The feminist scientist Donna Haraway has argued that science evolves through complex, historically specific storytelling practices rather than through a detached analysis of the ‘facts’. She has drawn attention to the political and economic interests that are reproduced by the narratives of science (Haraway 1991). The most powerful of these in relation to the wildlife genre is the evolutionary myth of ‘sociobiology’ that dramatizes scientific accounts of sexual difference. Sociobiology rose to prominence in the 1970s following the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, which brought genetic explanations of human life into the foreground. It is used in wildlife commentaries to tell us how to understand the animal behaviour we are watching. By drawing parallels between human and animal behaviour it also offers us an explanation of human behaviour grounded in our evolutionary past. In this narrative we are the products of an evolutionary process of selective adaptation designed to maximize the reproductive fitness of individuals so that they may pass on their genes. It constructs an explanation of sexual behaviour and sexual identity that emphasizes sexual difference. Male behaviour is thus oriented towards competition with other males for dominance in order to give them priority access to females for mating. Female animals ensure optimum conditions for the reproduction of their genes by mating with the dominant males and so producing offspring more fit for survival. It is an ideological discourse that has been criticized for naturalizing male promiscuity, aggression and dominance over women. It is also consistent with a capitalist perspective that imagines society as based on the survival of the fittest, an individualized, competitive environment in which sexual relations are governed by an investment strategy designed to ensure the continuation of the ‘self ’ as embodied in a set of genes (Haraway 1990).

Given the proximity of apes to humans in this evolutionary history, they have played a central role in establishing the validity of these discourses. Yet it is through primatology, a field that has attracted many women scientists, that a feminist challenge to the patriarchal narratives of sociobiology emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. These women told a different story, reporting, for example, patterns of behaviour among some animals in which female apes took the initiative in their social organization. However, Haraway (1990) points out that this deconstruction of masculinist discourses is still contained within a sociobiological framework, with female apes defined through a construction of altruistic motherhood. The more radical challenge posed by their work, she argues, is in the methods that they used. They developed close relation­ships with the primates they studied, thus calling into question the model of the disinterested scientist. This ‘close encounter’ proved scandalous to more than just the scientific community. The films of these studies, made and distributed by National Geographic, provided the finance for the research but also enabled it to reach a wider audience. They were therefore breaking not only scientific conventions but also the power relations of the male gaze embedded in the established conventions of the documentary film. Images of young blond women in the arms of large brown apes were imbued with racist meanings, meanings that drew on established racist myths of the dangers of miscegenation. Dianne Fosse, one of the most notorious of these women, was accused of having ‘unnatural relations’ with the gorillas she studied.

This history is recounted in Beauty and the Beast, the second programme in a trilogy called Sex and the Scientist (Channel 4 1996). Donna Haraway’s analysis of feminist primatologists’ storytelling practices, which opens the programme, is then balanced against an interview with Steven Pinker, a well-known sociobiologist, who provides further critical comment on the significance of the women primatologists’ research methods and findings. In Pinker’s view, the fact that they found female animals to be at the centre of the social group while the males were on the margins was simply the product of the feminist ideologies of the time and incompatible with value-free science. To him the women scientists exemplify the dangers inherent in crossing the boundaries between the observer and the observed, the human and the animal, culture and nature, the boundaries that, in his view, secure the scientist’s detachment. His perspective is then legitimized and prioritized over Haraway’s account by the framing provided in the (female) voice-over. This works to undermine the more general case made by Haraway that all scientific interpretations, and not just feminist science, arise from their sociohistorical context, with sociobiology being a case in point.

This programme provides an interesting example of how science documentary – makers are caught between their use of the cultural power of storytelling and a reluctance to let go of a belief, which they share with the scientists, in detached observation. This is embedded in the conventions they use. The programme follows the classic expository form of ‘expert’ interviews from a variety of viewpoints edited with archive footage. These provide the evidence that legitimizes the explicit claims made in a reasoned argument presented in the voice-over. In this case the overall argument offers a critique of the anthropomorphism displayed by the women primatologists. This puts the case that our desire for close encounters with wild animals is incompatible with the scientific study of an uncontaminated nature. This trend is criticized as the product of the financial entanglement between research into animal behaviour and the commercial exploitation of filming rights, which ‘changed scientists into film stars and changed primatology into the study of individual animals with personalities’, as the voice-over comments. The sexual allure of the women primatologists who appeared in the films and the domestication of the apes they studied, treating them as if they were human, are blamed for undermining the scientific study of apes in the wild and endangering the habitat they depend on. It turned science into entertainment.

This is an audacious argument to put in a documentary film about nature designed as television entertainment. Indeed, it requires a complete disavowal by the film-makers of their own part in the processes they describe and condemn. The film promotes an environmentalist perspective that is concerned to protect nature from despoliation by human intervention and they use science to legitimize their argument. But they use the emotive power of visual images of animals to support their case. Close-up images of cuddly pictures of human-like apes at the start of the film, as we watch the women primatologists at work in the African jungle, are replaced by disturbing images of ape skulls, deforestation and hoards of tourists with cameras as the destructive effects of their studies are explained. These techniques appeal to the desire to know, but they also provide an engaging visual spectacle that works unnoticed on the emotions alongside the explicit argument. The film’s perspective can also be shown to be a product of the emergent stories characteristic of the historical period and of the commercial conditions in which it has been made, rather than as the product of disinterested science. That this programme should use an environmentalist discourse to critique feminist primatology is consistent with the relative decline of feminist politics and the rise during the 1990s of environmentalism as a new social movement. For an independent production company (Diverse Productions) with a history of making anti­establishment documentary, environmentalism offers a more contemporary form of oppositional discourse with an appeal to the youthful viewers sought by Channel 4. Feminist critique is now often seen as old-fashioned.

Feminist critiques of the genre have never had more than a marginal influence. The group of women producers in the BBC’s Natural History Unit whom I interviewed were inspired to try by a lecture they had attended by Barbara Crowther, a cultural studies academic. She had suggested paying more attention to ‘the behaviour and role of infertile or post-reproductive females, sex as a pleasurable activity not necessarily dominated by the need to reproduce, or whether females ever express a preference for less bullish males’ as an alternative to the narratives of sociobiology (Crowther 1995). Their subsequent attempts to innovate in this way included trying to change the use of standard vocabulary, such as resisting the practice of describing groups of female animals as a ‘harem’. Or they looked for alternative narrative forms that could accom­modate a varied understanding of animal social relationships and our relation to them. One producer, in a programme called Watch Out, had introduced a magazine format that allowed for multiple perspectives, and based the series nearer to home by looking at the wildlife in urban neighbourhoods. But they felt that these initiatives remained marginal in a context where the prestige of the ‘blue chip’ wildlife documentary inhibited change. They also drew on the pervasive sociobiological frameworks of the genre to explain their lack of influence. They felt themselves disadvantaged in a com­petitive male hierarchy where ‘displays of dominance’ are integral to the way in which the power relations of the field are worked through. Their inability to inhabit the masculine, heroic role of the risk-taking, naturalist adventurer had limited their status and career development.