-ranking male in the group is subservient to the most junior female.”

    Most inspirational, total subservience of one sex to the other. That’s such astonishing to read, that I would like to keep on record of who advocates for such ideas:

    From Vox about page:
    Author Katherine J. Wu
    Editor-in-Chief LAUREN WILLIAMS
    Executive Editor and Director of Editorial Strategy ALLISON ROCKEY
    Executive Producer JOE POSNER
    Editor-at-Large, Co-Founder EZRA KLEIN
    Managing Editor, Editorial Operations KATE DAILEY
    Managing Editor, News BEN PAUKER
    Deputy Managing Editor ELEANOR BARKHORN

  20. Is there a mammalian species wherein males have evolved a pseudovagina? Curious that the hyena alpha female felt she needed to evolve a penis to get any sarengeti-cred for being strong and aggressive. The patriarchy runs deep indeed.

  21. PCC(E), in your last sentence you said “If I were a postmodernist.” I’m just curious to see if you consider yourself something *other* than a postmodernist, or are you an “apostmodernist” (a term I made up to mean not a postmodernist, in the same way that an atheist is not a theist). BTW,I really enjoy your writings, and I’ve learned a lot without even having to enroll at the University of Chicago!

  22. Are there examples of sexually dimorphic species were the larger sex is not dominant or even subservient? If the male hyena could speak, would they praise their system or be arguing for change?

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