a bonobo humanity?

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

we are family? bonobo care, monogamy or not, the magniloquence of humanity, etc

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a single mother, benefits assured

So in this post I want to look at how monogamy is doing in the WEIRD world, inter alia. As Henrich and others point out, marriage became thoroughly regularised (and economically exploited) by the Church in the millennium or more during which it held sway in Western Europe. Its marriage and family programme (MFP) ‘legitimised’ children (at least among the upper classes, where legitimacy mattered), reduced kinship ties (which helped to weaken dynastic forces that might challenge the Church’s power) and, perhaps inadvertently, encouraged marital ties based on elective affinities or that fuzzily pleasant concept or sensation known as love.

So in the modern WEIRD world we may marry whomever we like as soon as achieving legal adulthood, and then repent at leisure and divorce without fault, or we can reproduce without marrying and receive much the same supports for our offspring as married couples do. And during the past few decades in particular, couplings and combinations, short-term or long-term, and regardless of gender, have been experiencing less censure and opposition. There is no sense, pace some ultra-conservative circles, that our society is falling apart due to these changes. Capital enterprises continue to flourish, per capita GDP continues to rise (as does the temperature), and the WEIRD world continues to work and party hard, while occasionally fretting about its collective future.

With the rise of WEIRD feminism, there can be excesses, both in the positive and negative direction, and combined with the religious hangover (‘your body is a temple’), even sexual dialogue – the first level of sexual intercourse – has become fraught. Even so, the situation is an improvement on that of previous generations, when coercive intercourse, date rape and such were part of a history that women have only recently been able to talk about. So the WEIRD situation re sexual power, politics, language and intercourse (in the general sense) is very much in flux, and will be so for the foreseeable future.

How that flux will affect the monogamy we currently still accept as the norm is hard to predict. The most common argument in its favour has long been about the raising of children. The conservative view that a child needs both a father and a mother isn’t ridiculous, in spite of the fact that many modern children have thrived on less (and sometimes more), but it seems to me that the most successful upbringing for a child would involve what we call ‘support networks’, a rather bloodless, bureaucratic term for a combo of loving and caring elders and peers. You might guess from this the bonoboesque direction in which I’m heading.

Given what I’ve learned about bonobos over the years, I’m hardly surprised that childcare by bonobo non-parents is a normal part of bonobo life. An online article, linked below, describing research from the University of Oregon, bears this out. Here are some quotes:

“After studying bonobos for several years, I noticed that juveniles and adolescents were obsessed with the babies,” said Klaree Boose, an instructor in the UO Department of Anthropology. “They played with the babies and carried them around. It appeared to be more than just play behavior.”

“It is common in the wild to see infant bonobos be a focus of enormous interest to others, especially to adolescent bonobos,” White said. “It is often noticeable how bonobo mothers are willing to let others get close and interact with their infants, as compared to chimpanzees who are more restrictive.”

Initially, Boose observed that all juvenile bonobos, ages 3-7, were obsessed with handling the infants, all under age 3. As they entered adolescence, however, females continued to approach the mothers and help care for the infants, while males turned away in favour of other behaviours.

“Handling behaviour picked up among the female adolescents, and it was really intense,” Boose said. “They would approach the mothers, groom them briefly and then carry the babies away. They’d move across the enclosure, where they would engage in nurturing and other maternal behaviours with the infants, such as grooming and cradling them, putting them on their belly and carrying them on their back. These were very deliberate caretaking behaviors.”

Boose also found a hormonal link to her observations. Elevated levels of oxytocin — associated with complex social behaviors and social cognition, including maternal and caregiving activities — were common in urine samples collected after infant-handling activities. As young females interact with the infants, Boose said, increased oxytocin may reflect how the body reinforces caregiving activity or social bonding with mothers or infants.

Note that this is described as a very female thing. It isn’t clear from the article as to whether any adolescent carers of these infants were male, but I wishfully think they might have been. And I might draw from my own experience here. My mother gave birth to the last child of the family, extraordinarily enough, on my eighth birthday. This odd factoid had a seemingly profound maternal effect on me. I was fascinated by this baby, and more than happy to be his principal baby sitter, lullaby singer and rocker of the cradle. During the first year or so of his life, I doted on him, much to the relief and evident pleasure of my mother.

Whether or not bonobo males play much of a role in the raising of children, human males are doing a bit more of it in the WEIRD world, doubtless to the detriment of their testosterone levels. Here’s an interesting quote from ten years ago:

A record 8% of households with minor children in the United States are headed by a single father, up from just over 1% in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Decennial Census and American Community Survey data.

Of course the number of single mother households would be much higher and also rising. But it takes a village to raise a child – or, in the WEIRD world, a community, compleat with childcare services, kindergartens, Play School, Sesame Street and the like (the impact of disembodied social media on our culture – which we’re only just beginning to come to terms with – has been profound, and clearly not entirely beneficial). The ‘village’ that WEIRD children are currently exposed to seems in many ways to be a blooming, buzzing confusion, and yet they’re navigating it, for better or worse. The worry, at present, is that real physical contact is in danger of being replaced by gaming, texting and other forms of interaction that lack the throb and breath of that animal nature we seem at pains to deny. The term ‘remote learning’ is indicative, and of course there is more – online trading, virtual care services, artificial intelligence, the cloud, all of these developments seem to have swamped our reality in just a decade or so. In that sense, a bonobo humanity seems to be receding beyond the horizon.

And yet, it’s complicated. Bonobos are noted for sharing, and for closeness (to put it euphemistically). Humans are, I think, getting better at the sharing part, but not so much the closeness. The internet, for example, is a massive shared resource, with the potential to educate, entertain and enrich us beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations, without our ever having to rub our skin against another human for the best (or worst) part of a lifetime.

And speaking of skin, it’s something we’ve evolved to keep covered – for protection, for decoration, for privacy. Sometimes just for conformity. We’re the clothed ape, and few of us want to be thought of as less than that. All of this has more or less impelled us to develop a noli me tangere sensibility that has fuelled and been fuelled by religion – our bodies as temples must never be desecrated, and we alone can determine whether worship or desecration has occurred. And so, unlike bonobos with their close comforts, we’ve become more or less severe guardians of these decorated temples, proudly isolated, opened only to the most select of select of select few.

Perhaps this is all to the good? One of the first intellectuals I was exposed to as a youth was Sigmund Freud, with his concepts of polymorphous perversity and sublimation, and as a randy adolescent I took this to mean that we’re more filled with sexual thoughts and easily sexually stimulated in our youth, but as we mature our sexual impulses are harnessed and channelled into creative arty-sciencey endeavours. And was left to wonder whether I really wanted to grow up. Anyway, maybe we needed all this sublimation to uncover the secrets of the universe, to create marvels of engineering, wondrous art forms and financial empires (not to mention WMDs, mass slavery and the Cambodian and Congolese killing fields). What does love, or a bout of the touchy-feelies, have to do with it?

It’s a conundrum, and yet, I just can’t get those bonobo exemplars out of my mind…




The Rise of Single Fathers

Written by stewart henderson

September 25, 2023 at 9:41 pm

the big issue: monogamy, polygyny and bonoboism

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I think it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me. That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be…

Jacob Brackman/Carly Simon

And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When I was a young boy, my Mama said to me, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti’

Reckless Eric

glory days

Just the other day, a young woman very close to me was in a quandary about her boyfriend – though ‘quandary’ is too mild a word. She was very upset about what might be a permanent break-up. As part of their intimate chit-chat, he responded, presumably to her love declaration, with this remark: ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’.

Of course this response can hardly cover the whole nature of their relationship, but the fact that it was seen as less than satisfactory, indeed jeopardising the relationship’s future, has given me much food for thought – or rather, it has brought to mind issues that have obsessed me for a lifetime, an obsession that helps to explain my excitement at discovering, nearly four decades ago, bonobo culture.

I’m referring here to monogamy, and romantic love, modes of life and feeling that are essentially foreign to my favourite, and very loving, primate cousins.

It’s fascinatingly coincidental that, just as I found myself to be a sounding-board for my young friend, whom I dearly love, I’ve been reading Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, which deals with the cultural processes that broke down kinship connections and marriages (sororate and levirate), including polygynous marriages for elite males, in different global regions. This dissolution of long-standing kinship traditions was effected, not necessarily deliberately, through the edicts of the Church (Catholic) over many centuries in Western Europe, and was replaced by connections, including marriages, based on individual choice, shared interests and psychological compatibility. Other influences in other regions, such as China, had similar kinship-dissolving effects, though intensities have differed.

All of these transformations and modifications, though, have been within male-dominated societies. And, in the history we know most about, from the beginnings of agricultural society, there have been precious few female-dominated ones. And monogamy has been the norm, even if hedged around by clan and kinship expectations. Henrich puts it this way, while incidentally making perhaps the only reference to bonobos in his book:

From among our closest evolutionary relatives – apes and monkeys – guess how many species both live in large groups like Homo sapiens and have only monogamous pair bonding?

That’s right, zero. No group-living primates have the non-cultural equivalent of monogamous marriage. Based on the sex lives of our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, the ancestor we share with these apes was probably highly promiscuous and likely didn’t form pair bonds at all, let alone enduring, monogamous pair bonds. Nevertheless, since we diverged from our ape cousins, our species has evolved a specialised psychological suite – our pair-bonding psychology – that can foster strong emotional bonds between mates that remain stable for long enough to encourage men to invest in their mate’s children. This pair bonding psychology provides the innate anchor for marital institutions. However the nature of this anchor biases marital institutions toward polygynous pair bonding. In contrast, our innate mating psychology doesn’t usually favour widespread polyandrous mean marriage – that’s one wife with multiple husbands – although there are good evolutionary reasons to expect this to pop up at low frequencies in societies lacking prohibitions against it.

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, pp 258-9

Now, I’m a wee bit miffed here that bonobos etc are described as ‘non-cultural’, though of course they don’t have marriage, or language, or religion, quite. But the emergence of patriarchy, or possibly its intensifying as we trace our ancestry back to the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor) is still something of a mystery. Henrich’s analysis really only takes us back several millennia, at the very most. Bonobos are, in a sense, hunter-gatherers, and their diet has never included large game, so the relatively rare hunting events would’ve involved speed and dexterity more than brute strength. Bonobo matriarchy, if that’s what it is, appears to be an outcome of the female-female bonding that arguably comes more naturally to human females than to males.

The concept of property is key here. Think of the commandment – don’t covet your neighbour’s wife, or any other property belonging to him. Property emerged from the depths of time as very much a male thing – and so, polygyny as a status symbol. Henrich has an argument as to why polyandry never became much of a thing:

Our ‘polygyny bias’ arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his ‘fitness’. By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own foetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair bond with the most capable, resource full, and highest status man she could find by making clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could ‘run in parallel’ by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be ‘working’ on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 259

Henrich goes on to argue for the unsustainability of polygyny due to the lack of wives or breeding partners for low-status males in an increasingly hierarchical social system, but I should note here that bonobos have managed to develop a female-dominant culture despite all the issues of mothering, or most of the issues, faced by humans. Of course, they don’t have to worry about clothing, and shelter is less of a problem. ‘Cultural know-how’ is of course matched to species complexity – how to survive and thrive in their particular social world. In a talk given at Harvard, the linguist Daniel Everett defined culture thus (quoting from his own 2016 formulation):

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is only found in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviour of its members.

He also states in his talk that culture is always changing, and of course he’s talking about human culture. And this raises again the question of bonobo (or cetacean, or corvid) ‘culture’. We see our culture changing generationally – that’s to say, before or very eyes – but only a few centuries ago, as David Deutsch points out in The beginning of infinity, human culture, even in the WEIRD world, was much more static, and, although we don’t have clear evidence, it seems that Australian indigenous culture maintained itself largely unchanged for tens of millennia.

So, the way culture works depends a lot on context, and rapidity of change has much to do with interaction between and across cultures, due not just to immigration but, perhaps more importantly, to the rapid technological connections across the globe that have occurred since the middle of the 20th century,

Let me give you some of my personal story as an example. In the mid-sixties, as a kid of around ten, I was on a backyard swing listening to the radio blasting out, one after another, the five or so songs, all by the Beatles, that were topping the charts, in Australia and the other side of the world, at the time. I was thinking how vital and exciting those songs seemed to me in comparison to the hymns we were asked to sing at Sunday School. Over the next few years, the Beatles exchanged their matching suits and mop haircuts for long, wild hair, colourful eastern silks, beads and ‘love, man’. The ‘hippie generation’ seemed to explode into life. Free love and flower power, vaguely defined, were being spruiked everywhere, and songs referencing revolution – by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Thunderclap Newman, Barry McGuire and others – all gave the impression of a world turning upside-down. Caught up in the zeitgeist, I let my hair grow as long as it could, wore my older sister’s cast-off blouses and jackets, became a massive Bowie fan and reflected obsessively on gender-bending, marriage and monogamy.

The marriage and monogamy issues exercised me most, as my parents, it seemed, had trapped themselves in a loveless marriage which only came to an end shortly after I left home at eighteen. And because my mother was very much the head of our household, and because my sister was as strong-willed as my mother, feminism was also a major theme. We lived in a household full of books, with a library just down the road, so I was able to escape into a less fraught intellectual world. One book that greatly exercised me was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Children of the Dream, about the Jewish kibbutz system. While I was too young to understand much of the analysis, the very fact that there was a radical alternative to my form of upbringing hugely exercised me. I imagined the kibbutz system to be something like bonoboism long before I’d ever heard of those treasured apes.

Also, because our family had moved to Australia from Scotland when I was five, we’d pretty well dispensed with broader kinship connections, making us particularly WEIRD. It was all about ‘elective affinities’, as Goethe put it, and in fact I read his book of that title as a young person, probably due to the WEIRD title, though I found the content rather baffling. I was trying to tease out the differences between sexual attraction, love, and affinity, if they existed. I recall reading, I think in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, of this made-up love obsession which was enough to drive us mad. I had felt it myself of course. How could I feel so intensely about this girl I barely knew? How could a way of walking, a flicker of hands, make me feel that some force had reached into my heart and squeezed it, making me stagger and look round to see if anyone had noticed? And then later I learned of hormones – phenylethylamine and cortisol running wild, triggering the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, toxins of hope and their antidotes – all the result of unbidden thought, or something like…

Then of course, the world must be peopled, and we’ve done an all too brilliant job at that. As Henrich’s research indicates, with the agricultural revolution more or less complete in many parts of the human world around 8,000 years ago, property and its associated prestige led to an increasingly hierarchical, and patriarchal society – mostly monogamous, but then nothing displays male power more than possession of a bevy of the brightest and most beautiful as breeding partners. It’s worth noting just how extreme this ‘sexual prestige’ system became in some parts of the world. Here’s Henrich again:

In the South Pacific at the time of European contact, Tongan chiefs had a few high-ranking wives, who helped solidify alliances with other powerful families, and a few hundred secondary wives. In Africa, Ashante and Zulu kings each had 1000 or more wives. However, these are just the paramount chiefs or kings; there was usually a fleet of lesser elites who maintained smaller harems for themselves. Zande kings, for example each had more than 500 wives, but their chiefs also each maintained about 30 or 40 wives, and sometimes as many as 100. In Asia, things were even more extreme: medieval Khmer kings in Cambodia possessed five elite wives and several thousand secondary wives who were themselves graded into various classes…

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 261

And so on. However, this kind of extreme, and graded, polygyny was barely sustainable as it led to a multitude of aggrieved, partnerless males at the bottom of the pyramid, ripening for rebellion. The ‘European contact’ Henrich mentions here would’ve added to the pressures on this ultra-polygynous situation. These European colonisers, or conquerors, would’ve been keen to impose the True Religion wherever they went, and with it the proto-WEIRD values of the time. Today, in post-colonial Africa and Asia, there is a fluctuating and often awkward and barely workable mix of WEIRD and clan-based values and lifestyles, which likely contribute to the political instability we often find in these regions.

Meanwhile, in more established WEIRD nations, nothing is static. Only a little over a century ago, no woman could vote in any ‘democratic’ country, of which there were very few in any case. Female political leaders are still rare, though a little less rare in the last fifty years than the previous fifty. Perhaps the biggest change in relatively recent times has been in female education and employment, which is slowly changing the scientific, legal and business landscape. Arguably women, by and large (there are plenty of exceptions), are less interested in hierarchical than collaborative enterprises, and their growing input will lead to a gradual improvement in political decision-making, international relations and less adversarial approaches to business and the law…

And as for monogamy – okay, ‘free love’ hasn’t taken off as I thought it might, but at the same time, things aren’t as they were in the fifties and before. Single parenthood has been on the rise for decades in the WEIRD world, for males as well as for females, and though the supports available aren’t quite as nurturing as those available for bonobos, they’re enough to enable a ‘normal’, stigma-free childhood. The concept of illegitimate children is more or less dead, and maybe one day the notion of illegitimate immigrants will go the same way. Passports and visas are a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise, and they may turn out to be fleeting in the long run, especially with the advent of climate migration in the now foreseeable future. All of this, and a recognition that we’re all in this together as a culpable species, will be better facilitated by a more caring, less combative attitude to our fellows, human and non-human.

Taken all in all, women are the better angels of our human nature. Yes, we’ve moved very very far from our bonobo cousins, and we regularly and even obsessively pat ourselves on the back for that. But all of our best instincts tell us that collaboration, mutual appreciation, and recognition of ourselves in others, including other species, are key, not to just our survival, but to our thriving in a richer, more sustainable environment.


Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020

Bruno Bettelheim,The children of the dream, 1970

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the underground, 1864

Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am

a shallow dive into economics, and the discovery of a (possible) heroine

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Shemara Wikramanayake, speaking at the G20 International Conference on Climate

Don’t know much about economics, to put it mildly, being constitutionally work-shy and generally impoverished in a rich country, so it seems absurd for me to occasionally buy and try to make sense of Britain’s internationally focussed mag, The Economist. To be fair to myself, it does have many interesting articles on international politics, reminding me that the bizarreries of the USA and our domestic difficulties re housing and mortgages (in Australia) are far from the most-life threatening issues on the planet. But when it comes to bond markets, IPOs, floaters, monetary policy and the like, I defer to the cognoscenti while suffering a touch of FOMO.

So, with all that, I’m going to present here an almost incomprehensible (to me) letter to the editor from the August 26 2023 issue, entitled ‘Do we need banks?’

I’m not sure what part of David Apgar’s piece on narrow banking was the most entertaining (‘By Invitation’, August 12). The idea that the ‘Chicago Plan’ was conceived with ‘the Depression fresh in mind’ must be viewed as quite original. However, almost equally amusing was Mr Apgar’s suggestion that bank lending ‘fuels credit to enterprising businesses’, when he realises that the problem with Silicon Valley Bank was that it had invested an awful lot of money in notes issued by the Federal Reserve, supposedly also to fuel commerce (and thus revealing the mockery underlying quantitative easing).

None of this has anything to do with supporting ‘enterprising businesses’ that increase prosperity. Banking is doing something else. Banks should go out and make money from the people who deposit money, assuming that they will keep it safe. Instead they are admonished to multiply paying services offered to those who trust them, and still go bankrupt. Do we need the banks or do the banks need us? And if the latter, then why do we need the banks?

I can’t really make sense of much of this, but the writer’s final ‘killer punch’ is surely ridiculous. We needed and used banks in the past because it was unsafe to keep our money ‘under the bed’ or stuffed in oversized wallets. Nowadays WEIRD society is pretty well cashless and we pay with cards or phones electronically connected to our bank accounts. How would we manage without this? And banks need us to pay for their staff, their buildings etc. Think mutual providence(?).

Of course, as someone who has never taken out a loan in my life, I was clueless about how banks make profits. And the fact is, some banks make eye-watering profits. The CEO of the ‘Macquarie Group’ (whatever that means, but I presume it includes the Macquarie Bank which I think is an investment bank, meaning it has nothing to do with me), one Shemara Wikramanayake, earned just under $24 million in the 2022 financial year, presumably due to the profitability of the ‘Group’ she heads. This is an obscene amount of money, and I find it hard to believe she lives on the same planet as myself. Her Wikipedia profile presents her and her ‘Group’ as a heavy hitter in the financing of low carbon emissions technologies, which is great, but I just don’t understand such super-massive wealth disparities…

Having said all that, my hope in starting this piece was to try and understand the concept of quantitative easing, without the apparent cynicism of the letter quoted above (its author tells us that banking ‘is doing something else’ other than supporting enterprising businesses, inferring of course that ‘banking’ is out to make money for itself, which of course is necessarily true, otherwise it wouldn’t have the funds to continue supporting other enterprising businesses). Here’s how Forbes puts it:

Quantitative easing—QE for short—is a monetary policy strategy used by central banks like the Federal Reserve. With QE, a central bank purchases securities in an attempt to reduce interest rates, increase the supply of money and drive more lending to consumers and businesses. The goal is to stimulate economic activity during a financial crisis and keep credit flowing.

Which leads me to further questions – what’s a ‘central bank’, what are ‘securities’, and what is monetary policy’? I’m sure I’ve heard somewhen that it’s the opposite of fiscal policy but that don’t help much.

I’m guessing that the ‘Federal Reserve’ is the USA’s equivalent of our RBA (the Reserve Bank of Australia):

‘We conduct monetary policy, determine payments system policy, work to maintain a stable financial system, issue the nation’s banknotes, operate the core of the payments system and provide banking services to the government’.

Looks like it’ll take me a while to get to QE, but safly safly catchee monkey. Here’s the RBA again:

In Australia, monetary policy involves influencing interest rates to affect aggregate demand, employment and inflation in the economy. It is one of the main economic policies used to stabilise business cycles.

Of course, I’ve heard of the RBA raising/lowering interest rates, and this affects both savings and loans, obviously. But why does this have to be fixed nationally, why can’t banks fix their own rates and let the customer decide which bank to go with? And is it necessary for private banks to follow the RBA’s decisions? (From what I’ve gleaned they don’t have to but generally keep close to the RBA’s settings). And how do interest rates affect ‘aggregate demand’ (defined as ‘the total demand for goods and services within a particular market’)? Does anybody really understand all this – apart from the magnificently named Shemara Wikramanayake?

I must admit to having only a modicum of interest (careful with that word) in the minutiae of economics, but at least my teeny research has brought to mind Ms Wikramanayake as a rare female in the world of financial movers and shakers. She’s Australia’s highest paid CEO due to the profitability of the Group she heads. Obviously I can’t speak to the economics of that, or any attached ethical issues relating to such massive profits, but these profits appear to be related largely to industries and start-ups in the field of renewable, clean energy. In a world of too many macho anti-feminist thugs like Putin, Xi and those who govern Iran, Burma and too many other countries, we need more positive, future-facing, can-do types like her.

I might actually return to trying to understand QE, corporate bonds and the like, in later posts, but maybe not.


The Economist, 26/8 – 1/9/2023



Written by stewart henderson

September 11, 2023 at 9:25 am

global warming worries

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Gaia Vince strikes me as a positive type, as opposed to an optimist. An optimist, as I see it, is someone who just feels that the future will be better than the past – that ‘something will turn up’ – while a positivist (not of the logical type) explores and promotes solutions, generally with the requisite realism – nary a solution that doesn’t entail its own problems.

Nomad Century is a remarkable book, which tries to pack as many possible solutions to the global warming situation as possible in a couple of hundred pages, while recognising that the situation is already serious enough to warrant collaborative international action to support the most vulnerable, who are also largely the most innocent in terms of creating the crisis. In this post I’ll try to summarise these ideas and solutions, principally for my own referential purposes.

  1. Migration

Our history is all about migration. I’m a migrant. Nations, borders, passports and visas are ultra-modern phenomena. Migration has brought helpful genetic input to receiving populations. Clearly we will not bring global warming to less than 1.5c before 2050, probably not even close. We have a responsibility to help those who will increasingly suffer from drought, flooding and fire in coming decades. And while migration is generally a benefit to all, in spite of xenophobic attitudes, planned migration will be much more successful. The United Nations, and other international organisations that have some heft in the world, need to step up as the situation worsens. We need to recall that global society is entirely reliant on movement – of goods. Australia was once a hub of manufacturing. I know, it provided me with employment for much of my youth. Now those goods, including motor vehicles, are pretty much entirely imported, while we rely on exports, mostly of iron ore, coal and gas, to China, Japan and other Asian countries. International trade has expanded muchly in recent decades, creating levels of interdependence never before seen, and yet we tend to be obsessed with guarding our borders. To quote Vince:

As humanity faces its greatest environmental challenge – a population of 10 billion people, resource limitations, and a demographic crisis – we should not be handicapping ourselves by limiting our most important survival tool. We will only meet our global challenges through planned and extensive human movement and redistribution…. we need lawful, safe, planned and facilitated migration.

2. Population

I recall as a kid reading, probably in an out-of-date textbook, that our human population was around 3 billion. In fact we got to one billion early in the 19th century, after some 300,000 years of existence. The World Population Clock now has it at a little over 8 billion, and it will certainly be over 9 billion by mid-century. However, in most WEIRD nations the growth is slow or negative, while nations such as Niger and South Sudan have much higher birth rates. This raises issues around ageing populations, which could be balanced by immigration.

In 2008 the world population became officially more urban than rural, and internal migration to cities continues apace. Cities and their governance and future planning are thus becoming an increasingly vital factor in climate change mitigation. With effective collaboration within and between urban centres, solutions to urban problems re pollution and carbon emissions can be multiplied and shared. The greening of cities is often seen as a benefit in itself, which citizens of differing ideologies can get behind. Environmentalist writer Ihni Jon quotes city planners in Darwin:

We’re trying to create a more pleasant environment in the city for people to roam around and hang out more, which could help the economy of our city. ‘Creating a pleasant condition’, or ‘creating a destination’, has become the motivator for planners to be engaged more with nature and the environment in general.

Then again, the question needs to be asked – how bearable will the environment be in a city like Darwin in the second half of this century? Today is the first official day of spring in Australia, and it has just been announced that the winter just completed was the warmest since records have been kept. And so it goes.

3. Decarbonisation

Everybody is talking about this, but fossil fuel emissions continue to increase. As Vaclav Smil tells us clearly in How the world really works, we’re far from finding ‘replacement’ energy for air travel, shipping and agriculture. Our agriculture industry has been revolutionised since the early 1900s by the mass-production of ammonia (NH3), As the Climate Portal puts it:

…ammonia has to be made at a high pressure under high temperatures—meaning it takes a lot of energy to manufacture. Most of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and methane gas, which give off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change.

CO2 emissions from ammonia production make up between 1% and 2% of the whole. Emissions from agriculture in general make up around 12%, while a little over 14% comes from transportation. Arguably the sector that can most ‘easily’ be transformed is the ‘general energy’ sector – households and businesses using fossil fuel-based electricity, and gas, for heating, cooling and multitudinous appliances. But we’re a long way from making inroads even in this sector, and we’ve only just managed, more or less, to convince the general population that global warming is a real thing with serious consequences for the biosphere.

With the human population very much on the rise, and the ongoing quest to raise living standards for all, the pressure is on to find solutions. Nuclear fission is an option, and it’s disappointing to note the degree of misinformation around this technology. Australia would be a better location than most, but there seems little public appetite here, perhaps because our climate and open spaces are so well suited to solar. Much has been reported about small modular reactors (SMRs):

The term SMR refers to the size, capacity and modular construction only, not to the reactor type and the nuclear process which is applied. Designs range from scaled down versions of existing designs to generation IV designs. Both thermal-neutron reactors and fast-neutron reactors have been proposed, along with molten salt and gas cooled reactor models.

Again, the appetite just doesn’t seem to be there, and nuclear fusion, which I’ve recently written about, looks to be far into the future still.

Lifestyle change, in terms of what we eat, how we build or refit our homes, and how we recycle our waste, will help, but not enough. A sense of urgency is rising among the cognoscenti, but with the world so divided in other areas (Russia, China, Iran, the USA, etc), it may take a real kick up the biospheric arse (a devastating El Niño?) to wake us up to truly collective action. Meanwhile, we may need to loosen our cherished borders a bit to help those already affected by global warming.

There are some interesting techno-solutions I’ve half-learned about through reading Nomad Century, and I’ll try to learn more about them via a future post.


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Ihni Jon, Cities in the Anthropocene, 2021


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2023 at 8:50 pm

Thoughts on energy – crisis and survival

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coal-fired power plant, Germany

Recently I was talking to my language group about climate change, or global warming as I prefer to call it, and I uttered the deepity that heat equals energy, and I even wrote it up on the whiteboard as an ‘equation’ of sorts.

I was making the simple but important point that stuff in the environment, particularly air and water, moves around faster when heated up, just as it slows down when cooled, or frozen, the reason why freezers and fridges are so useful. So from an environmental perspective, heat means more volatility, more movement, more action, like a pot of water on the stove, which can be pretty disastrous for the biosphere.

Useful enough as far as it goes, but of course there’s much more to energy than this. I’m reading, inter alia, How the world really works, by Vaclav Smil, the first chapter of which is titled ‘Understanding energy’. He quotes Richard Feynman:

It is important to understand that in physics today we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity, and when we add it all together it gives… always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it doesn’t tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.

V Smil, How the world really works, p23

Energy is something we get from something, something that is energetic, like our sun. Water falling down a waterfall has kinetic energy, or gravitational energy. Plants absorb energy from the sun to fuel a super-complex process called photosynthesis, described in detail in Oliver Morton’s Eating the sun, one of the most intellectually demanding books I’ve ever read. We’ve discovered, over the past few centuries, that fossilised plant material, starting with coal, is a rich source of energy, much richer than wooden logs set alight. 

We started to get a ‘modern’ sense of energy through the development of physical laws. Newton’s second law of motion is key here. It basically states that the acceleration of an object (a state of disequilibrium) is due to an unbalanced force, and this acceleration is dependent upon the object’s mass and the force acting upon it. This three-way relationship is usually presented as F = m.a, or a = F/m. Or, as Smil puts it:

Using modern scientific units, 1 joule is the force of 1 newton – that is, the mass of 1 kilogram accelerated by 1 m/s² acting over a distance of I metre. 

Needless to say, this isn’t how people without training in physics think of energy. The ‘capacity for doing work’ is one way of putting it – and J C Maxwell tried a physical definition of work as ‘[an] act of producing a change of configuration in a system in opposition to a force which resists that change’. 

Whether or not it can be described as work, energy surely changes stuff. The energy of the sun not only changes plants (photosynthesis) but also our oceans and lakes (evaporation), and the make-up of the sun itself (nuclear fusion). 

And living things expend energy in doing work – to obtain and consume food (other living things) to provide energy to go on living and working. And over time we humans have evolved to look for and find ways to obtain more energy via less work. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we’ve evolved ways of doing this, as a collective species, more effectively and successfully than any other living thing, and at the expense of many other living things.   

This is a bit of a problem for us. Unlike other living things, we know that we’re totally reliant on the biosphere that we dominate. That our survival and thriving depends upon the living stuff that we kill. And much of that stuff – grains, legumes, fungi, root vegetables, as well as poultry, fish, lambs and cattle – we bring to life for the sole purpose of killing them, in multi-billion dollar industries. And yet we must eat, and we really enjoy doing so, or are habituated, in an affluent society, to mix with others in interactions associated with food. We’ve certainly gone beyond thoughts, in the WEIRD world, that we must eat to stave off starvation, or to top up our energy.  

We require energy for other things. Travel, thought, conversation, exploration, domination. And this has required more ‘efficient’ forms of energy. More output for less input (at least from we humans). Outsourcing work to machines, fuelled by non-human sources of energy.

How we came to understand that fossil deposits – first coal, then crude oil, then methane or ‘natural gas’ – could be exploited as seemingly limitless energy sources requires a separate blog post, and involves many individual contributors, both theoretical and practical. And in exploiting that energy we didn’t realise, or much care, that it might come at a cost. We rode that energy bonanza, and the human population rose from one billion, ‘achieved’ in the middle of the 19th century, to 8 billion today, and counting, with a billion added every 13 years at current rates. 

This has been very successful, in the short term. I used to think about this with the analogy of bacteria in a Petri dish, multiplying exponentially, then collapsing spectacularly when all the nutrients are consumed. But we’re not bacteria, and the nutrient situation in a Petri dish bears little comparison to that of our evolving, dynamic biosphere. We, as a species, have evolved the capability of adapting to transformations to our environment, of our own making, in order to survive those transformations – by transforming those transformations. That’s what we do. Indeed that’s what we must do, to survive, and thrive.

I’m not extolling our virtues here. My view re humanity, FWIW, lies somewhere between the ‘beginning of infinity’ all-conquering optimism of David Deutsch and the eternal-present ‘seeing’ of John Gray (Straw Dogs). We plan for our future because we want to endure, and unlike other species, we know that there is a future, a human future, beyond our individual selves. And we want that future to be successful, whatever that means. 

So, returning to energy – can we find ways to transform our energy supply so that we can sustain ourselves while minimising the damage to the web of other life? At present, we’re having no problems multiplying our own species, but other species, apart from those we’ve learned to exploit for food, are diminishing and disappearing. And yet, there’s much talk of the value of human diversity. 

I’ve written about energy futures elsewhere. The continuing exploration and development of nuclear fusion, improvements in fission technology, improving the energy efficiency and versatility of solar panels and surfaces, developments in materials science, recycling technologies and so on. All of this is important, and often exciting. We also have to refocus our energy sources to be less exploitative of other species – less reproduction for slaughter, which is not only unnecessarily cruel but also wasteful of land and other resources, especially for large grazing and consuming species. Gaia Vince reports on the ‘fake meat’ business that I’ve written about in the past:

Producers are using biotechnology to create fake meats that bleed like beef – the Impossible Burger is made from a soy protein with a yeast that has been genetically modified to produce leghaemoglobin, an iron-carrying molecule like haemoglobin that gives the burger its meaty bloodiness. However most of what we enjoy about meat is the taste and aroma of the Maillard chemical reaction: this is the fusion of sugars and amino acids that occurs when the food browns during cooking. This can now be convincingly replicated with plant-based molecules.

G Vince, Nomad century, p161

According to a report cited by Vince, ‘within 15 years the rise of cell-based meat will bankrupt the US’s beef industry, at the same time removing the need to grow soya and maize for feed’. Sounds a bit optimistic, but watch this space. 

Clearly the future for us, and for a healthy, diverse biosphere, depends on a transformation of our energy production and use. And to be fair to our collective selves we need to help and protect those who are suffering most from our impact on the biosphere, a suffering disproportionately felt by those who’ve had the least impact. My guess is that the transformation will come, but too late for too many. We’re great survivors, but terribly selfish. 


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Written by stewart henderson

August 28, 2023 at 9:13 am

origins of human patriarchy, and where we may go from here

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The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world … The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx

In a sense we [Beauvoir & Sartre] both lacked a real family, and we had elevated this contingency into a principle.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life


I’m not a historian, or an anthropologist, or a palaeontologist, or a primatologist, though I’ve taken in many shreds of those subjects, all of which might help to illuminate the mystery of patriarchy, the default state of the vast majority of human cultures throughout the period of sapiens existence – as far as we’re able to tell. Of course, we’ve been around for some 300,000 years, according to the most recent findings, but we don’t really know much about our socio-sexual relations beyond the last 10,000 years – or 20,000 at the outside. And there are so many mysteries – the beginning of human language, for example, which I imagine as originating in a complexifying amalgam of gesture and sound. And the beginnings of the notion of possession and property, which, in terms of male possession of females, can be seen in gorillas, lions (though the females do the hunting, and are no shrinking violets), chimps, baboons and, arguably, orangutans (which are largely solitary). Female dominant species include elephants and orcas (and of course bonobos), some of the smartest and most communally successful species on the planet.

How did H sapiens, and H neanderthalensis, organise themselves socio-sexually, say 50,000 years ago? I mention Neanderthals because I’m nearing the end of Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ extraordinarily rich and detailed book on the subject, which makes little or no mention, even speculatively, on gender roles. What I did find was a great deal of focus on lithics and tool-making, which we tend to associate with males, though I see no reason why females would not be engaged in this activity in earlier times.

A blog piece I’ve discovered (linked below) argues that the size difference between male and female humans has been diminishing over the millennia. This has certainly been the case in the WEIRD world over the past few decades, when every human and her dog has become overweight (he wrote while downing another chardonnay with his pizza). This piece also argues for different roles (but not necessarily in a hierarchical sense) for the sexes based on consistently different teeth wear at numerous Neanderthal sites over thousands of years across the length and breadth of Eurasia.

Travel forward to the historical period – the period starting with the development and dissemination of writing – and we encounter a god-besotted world. Some of the first inscriptions we find are the names of gods, and it’s also notable that these early gods – Anu (Sumerian), Ra (Egyptian), Marduk (Babylonian), Brahma (Hindustani) and Zeus (Greek), were male. There were of course female gods, and ‘households’ of gods, but the principal deity was male, an indication that patriarchy was well established throughout the literate world a few millennia ago. It was also a world full of warfare, violence and mind-boggling cruelty, both within and between ‘states’. If you require evidence, read the first hundred pages or so of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s massive work The World: a family history. It should silence the critics of Pinker’s ‘better angels of our nature’ thesis, but it probably won’t. And with the odd notable exception, the warfare and slaughter was carried out by males. It’s interesting to remind myself that while all the horrors of Shalmaneser, Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Ying Zheng, Sulla, Caesar and countless other warlords were being perpetrated, bonobos were doing their merry thing south of the Congo River, far from that madding crowd. And just north of that river, chimps were doing their small share of squabbling and killing.

Getting back to religion, the European success of the Roman Empire, and its eventual ‘capture’ by Christian monotheism, marked the beginning of the WEIRD world, according to Joseph Henrich. As he points out, the Catholic Church, which over time created a five-tiered male hierarchy of popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests, was essentially the Christian Church, or simply the Church, from the fourth century CE to the reformation of the 16th century. During that time, Henrich persuasively argues, the Church transformed the world over which it held sway in subtle but significant ways, often to enrich and further empower itself. The key to that transformation was the Church’s marriage and family program (MFP). To be clear, this wasn’t a program drawn up by a Church Committee some time in the fourth century. There was nothing pre-meditated about it, and the result was in no way predicted, but it arguably set the foundations for the WEIRD values espoused today.

One key to all this was to break down the generally inward-facing kinship relationships of pre-Christian Eurasia. Before the Church’s interventions, linguistic and ethnic groups generally behaved in decidedly unWEIRD ways, but ways that are still found in regions dotted around the globe. Henrich provides an open-ended list:

  1. People lived enmeshed in kin-based organisations within tribal groups or networks. Extended family households were part of larger kin-groups (clans, houses, lineages, etc), some of which were called sippen (Germanic) or septs (Celtic).
  2. Inheritance and postmarital residence had patrilineal biases; people often lived in extended patrilineal households, and wives often moved to live with their husbands’ kinfolk.
  3. Many kinship units collectively owned or controlled territory. Even when individual ownership existed, kinfolk often retained inheritance rights such that lands couldn’t be sold or otherwise transferred without the consent of relatives.
  4. Large kin-based organisations provided individuals with both their legal and their social identities. Disputes within kin-groups were adjudicated internally, according to custom. Corporate responsibility meant that intentionality sometimes played little role in assigning punishments or levying fines for disputes between kin-groups.
  5. Kin-based organisations provided members with protection, insurance and security. These organisations cared for sick, injured, and poor members, as well as the elderly.
  6. Arranged marriages with relatives were customary, as were marriage payments like dowry or bride price (where the groom or his family pays for the bride).
  7. Polygynous marriages were common for high-status men. In many communities, men could pair with only one ‘primary’ wife, typically someone of roughly equal status, but could then add secondary wives, usually of lower social status
                 Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, pp 162-3

Henrich then presents a table of Church decrees, beginning in the fourth century and becoming more extreme as it increased its power, outlawing as incest marriage even up to sixth cousins, as well as with in-laws (sororate and levirate marriage). Marriage with non-Christians was also proscribed, and the Church enforced its own role as mandatory for officiating at marriages, ‘Christenings’ and the like. In fact the term ‘in-law’ derives from Canon Law as it was used to ‘officially’ order human relationships. These increasingly strict laws could sometimes be bent or broken through the payment of ‘Indulgences’, but it’s clear that many Church leaders came to believe their own propaganda, which they would back up with whatever scriptural passages they could find.

The power of Church laws, which determined the very legitimacy of human lives, was brought home to me as an adolescent reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, in which Tess Durbeyfield, a simple country girl of Wessex, is impregnated by Alex d’Urberville, an upper-class rake, and is refused permission to christen the dying child, born ‘out of wedlock’, so that she has to bury the boy herself, beyond church grounds – just the start of Tess’s ordeals. I remember feeling both shattered by Tess’s sufferings and contemptuous of the behaviour of Christians and the absurd concept of ‘illegitimacy’. By Hardy’s time, England had become decidedly anti-Catholic, but the Church had done its work in determining the very bona fides of human existence, work which has only been undone in recent times, thanks to pioneering humanists like Thomas Hardy.

It’s probably reasonable to assume that the Church’s aim in all this was to extend its power, and that the development of ‘love’ based marriage, or a union based on common interests, was an unintended consequence. Certainly the Church’s proscriptions released individuals from earlier kin-based responsibilities, and left them free to choose partners based on mutual attraction. It also widened individuals’ sense of allegiance from kinship groups to like-minded political, social, work-based and even sporting associations.

Another unintended consequence was the lessening of patriarchal control, via patrilineal kinship relations – somewhat ironic given the highly patriarchal nature of the Church. The choosing of partners on the basis of mutual interests smacked – shock, horror – of gender equality. This has led, ultimately, but really inevitably, to the choosing of partners of the same gender. And the reduced power of the Catholic Church – even amongst avowed Catholics, strangely enough, at least in moral issues – has led to a world of ‘cultural Catholics’ or ‘cafeteria Catholics’, who seem to be only in it for the pomp and circumstance, or a certain degree of camaraderie.

It seems weird that the WEIRD world, which is becoming weirder with its acceptance of or creation of a broadening range of sexual sub-types – agender, cisgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, intersex, gender nonconforming, and transgender – might owe its origins to the Church, but somehow it seems fitting to me. Meanwhile, priestly paedophilia seems to have been largely a consequence of that Church’s own bizarre and inhuman anti-sex restrictions on its trained messengers of the Holy Spirit. It has been weakened by the ensuing scandals – another small blow to patriarchy. Patriarchy didn’t of course originate with the Church, nor can its defeat, if that ever comes, be sheeted home to its capitalising edicts. The WEIRD world’s intelligentsia, and increasingly its leadership, has been freed from the narrow confines of religion and patriarchy into a more accurate understanding of humanity, its origins in the biosphere, and its capacities. But I admit to being impatient with the pace of change. If we don’t see a larger and more dominant role for the female of the species, and soon, the future looks grim.


Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 2020

The WEIRDest people in the world, Joseph Henrich, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2023 at 11:20 am

soccer bonoboism leads the way

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I’m writing this on the day that Australia plays England in the FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final, and I’ve been a soccer aficionado, and mediocre player, from my earliest youth, when no such competition for women existed. In fact the women’s game had a rather messy start internationally in the 1970s, when many countries first ‘permitted’ women to play the game. The first fully-fledged FIFA World Cup was held in 1991, and the women’s game has caught on rapidly since then, with soccer now registering as the most popular sport for women in this country. The current competition, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, was being judged the most successful in its brief history before even the halfway point was reached.

All of this is intrinsically interesting to me of course, but it also allows me to expatiate once more on female-male differences and the advantages of a female-dominated WEIRD future.

But before continuing, I’d like to reflect on the ‘WEIRD’ acronym. I adopted it some time ago without giving it too much thought, as a semi-useful term encountered in my readings, somewhat synonymous with the terms ‘Western’ and ‘First World’ (as opposed to ‘Third World’, but I’ve no idea what happened to the Second one). None of these terms really fit, and as for WEIRD, ‘western’ seems meaningless in global terms, ‘educated’ depends on the type of education being posited, but literacy and numeracy would be included, and a modicum of scientific knowledge, and some analytic skills. ‘Industrial’ now quite likely refers to more or less post-industrial societies such as Australia, and ‘democratic’ might even include such quasi-democracies as the USA. Yet the term does have some value, as long as you don’t scrutinise it too closely, and its currency influenced me to buy and, so far, learn much from Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest people in the world, an exploration of the generally more individualist, non-clan, non-lineage based world it refers to, and its recent history of success. So that’s my excuse.

So the first point I would make re women’s soccer compared to the men’s game, is an elaboration of an earlier point I’ve made about women hugging and men shaking hands when meeting or parting. This is on a spectrum of course but there’s no doubt that women are more often huggers and men shakers. The World Cup is of course the most high-stakes soccer tournament there is, so the competition is especially fierce, with every game after the group stage being ‘winner take all’. And very few players will get to  play in such a tournament twice, so losing isn’t a viable option. It’s been remarked on more than once how often the winners in this year’s tournament have huddled together with the losers, comforting and supporting them in their despair. Of course it’s only a game and all, but it’s just an addition to the multifarious examples of women supporting women, in matters great and small. Not that the games themselves aren’t fiercely competitive, with fouls aplenty, but generally without the biffo that sometimes spoils the male game, both on the field and among the supporters.

I also note that the game has helped to normalise female-female sexual relations, as one might expect in a microcosm in which females dominate – a bonobo humanity, so to speak. Of course, it’s a tiny-teeny microcosm, but it’s growing, and it’s getting more attention worldwide. All of this is a good, for more than just soccer.

Australia lost its semi-final, but let’s embrace the cliché, soccer, and female empowerment, is the winner.



Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020


Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2023 at 10:08 am

on religion, secularism, tolerance and women

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Over the years, I’ve read, listened to and encountered non-religious people defending religions and the religious in the name of tolerance, decency, human rights and more. A non-religious philosophy tutor once told the discussion group that I was a member of that western morality was based on Christianity. This claim appeared to be made as a criticism of the ‘new atheist’ movement that was prevalent at the time (some 15 or so years ago). I found it to be highly dubious on its face, so I engaged in a ‘deep dive’ into the key texts of Christianity – the so-called gospels, the purported reportage of the life, actions and teachings of Jesus, the son of the Judeao-Christian or Abrahamic god. Did these most basic Christian texts provide a coherent moral system for the western world, or even the barest framework of such a system?

Needless to say, I found no such thing, nor did I find any evidence that the gospel authors had ever even met the central figure in Christianity, Jesus. Whether such a person ever existed is a question with no clear answer. Jesus was a relatively common name at the time, a period which provides no written records of the existence of individuals outside of monarchs, governors and the like. Much research has explored the production and dating of the gospels, which were not contemporaneous with the life of their subject, who was said to have been crucified sometime between 30 and 40 AD (it doesn’t help that our current dating system is based on his conjectured birth). My writings on the subject (about a dozen blog posts, referenced below) were, as with most of my writings, a kind of self-education project. Amongst my gleanings were that the different gospels were inconsistent, both internally and compared to each other, and included interpolations from as late as the third or fourth century AD.

Let me focus briefly on one gospel example, the so-called ‘woman taken in adultery’ in John 8 (3-11), since it’s all about a topic of interest, the treatment of women. It’s now generally accepted as a later interpolation, but it’s still useful in terms of its lack of context – a problem with most gospel anecdotes. In modern jurisprudence, and modern (WEIRD) morality, context is absolutely essential. This is explored in much detail in Joseph Henrich’s book The weirdest people in the world, in which motive, intention, effect and a host of other factors are included in our judgment and appraisal of others.

So here is the story, from the ‘New Revised Standard Version’ of the Bible:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,4 they said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

So this is where we need to add, if we can, the context lacking in the story. For example, what does ‘caught in the act of adultery’ mean here? And indeed, what does ‘woman’ mean? It’s well established that, in this region, at this time, females were sold into marriage on a regular basis. Furthermore, these females were often – in fact customarily – children as young as ten, or younger, and once married, they were referred to as ‘women’.

But we hardly need to go into detail to recognise that adultery is here quite undefined, that stoning to death for this or any other crime is disproportionate to say the least, and that it’s highly unlikely that a man would be threatened with the same punishment as the ‘woman’ is in this case.

This of course isn’t an isolated anecdote – all of the parables, speeches and actions of Jesus, as described, lack  the contextual elements we would need to arrive at the kinds of judgments expected of us in the WEIRD world.

Then again, it might be argued that the proscriptions enumerated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 2-17) are a better starting point for western or WEIRD morality. Yet while it’s hardly surprising that lying, stealing and killing fellow humans would be offensive to an omnipotent god who wants to see his prize creations behaving nicely, it does seem odd that he should be so concerned about his own position in their lives that he must have their love more or less constantly (second commandment). It suggests a degree of insecurity not quite in keeping with omnipotence. The tenth commandment, too, strikes a flat note to a WEIRD individual keen to promote a bonobo humanity, as it speaks against coveting one’s neighbour’s wife along with other property items. It’s a bald reminder, as if one needed it after reading Genesis, etc, that this god is definitively male.

The whole point here is that, if western or WEIRD morality emerged from Christianity or the Bible, which to some extent is true, it needs to also be pointed out that the Bible and its ‘gospels’ are human documents. The Pentateuch was written five or six hundred years before the putative birth of Jesus, and was arguably the first successful creation of an omnipotent, controlling god, designed to unite a tribe or people as ‘special’ and chosen, while seeking to explain the origin of the world in which they lived (though of course its creation myths were derived from earlier versions).  The god’s concern, through the commandments – or rather the concern of the Jewish leaders and authors who wrote them, was to unite and separate the Jewish people in the context of a multi-ethnic region with a bewildering array of gods, with ambiguous powers and rankings. Given the context, these commandments are bog-standard – don’t lie to, steal from or kill each other, don’t covet each others’ property (including women), treat your one and only god (creator of all things) with respect, treat marriage as sacred, honour your parents and kin, and follow the proper rituals. Basically, a recipe for the survival and thriving of the group, in what was, then and for a long time before and afterwards, a god-obsessed human world.

The interesting innovation of Christianity, of course, was that it dispensed with the chosen people concept, making it more universalisable, if that’s a word. The concept of Christ dying for our sins, or so that the rest of humanity might be ‘saved’, does seem rather obscure, but it has doubtless provided grounds for thousands of theological theses over the centuries.

I began this piece reflecting on those non-believers who look askance at other non-believers criticising religion and the religious. I understand full well that, had I been born many centuries ago, I too would have believed in the gods of my region. Galileo, the foremost mathematician and astronomer of his day, was a lifelong Catholic. Newton, born in the year of Galileo’s death, and the foremost scientist of his generation, was also a thorough if idiosyncratic Christian. Whatever one thinks of free will, we can’t escape the zeitgeist we’re born into. The thing is, today’s zeitgeist is more complex than anything that’s gone before, and will probably become more so, and the tensions between religious beliefs and secular, scientific explorations of every imaginable research field, including religion, its origins, modalities and effects, and why it is losing its grip on WEIRD humanity, will continue long into the foreseeable. I have no idea how it will all end, but I suspect that the feminine side of humanity will be an essential element in bringing about a best-case resolution, if such a resolution ever comes.




Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world: how the west became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020.

Bible: Child Marriage in Ancient Israelite times – Paedophilia?


Dava Sobel, Galileo’s daughter: a drama of science, faith and love, 1999

Written by stewart henderson

August 14, 2023 at 9:13 pm

how can we learn from bonobos?

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Today I’ve decided to change my blog title, and to drop the conversational form of writing, though all my writing is a kind of internal conversation (channelling Adam Smith), informed by various external media.

I really want to get into this patriarchy thing more, because, in spite of all the changes that have occurred since the days of the suffragettes – and it has to be admitted that that was only a little over a century ago, in a human history that goes back 300,000 years, and a few thousand years in terms of states and ‘civilisation’ – it’s still very much a man’s world, with massive male dominance in terms of political leadership and wealth. The exceptions only tend to prove the rule.

Outside of the so-called WEIRD world, and on the fringes of it, we have Xi and his Chinese Testosterone Party, the Putinland thugocracy, little Donny Trumpet and his band of (mostly) male white mice, molto-macho politics in Burma, Tanzania, Latin America, New Guinea, Cuba, the Middle East, much of eastern Europe, and so on. Australia might like to see itself as an island of gender-equal WEIRD sanity, but it’s worth noting where the wealth lies, because there has always lain power. It’s true that Australia’s richest person is a woman, Gina Rinehart (at one time the richest woman in the world), but she began with wealth inherited from her father Lang Hancock, a fact that, unsurprisingly, she’s extremely sensitive about. Hancock was an ebullient and very racist operator, much beloved by his daughter (Hancock produced no sons), who was clearly much influenced by his style and politics. We need of course to recognise that, male or female, we’re hugely influenced by our background, and much of our character is set by our earliest years, as the Dunedin longitudinal development study has shown. Of course, that study, particularly the ‘personality’ aspects of it, is very WEIRD. In non-WEIRD cultures, most of which are highly patriarchal, female power is essentially covert, and even today, in the WEIRD world, Rinehart’s situation is highly unusual.

Outside of Rinehart and family, the top 20 richest Australians include only one woman (Fiona Geminder, daughter of the late billionaire Richard Pratt), at number 19. And as is to be expected, those at the top of these rich lists are exponentially wealthier than those at the bottom.

Of course, not all of the super-rich are interested in political power and influence in the manner of Murdoch, Trump et al, and many women, in particular, who inherit wealth through family or marital connections, have an interest in using it benefit the health and welfare of others. A Forbes article from 2018 claimed that, statistically, ‘women give almost twice as much of their wealth away as men (3.5% vs. 1.8%)’. It’s a most bonoboesque trait, as is their tendency to ‘be more co-operative in work teams’ (also from Forbes).

Developing more co-operative political environments is becoming more essential than many realise. Generally speaking, the Covid-19 pandemic would surely have been more devastating without the global co-operation managed in terms of accurate messaging and fast-paced biochemical development. And would’ve been less devastating if we’d had more of it. I recall some years ago reading about wealthy philanthropists providing interest-free loans to women in ‘third-world’ countries, because they were seen as better money managers, and less selfish in that management, than males. A quick internet search shows that this approach is still in play, though some of the sites advocating and supporting micro-loans seem out of date, and there’s a worry that this may just have been a passing trend. In any case it’s a far cry from women having their hands on the global purse-strings.

I think the WEIRD world needs to set the example here, as it is less constrained by patrilineal kin affiliations and patriarchal religio-spiritual beliefs, and has been motivated in recent decades by a lot of female empowerment rhetoric. My expectation for the future, however distant, is that female dominance will come from large-scale female-female bonoboesque bonding (with or without the sex).

Which takes me back to the bonobo world. How did their female-dominated culture come to be? How did the chimp-bonobo common ancestors live, communally? I’ve been wondering about this for some time, but all the experts I’ve read on bonobos, including Frans De Waals, confine themselves to description, as well as pointing out how their society overturns ideas of inevitable human patriarchy. We need to work out the evolution of their society, if we can, in order to effectively take advantage of it for our own sakes, for if ever there has been a time for female leadership in the human world, it’s now.

One key is to promote the kind of female-female bonding we know bonobos engage in, and we know women are capable of, given half the chance. Angela Saini, author of Inferor, an examination of patriarchy and the scientific treatment of women, provides echoing sentiments from Amy Parish, a leading expert on bonobos:

“Certainly I think when we only had chimps in the model, it seemed like patriarchy was cemented in our evolutionary heritage for the last five to six million years,” Parish says. “Now that we have an equally close living relative with a different pattern, it opens up the possibilities for imagining that in our ancestry that females could bond in the absence of kinship, that matriarchies can exist, that females can have the upper hand, that societies can be more peacefully run.”

And observing bonobos can offer inspiration to those who want to carve out a different future. “For me as a feminist,” says Parish, “it’s really interesting. Because the goal of the feminist movement is to behave with other females as though they are your sisters”.

I note that, among younger generations of women, going out in more or less large groups ‘for fun’ has become more common. This has been exploited in the sex video world with the ‘party hardcore’ set of videos, in which a disco/hotel room full of drinking and dancing women get to ‘take advantage’ of a handful of male strippers distributed around the space, for sexual purposes. Female-female sex is also featured, but, rather revealingly (so to speak), no male-male stuff. That’s apparently a step too far for us benighted humans.

The sexual side of all this is always going to be a touchy topic however. We’re the only animal to wear clothes, and to use complex language, with which we tell our kids that we have naughty private bits, and our adults that public nakedness is indecent. We create religions that tell us that sex outside of ceremonially anointed relationships is forbidden, and that reference to the sexual act and the body parts related to that act should be spoken of as rarely as humanly possible. And of course how could we engage together in scientific research, business conferencing, artistic projects or goat-herding with all our dangly stuff showing?

We don’t need to go that far, though, at least not in the short term. After all, it’s already clear that women are more touchy-feely than men. How often have we been at gatherings of friends, at the end of which the women have parted with hugs and the men with handshakes? In this we’re more like bonobos than we know. And as in bonobos this kind of sensual closeness leads to food-sharing and other forms of co-operation, and a reduction of aggression in general, it would seem to me that female leadership, and the encouragement of the female side of male humanity, is what is most needed for a human future that no longer relies on brute strength, or purely physical skills, but more and more on working together, finding common solutions, helping and caring – and not just for our fellow humans.

In the WEIRD world we have largely left behind patriarchal tribal values and the veiled, secreted women that greatly predate Islamic societies. Of course our societies are more blended than ever before (though DNA and historic research assisted by genetics has made us aware that we moved and mixed in the past more than we’d ever thought possible), and this may hinder the inevitable transition to female supremacy, but in the long run it will happen, as needs must. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, and I’m not talking about some ‘hidden hand’ theory, I just feel that for us to survive, and with us as much of the biosphere that can be saved, female supremacy, or feminisation of the human population, will be essential, and a good.






Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2023 at 9:24 pm

a world turned upside down – how’s it going?

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Jacinta: So we’ve always been aware that a world turned upside-down – that’s to say, a world in which the majority of wealth, power and influence is in the hands of women, to more or less the same degree that it’s now in the hands of men – will not be seen in our lifetime, if ever. But that won’t stop us from being trying.

Canto: Yes, of course, in the WEIRD world, women are more educated than ever before, and more likely to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and (to a lesser extent) business leaders than ever before, but that’s not really saying much. And outside that WEIRD world, or on its outskirts, we have Putinland, the Chinese Testosterone Party, and the various theocratic states, all of them profoundly patriarchal.

Jacinta: But will it still be this bad in 2123? Think back to 1923, when we were a bit younger. Remember those days, when women were achieving their first graduations, in electrical engineering rather than nursing and librarianship?

Canto: When a male nurse was worse than just a contradiction in terms, yes. Baby steps. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church still has five levels of male hierarchy towering over the lowly female parishioner,   though there have been some feisty Nuns, dog bless em.

Jacinta: I don’t see too many green shoots at the moment. Last year the Chinese Testosterone Party made its Politburo all-male for the first time in 25 years, and of course the Standing Committee, the select group that does all the ruling, under the watchful eye of Dear Leader Xi, has never had a female member in its 70-year history. It’s truly mind-boggling.

Canto: He needs to be assininated.

Jacinta: No chance. He couldn’t be more asinine than he already is. And recently we’ve lost Jacinda Adern as the New Zealand leader, Sanna Marin as the Finland leader, and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. Adern and Sturgeon resigned because of the pressures of the job, but were too diplomatic to mention sexism, We remember the abuse and vitriol Julia Gillard, Australia’s only female PM, suffered at the hands of right-wing media people here. That’s why we need a world turned upside-down. If bonobos can do it, and have fun in the process, why can’t we?

Canto: The UN Women website presents some sobering facts and reflections:

At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

There are only 13 countries in which women hold 50 percent or more of the positions of Cabinet Ministers leading policy areas.

The five most commonly held portfolios by women Cabinet Ministers are Women and gender equality, followed by Family and children affairs [sic], Social inclusion and development, Social protection and social security, and Indigenous and minority affairs

Jacinta: Yeah, I get the drift. I think we just need to fight harder, as women are trying to do in China, and in Burma/Myanmar. Remember that two and a half years ago I wrote a piece on feminism and the 30% rule in Burma, which I discovered to be one of the worst countries in Asia re the treatment of women – and that was before the macho military coup. A much more recent article, ‘The Revolution is Female: Myanmar’s Women Fighting Against Min Aung Hlaing’s Junta’, posted on the website of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, reports both an increase in female activism in Burma and neighbouring countries, and an increase in suppression of such activism:

Southeast Asia has been facing a significant authoritarian turn in the past decade. This political trend puts women activists at risk for the simple reason that autocrats fear women and have traditionally taken extreme measures to eliminate feminist challenges to authoritarian power. Those who want to help turn the tide against authoritarianism within the region must start by amplifying the voices of women activists in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Canto: It’s easy to get discouraged isn’t it. We’re in a part of the world where women have more power than just about anywhere else, and it’s still nowhere near equality. Then you look at Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, most of Africa and South-East Asia, China, Japan, North Korea and so on – it’s just exhausting to even contemplate the scene.

Jacinta: Mmmm. We can say the situation is improving creepingly in the WEIRD world, but elsewhere, not much sign. Men certainly don’t want to give up power, it’s the most addictive drug on the planet. And most women haven’t even heard of bonobos. Even in the WEIRD world, few women know much about them.

Canto: Well I suppose you can’t blame humans for being obsessed with their own species, but you’d think that our closest living relatives would be a species worth considering, for our own sakes.

Jacinta: It seems we’re too full of ourselves, and some men are too full of themselves to take much note of the other gender. I’ve just been gifted a book by one Vaclav Smil, entitled, with due modesty, How the world really works – another expert guide to ‘our past, present and future’. He’s an emeritus professor, naturellement. I glanced through the index to check for any mention of feminism, women or even individual female ‘fellow-experts’, but nothing. Plenty of males of course.

Canto: Sins of omission – worse than commission?

Jacinta: Who knows. I’ll still give Smil’s book a try. Alway the chance of learning something – but I’m guessing I’ll learn more from further bonobo study…


What the Ardern, Sturgeon resignations show about the ‘tightrope’ women walk in politics


a bonobo world 29: the 30% rule and Myanmar

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2023 at 5:47 pm