an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 13

leave a comment »

macho macho clan

Chinese culture – not so bonobo

I heard recently that the all-controlling Chinese government provides no sex education for its young citizens, and that the abortion rate is astronomically high there. The government as we know had a one-child policy, starting in the late seventies, and firming into law in 1980. It was abandoned in October 2015. Unsurprisingly, this involved forced abortions, even though abortion was made illegal there in the early 1950s. Anti-abortion law was gradually watered down in ensuing decades. The government in its wisdom, especially under Mao, saw population growth as the key to economic success. Deng Xiaoping, who became China’s numero uno in 1978, saw things differently as China’s population soared.  

Journalist Mei Fong, who wrote a book about the one-child policy, points out that, among many other negative effects, the policy led to widespread abortions of female infants, since in China as in most other countries, male offspring are more highly valued. Not the case, of course, for bonobos. 

Humans are the only apes who are capable of aborting the not-yet-born. They have also, throughout their history, engaged in infanticide, as have other animals. But of course another, rather recent development has had a powerful influence on our reproductive behaviour, that of contraception. Religious organisations, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, frown upon the practice, though their holy scriptures are of course mute on the matter, and practising Catholics worldwide have largely ignored church teachings, preferring pleasure to abstinence. Other Christian denominations, and Islamic and Hindu religious leaders tend to be more accepting, though there are no doubt conservative naysayers. 

Bonobos are highly sexual, though of course not as much as many humans, but they eschew contraception, and yet their birth rate is low, and infanticide has never been observed among them, unlike among chimps. Of course their genito-genital frottage is most often used to relieve tension, and generally among females – and more power to that – but more importantly, bonobos present themselves in estrus even when they can’t conceive. Their all-round availability to males – when they’re in the mood (males have occasionally had the tips of their penises bitten off by disgruntled females – and more power to that) means there’s less competition between male bonobos than there is between male chimps. The low birth rate is presumably explained by the fact that full-blown in-out-in-out is no more common among bonobos than it is among chimps. It’s also likely that year-round availability means that total rumpy-pumpy is spread out over the year and isn’t concentrated only in the fertile period. With bonobos, not every sperm is sacred.

Getting back to China and abortions, obviously if you have no way of discovering, through normal educational channels, the biological facts of pregnancy, and your family and local community, wedded to Confucian or other traditions of sexual modesty and general avoidance of discussing this all-too-basic animal instinct, that instinct might just get the better of you before you become aware of the consequences. So the Chinese authorities appear to have used abortion as an easy solution to the problem. With their peculiar top-down administration (peculiar to we in liberal democratic countries, but China’s communist party has essentially taken over the role of the all-powerful Manchu administration of previous centuries, so they’re used to it), the Chinese seem to have been persuaded in toto that abortion isn’t a moral issue. But of course there’s an exception – whereas in previous decades it was a duty to limit your offspring, now it’s becoming a duty to refuse sexually selected abortion, in favour of boys. This male-female imbalance has become a serious issue, brought about by a patriarchal administration blind to the problems created by the patriarchy that it continues to uphold. The Chinese Communist Party is of course no more communist than the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are democratic. It is a complex, multi-faceted, circumlocutory organisation, but its most important decision-making office is the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which consists of a handful of the most powerful political figures in the country, including the General Secretary (currently Xi Jinping). Since its full establishment in the 1950s, the PSC has had 57 members, of which 57 have been male. The CCP has in recent decades promoted capitalism, which it now calls, inter alia, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Whatever that means, it definitely does not allow for bourgeois liberalisation, a term deliberately singled out. Long story short, no sex education in schools – or very little, often too late. Homosexuality, in particular, is a touchy matter – and more power to that – which neither the government nor parents are particularly willing to confront.  However, it’s probably fair to assume that, as far as attitudes can change, they will do so in the right direction – towards a bonobo world, rather than away from it. 

Meanwhile, the impact of all this conservatism weighs more heavily on girls and young women, of course. And it’s not just in the matter of sex and pregnancy that Chinese females are getting a raw deal. Women in China have recently demonstrated, in small numbers, about such matters as the dearth of female public toilet facilities, and the very high rate of domestic violence in the country. And they’ve been punished for it, imprisoned, harassed, and belittled by government thugs, who also harass their families and workplaces into keeping them in line. Some of these women have become heroes of the international feminist movement, but are unknown in their own country due to the CCP’s stranglehold on the social media network. And yet, reform will gradually come. The mighty male Chinese government hates to be humiliated by protesting ‘little girls’, so it silences them and then, knowing full well the justice of the women’s cause, makes a few changes in the right direction. And maybe if they, the women, are lucky, the next General Secretary, though surely another male, will be a little more of a bonobo, and there will be just a little more free love and a little less domestic warfare in the land. 



Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2020 at 12:05 am

a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

leave a comment »

Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 


 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)



Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 11

leave a comment »

another bitter-sweet reflection on capacities and failures

I was in a half-asleep state, and I don’t know how to describe it neurologically, but subjectively I was hearing or being subjected to a din in my head, a kind of babble, like in an echoing school canteen. Then I heard a knocking sound above the din, then in a transforming whoosh all the din stopped in my head, it became silent apart from the knocking, and then, as a kind of wakening crystallisation clarified things, another sound, of trickling water. I quickly realised this was the sound from the shower above me, and the knocking was of the pipes being affected by the rush of hot water. But what really interested me was what had just happened in my brain. The din, of thought, or inchoate thought, or of confusedly buzzing neural connections, was dampened down instantly when this new sound forced itself into my – consciousness? – at least into a place or a mini-network which commanded attention. It, the din, disappeared as if a door had been slammed on it. 

I can’t describe what happened in my brain better than this, though I’m sure that this concentration of focus, or activity, in one area of my brain, and the concomitant dropping of all other foci or activity, to facilitate that concentration, was something essential to human, and of course other animal, neurology. Something observed but not controlled by ‘me’. Something evolved. I like the way this is shared by mice and men, women and wombats. 

But of course there are big differences too. I’ve described the experience, whatever it is, in such a way that a neurologist, on reading or listening to me, would be able to explain my experience more fully, or, less likely, be inspired to examine it or experiment with its no-doubt miriad causal pathways. I suppose this experience, though more or less everyday and unthreatening, is associated with flight-or-fight. The oddity of the sound, its difference from the background din, or perhaps rather my awareness of its oddity, caused a kind of brain-flip, as all its forces, or most of them, became devoted to identifying it. Which caused me to awaken, to marshall a fuller consciousness. How essential this is, in a world of predators and home intruders, and how much fun it is, and how useful it is, to try for a fuller knowledge of what’s going on. And so we go, adding to our understanding, developing tools for further investigation, finding those tools might just have other uses in expanding other areas of our knowledge, and the world of our ape cousins is left further and further behind. For me, this is a matter of pride, and a worry. I’m torn. The fact that I think the way I do has to do with my reading and my reflections, the habits of a lifetime. Some have nerdiness, if that’s what it is, thrust upon them. I’m fascinated by the human adventure, in its beginnings and its future. Its beginnings are connected to other apes, to old world and new world monkeys, to tarsiers, to tree shrews and rodents and so on, all the way back to archaea and perhaps other forms yet to be discovered. We need to fully recognise this connectivity. Its future, what with our increasing dominance over other species and the earthly landscape, our obsession with growth, our throwaway mindset, but also our ingenious solutions, our capacity for compassion and for global cooperation, that future is and always will be a mystery, just outside of our manipulating grasp, with every new solution creating more problems requiring more solutions. 

A few hundred years ago, indeed right up to the so-called Great War of 1914, human warfare was a much-celebrated way of life. And we still suffer a kind of hero-worship of military adventurism, and tell lies about it. In the USA, many times over the most powerful military nation on earth, the media are always extolling the sacrifice of those who fought to ‘keep America safe’. This is a hackneyed platitude, considering that, notwithstanding the highly anomalous September 11 2001 attack, the country has never had to defend its borders in any war. Military casualties are almost certain to occur in a foreign country, where the USA is seeking to preserve or promote its own interest, generally against the interests of that country. In this respect, the USA, it should be said, is no better or worse than any other powerful country throughout history. The myth of military might entailing moral superiority, which began with the dawn of civilisations, dies hard, as ‘American exceptionalism’ shows. 

But globalism, international trade, travel, communication and co-operation, is making for a safer and less combative human society than ever before. So, as militarism as a way of life recedes, we need to focus on the problems of globalism and economic growth. As many have pointed out, the pursuit of growth and richesse is producing many victims, many ‘left-behind’. It’s dividing families and creating a culture of envy, resentment and often unmitigated hatred of the supposedly threatening ‘other’. The world of the bonobo – that tiny community of a few tens of thousands – tinier than any human nation – a gentle, fun-loving, struggling, sharing world – seems as distant to us as the world of the International Space Station, way out there. And yet…


Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2020 at 12:10 pm

a bonobo world? 10 – the clothed ape

leave a comment »

Michel de Montaigne, aka Monty, endlessly honest, curious, humane and inspiring – to whom I dedicate my work, such as it is

I’ve observed that some humans don’t like being reminded that they are apes. They become scornful and dismissive, even while admitting that this might be so. I presume they consider it irrelevant. We’ve fallen far from the monkey puzzle tree after all. 

Of course we’ve built universities and particle accelerators and space stations, and ribbonworks of roads and rails connecting city to blazing city, but on sports fields we inflate ourselves and bump chests and chew cud and suck on straws and huddle together like a few other primates I know. So I often like to undress people, so to speak, in pubs and restaurants and classrooms and city streets, picturing them naked and never-shaven, with wobbly and dangly bits, flabby or skeletal, greying or balding, or pre-pubescently hairless, exposed, vulnerable, yet still humanly savvy. 

Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay, On the custom of wearing clothes, which I was keen to read in my twenties, both as a fanboy of Monty and as someone who’d long wondered about this custom myself. As children we come at some stage to the liberating realisation that we can question everything in the great sanctuary of our heads, where nobody else can trespass. At least, this happened to me. So I enjoyed this question – why do we wear clothes? And of course, I rehearsed the typical adult answer. We wear them for warmth, comfort and protection. But on a warm day, on the front lawn where we always run barefoot anyway? Or indoors, where there were no thistles, three corner jacks or rusty nails? And I knew that these were mostly bogus reasons, that there was a tabu about exposing ourselves – ‘Quick, we’re having visitors, go to your room and make yourself decent’. To be naked, or even half-naked, was indecent. Why? Of course as I grew older I realised it had much, perhaps everything, to do with sex. Sex was naughty, diabolically naughty, I knew that even before I knew what it was. It certainly involved the private parts, for decency was all about hiding those parts. Wearing a swimsuit was fine, at the beach and other appropriate places, and girls could wear bikinis, even though they actually accentuated the parts that we weren’t supposed to think about, but revealing or displaying those parts in public was verboten as verboten could be. 

And so I learned that sex was private, and perhaps rare.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people walked around naked in public, and had sex in public too? Presumably, that would be the end of civilisation. We would become like animals. But then, we are animals.

I really felt that I’d hit upon something profound, if perhaps a bit too obvious to be really profound. Could it be that the whole of civilisation depended on us wearing clothes, or at least covering up our supposedly naughty bits? And yet it was about more than just the naughty bits. Teachers didn’t teach us in their underwear after all. But could it be that adults wore full, formal outfits to teach classes or to work in offices or department stores, to disguise the fact that they were really just hiding their naughty bits? I mean, were those bits really so dangerously naughty? Bonobos seem not to think so.

Montaigne’s clothes essay, though as fascinating as any other of his other essays, is more titillating in its title than its contents (I’m easily titillated), which are mostly about weather conditions, class, and the best kits for warfare. A lot of modern essays on the topic, however, fare no better in addressing the clothing-and-sex issue. Of course it’s true that clothing would’ve been protective against bugs as well as animal bites – attacking and scavenging animals tend to go for the dangly bits – and that over time clothing would have had important decorative purposes, associated with in-group hierarchy as well as raising humans in their own eyes above their ape and animal nature. We’ve been doing this for at least 100,000 years. 

So human clothing has become habitual and near-universal over time. It’s embarrassing to be different, not only in going naked – which is also illegal, and the term indecent exposure is more revealing than anything that’s exposed – but in wearing the wrong outfit. Clothing has become extremely complex in that regard. I’ve lived long enough to observe my slight elders from the early seventies, with fabulous flowing locks and dazzlingly vibrant embroidered shirts, scarves and flares, gradually transforming into besuited computer techies and company directors, with children kitted out in Edwardian beards and long-suits, which somehow lack the sparkle of sexual spontaneity. 

And yet, we did undergo a sexual revolution, allegedly, which coincided with second-wave feminism, if I’m not mistaken. Widely available contraception helped, presumably, to allow women as much or little philandering as males. All-female sex parties have become fashionable, as have orgy-style sex parties with male strippers and female perps, victims and happy-clapping onlookers. But these are very much niche scenes, somewhat ritualised and behind closed doors, nothing like the bonobo world of spontaneous, open, all-community based sexual healing that is but one characteristic of a caring and sharing environment. The closest I’ve seen to this bonobo world is observing young women out on the town in supportive gangs, arms linked, laughing and chatting, rosy and cuddling. Males form their own groups, loving or at least appreciating each other in their own noli me tangere way. Not quite so inspiring. 

The problem of returning to our naked original state is, of course, the problem of returning the omelette back to the state of the uncracked egg. It ain’t gonna happen, and it’s arguable that this is a good thing. But that won’t stop me dreaming about a bonobo world, unclothed or otherwise, and finding and encouraging instances of bonobo behaviour among humans anywhere. And also trying to identify and critique trends that militate (good word) against the bonobo lifestyle, such as extreme libertariansm, macho-thug political leaders, zero-sum nationalism and divisive religious zealotry. Altogether, with of course many notable exceptions, there are encouraging signs. We are family, after all.   


Written by stewart henderson

November 12, 2020 at 4:51 pm

a bonobo world? 9 – humanism, bonoboism, doggism and science

leave a comment »

a caring and sharing bonoboist society – and these are all females, except maybe the kiddy

In Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes rather disparagingly of humanism. Here he goes: 

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion, namely humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas not in order to question those dogmas but rather in order to implement them.¹

And so on.

So what exactly is humanism? I should probably make the fuck-nose sign here, but let me write about my personal interaction with the concept. Of course I’d heard of humanism but hadn’t really given it much thought before entering university in my 30th year, in spite of having read a few philosophy books etc. At uni I fell in with a few eager-beavers with whom I entered into D&Ms on politics, ethics and the meaning of life. One day in the midst of an intense session, one interlocutor pulled back, gazed at me with furrowed brow and said ‘You’re such a humanist’. I could only shrug and I truly didn’t know whether he was insulting or commending me. Montaigne-like, I was ever drawn to matters pertaining to myself, especially when others appeared to express an interest. I’d noticed, in my regular browsing at the uni bookshop, a book with the title On Antihumanism or Towards Antihumanism or something similar. This was the mid-80s and post-modernism was unfortunately still thriving. It seemed the book was treading that path – Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ tweaked to ‘death of the human’, opposition to any anthropological defining of the Homo sapiens category, muddied with much Foucauldian, Derridean and Lacanian rhetoric. 

So I began to feel much sympathy for humanism, and I was drawn particularly by two negatives: it wasn’t religious and it wasn’t nationalistic.

So, religion – and what does Harari mean when he says that humanism is a religion and a dogma? Well, it seems nothing more than the bleeding obvious: that humanism replaces worship of gods with blind worship of humanity. Now, I admit that there’s an element of truth in that. Witness, again Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity (and no amount of mathematising can can obscure the connection between infinitude and godliness) and Bronowski’s heaven-bent Ascent of Man. In fact I recall, during my period of membership in a humanist organisation (I’m rarely a joiner of such groups and it rarely lasts for long), an attempt to create a kind of humanist church with cheery singalongs and happy clapping. It all sounded naff as taffy to me. 

But my own take on humanism was that it involved the realisation that we humans were on our own, and reliant on each other, for better or worse. And that we were one species, and as such needed to take collective responsibility for our damages and to build on our strengths. I also thought it was bleeding obvious that we were above all self-concerned, even self-obsessed. This strikes me as nothing more or less than a biological fact. Bonobos are the compassionate apes, so they say, but the compassion ends mostly – perhaps not entirely – with their own species. You might call this bonoboism, and it makes a lot of biological sense. My pet dog goes apeshit on spotting another dog during our walks, it never fails. She wants to get close, to sniff, to fight, to fuck, who knows? You might call this doggism, but it’s not doggy dogma. It’s funny – humans have interfered with dogs phenotypically for centuries – flattened faces, lengthened legs, bent backs, tufty tails and much nasty neotenising, but dogs never cease to recognise their own polymorphous kind. Of course they have a nose for that kind of thing, but it’s the sight of their fellow beasties that sets them off. I wonder what the science says?

Anyway humanism. Of course, we don’t have to be invested in our own species. I recently heard an interview with a softly spoken, very reasonable-sounding gentleman who is dedicated to the extinction of Homo sapiens, reckoning that the species has done far more harm than good. He’d done his bit, not by knocking off his neighbours, but by getting himself desexed. Only 7.8 billion more to go – ok, maybe only half that number, but then with sperm banks… it’s all so hard. 

There are videos around, depicting what life might be like in the future if human apes suddenly disappeared. All very verdant and lush and lovely, but they don’t dare to visualise forward for more than a few decades. How about a couple of million years hence? Not so long, geologically speaking. We’ve been a most unusual apex predator, but there’s no reason not to assume that an even more unusual and rapacious predator will evolve. So I wouldn’t give up on our species just yet. 

Still, I’ll never feel entirely comfortable with identifying as a humanist. I just don’t like isms much, they make me reach for my water pistol. 

Anyway, returning to Harari, what’s to be made of humanism’s apparent deal with science? His argument is that science is really not so much about knowledge as about power. The power to produce more answers, and more stuff. To win the race against hunger, you find ways to produce more foodstuff. To reclaim land, you find ways to produce more foodstuff using less land. To reduce toxic or climate-affecting emissions, you find, or produce, new forms of energy with fewer nasty emissions. Yes, there will be vested interests blocking production and denying problems, but science will always find a way, and we’ll always go that way, eventually. Or so the deal has it.

Of course, Harari is right. I don’t happen to agree with his definition of humanism, but that’s really a minor issue. To me, it’s a deal science makes with a certain kind of self-confident optimism. A ‘we will overcome’ jingoism, for our species. And I must say, I have mixed feelings about all this, because my view of science has a personal element, for I have something of an unrequited love affair with science. I think she’s brilliant, sexy and endlessly enthralling. To me, she’s the gift that keeps on giving. Through her machinations, unknown unknowns shift into known unknowns or unknown knowns, and in the future more unknown unknowns will begin to be known, and yet we won’t quite know what we don’t know about them, even if we know what we don’t know. And really, I don’t even know whether I know what I’m saying. 

So science, with its how questions, is a quest to give us more power, over life, the universe and everything, for knowledge is power. But we’re not going to stop travelling down that road. As many have pointed out, to have the power to create something you need to know how it works, from photosynthesis to viruses to intelligence or consciousness. And we’re working on all this stuff, for better or worse. 

Are we working on creating a more compassionate society, a bonobo society or something like? Sort of – and many are passionate about this. But I’m not sure we even know what society is, let alone how to make it better. 

  1. Y N Harari, Homo Deus, p 231


Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, 2016

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012 

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

a bonobo world? 8 – hunter-gatherers, the agricultural revolution, capitalism and science

leave a comment »

We can see that human society, various though it is, has much in common with chimp society. Throughout human history, males have dominated females to an overwhelming degree, and large groups of males have fought to the death over territory, or over which dominant male should vanquish and control the territory of the other. Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of 500 years of political intrigue, betrayal and murder in a system where succession was never based on inheritance but only on political power and skill, with the military always prominent. 

It’s generally accepted that the ancestors of modern human apes engaged in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle from at least 2 million years ago. This very successful lifestyle was dominant until the development of agriculture a mere 12,000 years ago. While there’s much debate on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, the dominant view is that they were more egalitarian than post-agricultural societies, and also chimp societies. Recent research also suggests that the success of the hunter-gatherer system, with its sexual division of labour, enabled Homo sapiens to outcompete Homo neanderthalensis as they spread across the globe. However, it’s unlikely that this lifestyle and social system was invariant across regions or time, and evidence found about one group will not stand for all. Technologies varied, as did diet and climatic conditions. In some of these societies, women joined the hunt, or hunted with other women, depending on the type of quarry being hunted and how the hunt was carried out. Kinship relationships in these early societies tended to be matrilineal, that is, descent through the female line is generally acknowledged, though this had little effect on inheritance among hunter-gatherers, as there is virtually nothing to inherit, except, perhaps, reputation. However, the gradual transition to a settled, agricultural lifestyle created a more routinised existence of digging, sowing, reaping, building and defending territory. Research has found that, in women as well as men, bones became bigger and harder during the early agricultural period. It could in many ways be described as a disastrous change in the short term, as workloads increased and diets became less varied. It certainly spelt long-term danger to other species, with deforestation, land degradation and the diversion of natural water-courses becoming increasingly widespread. The reliability of seasonal rains and sunshine became a focus, which led to the growth of religious rites and ceremonies, and to a class of religious intermediaries. As to gender roles, with the development of fixed dwellings, the males tended to do more of the field-work and the women became more home-bound, engaged in child-rearing, cereal processing and other food preparation. And naturally, with land itself becoming increasingly central, territorial conflicts and ownership hierarchies developed. The domestication of animals, together with the cultivation of fields, made these hierarchies more visible. If you laid claim to more land, you could produce more food, making others in the village more dependent upon you. We think today of wealthy people with more capital to invest or otherwise utilise, and interestingly, the word capital comes from the same Indo-European root as cattle, the first animals to be domesticated in large numbers. You might make this increase in your capital more tangible with a bigger dwelling and perhaps more ‘wives’ and dependents under your keeping. 

It certainly seems likely that the development of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle created a more patriarchal, and unequal, human society. Women spent more time ‘at home’ than they did in hunter-gathering times, and had more children. Recent research has also found that the regions which have had the longest history of an agricultural lifestyle have the most deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. 

In modern capitalist counties, inequality is obviously increasing, especially if you judge by that most capitalist of nations, the USA, which currently has the greatest income inequality in its history, and the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The gap between the super-rich and the merely rich in the USA has widened spectacularly over the past twenty-five years, and If we examine US wealth from a gender perspective we find that women own 32c for every dollar owned by men. Whether or not the gap between women and men’s wealth increases, I cannot envisage anything but an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US, as it is far more wedded to libertarian mythology than any other nation. 

It’s my belief, though, or maybe it’s a mere hope, that less atomistic societies, such as we find in Asia, may ultimately lead us to the way of the bonobo – a society with less internal strife, less rigid hierarchies and inequalities, a greater sense of togetherness and mutual concern, and even more relaxation and play. 


Some years ago the philosopher A C Grayling gave a talk in Australia, which I heard on Radio National. He spoke of two visits he made in the region of Geneva, to the headquarters of the United Nations, and to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was stuck by the contrast between the genial, collaborative atmosphere at CERN, featuring scientists from over 100 nations, and the testy, zero-sum nature of negotiations at the UN. 

Science has become more collaborative over time, and far less patriarchal over the last century, though there’s still some way to go. Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to decoding the structure of the ribosome, made many interesting points about the famous prize in his book Gene Machine. He notes the increasingly collaborative nature of science, and doesn’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Many people and groups in recent years have been given the prize – which is always life-transforming because it brings their name to the generally non-scientific public in one fell swoop – for simply being the first to solve a puzzle or make a discovery that many groups or persons were on the verge of making, within an atmosphere of generally collegial competition. It’s also noteworthy that, while the early Nobel Prizes in the sciences were awarded to individuals, this has become increasingly rare. I rather enjoy the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, and on into the twenty-first, both the collective nature of science and the female contribution to it have become increasingly recognised. I would like to think that the connection between collectivity and female participation is not coincidental. 

Of course, many early breakthroughs in science and technology are anonymous, and as such, seen as collective. Who invented the plow? The Sumerians maybe, or some other Mesopotamian or Indus Valley culture. Writing? Mesopotamia again, or maybe the Indus Valley or China, or separately by different cultures, possibly even in Rapa Nui. But nowadays, we’re keen to give individual recognition for any technological or scientific developments. 



Written by stewart henderson

November 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm

A bonobo world ? personal reflections on societal health 7

leave a comment »

Bertrand Russell – a very well-connected philosopher

This world of reading has long excited me about our scientific and technological achievements, about what we know and are discovering of our solar system, our galaxy and our universe, of our origins, our neurology and our immune system, and so much more, but I’ve also been fascinated, horrified and moved to tears by our history, and our capacity for inflicting and enduring suffering. Even while taking those steps to ‘rational knowledge’, we’ve revealed how unreasoning we are. Aristotle, the founder of syllogistic logic and virtue ethics, believed that many humans were born to be slaves, and that women needed to be ruled over by men due to their lack of control, deceptiveness and general inferiority. Plato’s many dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Protagoras, still provide much food for thought, but his notions of ideal justice and eternal souls have had a corrosively irrational influence. We understandably admire the ancient Greeks but much of their economy and that of other ancient civilisations was based on slavery, and in ancient Egypt as well as in feudal Britain the lower classes were slaves in all but name. The veiling of women began in Mesopotamia, and was common practice in ancient Greece and Rome. All of this betokened hierarchies of class and gender, and the majority of the population lucked out in the lottery of birth and parentage. 

We may feel we’ve escaped from these rigid hierarchies, but it’s rather that we’re less honest or more deluded about them. Certainly the hierarchies aren’t quite as easy to define or identify, but they involve money, power and influence, as they always have. It’s not so much about caste, land ownership or birthright today, it’s about social connections, whether though family, business, academia or politics. It’s often not what you know, but who you know. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote of pulling the beard of William Gladstone, four-term Prime Minister of the UK, as a child. Bertrand was himself the grandson of John Russell, twice Prime Minister, and senior government minister for two decades. It wouldn’t be hard to find many other examples of well-connected success, though happily there are counter-examples, such as Newton, Faraday and Einstein. In any case, until recently, those hierarchies were much more fixed than they are today. For example a modern university education can be gained in a multitude of ways, such as scholarships and through government subsidies. Mature age students can be accepted by a simple entry test, something like an IQ test, as I was. This less regimented, more fluid society can easily lead people into the mythical belief that anyone can achieve anything they put your mind to, and that we’re entirely responsible for our achievements in the battle to the top in any sphere of activity. It is the reason, of course, for the rise of libertarianism in many affluent countries. But the fact is that elites and elitism are just as common as ever, and it was ever thus. When Aristotle wrote that some men were born to be slaves, he was insisting upon his own superiority, and that of his associates, those for whom he was writing. 

So the human ape has always been ensnared in a hierarchy, whether as a hunter-gatherer or a computer programmer. Considering the inevitability of such a situation, the question we should ask is, are some hierarchies better or more effective than others for human flourishing, and for our subsistence with other species on the planet? With that question in mind, let’s again consider our ape cousins, the bonobos and the chimps. 

Chimpanzees are far more numerous than bonobos and have been studied more thoroughly in the wild. Like bonobos, they’re an endangered species, their numbers being considerably reduced by deforestation, habitat degradation and poaching – the standard problems inflicted by human apes on all of their cousins. Chimps like to move around, in small travelling bands of a few individuals, but habitat degradation and fragmentation has limited this behavioral inclination, just as land clearing and the takeover and degradation of natural resources by Europeans in Australia has limited the behavioral inclinations and practices of its more ancient human inhabitants. However, these small groups often come together to form larger communities of as much as 150 members. This splitting and combining behaviour, shared by bonobos (and of course by humans), is described as a fission-fusion society. The smaller groups perform different functions, such as an all-male hunting party or an all-female nursing group, or a combination of genders and generations for various purposes, but the social structure is always dominated by males, who fight each other for dominance. Once a particular male has asserted his dominance, he maintains it through aggression, even when there is no challenge from other males. This results in a dominance hierarchy, with a second and third most dominant male, each one threatened from below and threatening the chimp above him. Such a hierarchy is inherently unstable, not only because individuals grow stronger and weaker as they grow and age, but because the fission-fusion society produces shifting coalitions which can alter the balance of power at any time. A dominant male who develops an overly aggressive style might be toppled, and even killed, in a ‘palace coup’ of disgruntled underlings. This allows for a form of political manoeuvring to defeat physical aggression. A less physically strong male may develop political skills, if not to get to the top, to derive benefits from his king-maker role. In this situation, the alpha male may also have to develop political skills as well as displaying aggression. Threats to his power often come during the fusion period of the fission-fusion dynamic, and he often succeeds in maintaining his position through display of force rather than attack, much like a dictator mobilising his forces around the perimeter of a demonstration. 

Female chimps, of course, are not necessarily entirely passive in such circumstances, and will use their connections and their sexual availability to influence the social hierarchy and their own position within it. Female dominance has even been recorded in chimps in captivity, though it is likely very rare. The males are aggressive not only in terms of maintaining or overturning the hierarchy but in maintaining, defending or expanding territory, though this territoriality may vary between subspecies, and may even be affected in the wild by those humans who study them and provide them with food, so as to keep them nearby. Think of the territoriality of your pet dog, who is kept well-fed and cared for by the pack leader, yourself, and feels threatened by canine and even human encroachers. 


Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, 2001

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2020 at 10:51 pm

a bonobo world? 6 – cultural dynamism, females, families and inhibitions

leave a comment »

the nuclear family – actually modern, not traditional

Most broadly, culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. No culture is static, though it may seem so when looked at from the viewpoint of a more dynamic culture. But why are some cultures more dynamic than others?

The Bronowski comment on taking ‘the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ echoes in my head when I reflect on this question. But ‘rational knowledge’ strikes a false note, as there isn’t any knowledge that is irrational. And the most essential thing that any animal, human or otherwise, must know is what to do to survive. Every species that has survived for any length of time has obtained that knowledge, and in a dynamic culture, one faced with external threats and challenges, both cultural and environmental, that knowledge must continue to grow. That’s the key to our ever-changing culture – social evolution rather than the kind of physical adaptations described in The Origin of Species. That is why, for example, we have belatedly come to realise that women deserve as much opportunity, to be educated, to be productive, and to be leaders in any field they choose to enter. It is why Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’ series, with its more or less exclusively male examples of strength and aptitude, seems cringeworthy after only a few decades. 

The argument of course goes that man, like the Latin, homo, is simply a generic term for the species, and we (i.e women) should just get over it. The origins of the words woman and female are complex, but surely it’s clear that they are add-ons to the words man and male, afterthoughts like the woman in the Bible created from a man’s rib. In French, the word femme appears to be quite different from homme, but femme means wife as well as woman, the implication being that one’s wife is also one’s woman. No such implication exists for the word homme. The cultural implications of our everyday terminology continue to be impactful, and awareness of these implications is more important, I feel, than artificial changing of the language, helpful though this may be. 

Of course, no environment is static either, and animals need to be quick to adapt to new environmental threats. The paleontological record is full of species that failed in this regard. Arguably, we may do so too, if the threat is too overwhelming, but surely nothing is currently in the offing, in spite of some doomsayers. The global warming we’re currently experiencing, for example, is far less threatening to our superabundant species than was the Toba eruption of 70,000 years ago, during the last ice age (though its effects, too, are disputed). Global warming is an existential threat, however, for many other species, already pushed to the brink by deforestation, overfishing and other human activities. Yet many will say that our ingenious species – by which they generally mean the dominant culture within our species – is even better at finding solutions than creating problems. And there are many good news stories, even in relation to those other species that we keep threatening. This is indeed the ray of hope, for our species and for others. It’s my view that, if we succeed in the future, it will be because we have gradually become more compassionate, more inclusive, more frugal and more collaborative, without losing the adventurous, questing, scientific spirit that has made us so successful. 

In describing this possible future I’ll strive to be realistic and evidence-based, and that’s where the example of bonobos comes in, for this description of a future humanity fits loosely the bonobo society – without quite the scientific spirit of course. I will not be idealising bonobo society, but there are increasing problems in our culture (and note that I’m always talking about those of ‘western’ or westernised nations – western Europe, the USA, Australia and Canada – but also Japan, Korea and Taiwan) – problems relating to family, work, resources and government – that might benefit from our understanding of cultures, and species, we feel we have transcended, and the bonobo way of life is a prime example of this. 

The modern human family is more or less nuclear, indeed like the nucleus inside a cell, though we call it a house, or a home. The walls of the house are like a semi-permeable membrane, with doors and windows through which nutrients and chemicals can be funneled, and of course information about the outside world arrives via books, magazines and, increasingly, electronic devices. Of course, some of these families are more functional and happy than others, and a child’s early fate is a matter of luck in this respect. Extended families – grandparents and cousins who live within walking distance – have become rarer, as have long-term neighbours and lifelong friends, due to the increasing mobility of modern life. In my own case, growing up under a seriously dysfunctional parental situation, and separated by migration from the extended family 15,000 kilometres away, I was grateful for a deeper connection to the outside world resulting from books, of which our home always had an abundance. One book which made a deep impression on me in my early teens was Children of the Dream, by Bruno Bettelheim. Of course, I came to the book with a particular hope that there were better ways of raising children than what I’d experienced, so I was bound to see it in a positive light. Regardless of the reality of the kibbutz experiment, what I found in the book’s descriptions opened up for me other options, including richer, more varied and positive relations with elders as well as peers, and a wider sense of belonging than I was experiencing. Trust, acceptance, and a nurturing of challenge and growth, these were the values that meant most to me, and which I found missing both at home and in the school environment I’d been thrown into. Yet it’s also true, or quite likely, that certain events and experiences in my early life, largely hidden from myself, have made it difficult for me to trust and to connect in positive ways. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal study that has been carried out over 50 years now, provides solid evidence of the overwhelming influence of early childhood on subsequent personal development, noting that personality types are established early on in life. My own self-diagnosed type – and the study describes five – is ‘reserved’, bordering on ‘inhibited’. The latter can be a serious problem, which the Japanese describe as hikikimori, roughly translated as ‘acute social withdrawal’, though the problem is hardly confined to Japanese youth. I think, however, I’ve been saved from this acute state by the world of books and ideas, which I love to discuss, when I can bring myself to get out there and do so. 


Bruno Bettelheim, Children of the Dream, 1969.

Dunedin Study Findings: The Importance of Identifying Personality Types at a Young Age, by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Written by stewart henderson

November 3, 2020 at 12:04 pm

what Americans will never do to save their democracy

leave a comment »

– stop relying on their gentlemanly 18th century constitution and create more L-A-W.

– reduce the presidency to a figurehead and place more power in the congress where it belongs

– encourage a wider range of parties to create an effective multiparty system which works by compromise rather than a two-party adversarial system which encourages hostility and winner-takes-all

– get rid of these worthless, ridiculous presidential debates (goes with reducing the power of the presidency)

– cap individual and corporate campaign contributions at a very low level.

– ban all electioneering claptrap until 2-3 weeks before elections

– thoroughly vet all presidential candidates via testing on US political history, presidential responsiblities, US foreign relations, treaty obligations etc A vetting for the job as for any CEO position. Duh!

Written by stewart henderson

October 29, 2020 at 7:33 pm

a bonobo world? 5

leave a comment »

Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.


Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.