an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

a bonobo world 38: bonobos aren’t monogamous

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You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus  20:17 New International Version

 

 

As to humans and monogamy, it would be absurd to try to cover the subject in one book, let alone an essay, but absurdism has its appeal. Ferdinand Mount has many interesting things to say on the topic in his 1982 book The subversive family, which is not so much a defence of the nuclear family as an account of its endurance against attacks from religious organisations, communists and free-love advocates, among others. More recently, the same-sex marriage push throughout the developed world has been met with surprise rather than serious pushback from those of us not particularly committed to the institution, heterosexual or otherwise.

Advocates of monogamy generally focus on one positive attribute as central: loyalty. Of course it has variants – commitment, constancy, dedication and devotion -terms which are also used to promote nationalism.

It follows that those not committed to monogamy are described as fickle, selfish, shallow, or worse – decadent and degenerate. Top-down, ultra-controlling governments such as those of present-day Russia and China seek to prescribe the traditional values of their people in contrast to the decadence of the US and Western Europe, citing, with due exaggeration, the breakdown of families and the rise of homosexuality and other decadent practices, but they’re fighting a losing battle in an increasingly interactive human world. In fact, as Mount points out, until recently all states felt they had a right to control the rates and terms of divorce:

… it is remarkable how long even Western governments have clung on to their power over marriage. The most striking example is the state control of divorce – which in England was only transferred to the State from the Church courts in the mid-nineteenth century against severe opposition from Gladstone and other high churchmen. The real relaxation in the laws of divorce did not reach England – and many other countries – until well after the Second World War.

But the fact is that, if monogamy is on the decline, it’s a very slow one. We appear to be a jealous lot, ever on the lookout for betrayal and boundary-crossing. This doesn’t seem to be the bonobo way, and few would think to describe bonobos (or dolphins or elephants) as degenerate.

Monogamy is defended, promoted and celebrated in other ways too – in the form of true love. Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Héloïse and Abelard, Bogart and Bacall, these couplings with their happy or sad endings have been presented, imitated and played upon in infinite varieties in novels, films and other media, while another view of this estate, more pragmatic or ‘realistic’, has an almost businesslike feel to it. You meet, you partner up, it’s all hormonal and feel-good for the first months or years, during which offspring come along, then come the disagreements and irritants, followed by a resolution of sorts, an appreciation of the good, a minimising of the rest, and another kind of love supposedly supervenes, a co-dependence which you’re never quite sure is unadventurous laziness or something like maturity. It helps that being part of a couple is highly approved of in a taken-for-granted way, and you don’t have to buy an interactive toy to keep you company in your twilight years.

However, defended or not, monogamy is certainly under some pressure, with the religious culture, which has emphasised the eternal nature of pair-bonding – ‘as long as ye both shall live’ – being very much in decline in Australia and similar nations. The developments of globalism and multiculturalism have encouraged us to look more broadly at human mating patterns, both culturally and historically. We generally find that, even in purportedly polygynous societies, monogamy is the norm – though serial monogamy is increasingly common. Think of the experimental teens – having any more than one boyfriend/girlfriend at a time is full of headaches, and because this is always about more than mating, rivalries, personality clashes and power struggles are bound to abound.

And yet, bonobos and other intelligent social animals are not classified as monogamous, serial or otherwise. Is this classification correct, and if so, how do they do it?

One obvious difference between them and us, is that they hang around together in large groups more or less all the time, whereas we spend much of our time in largely sealed off nuclear family units. We have homes, millions and millions of them. This separateness is built upon as we distinguish our homes from our neighbours’, and develop a private sphere within them. Private ownership extends to all the objects within the home’s perimeter, living or non-living. In some unmentionable countries, we even have private arsenals to protect our own from the potential incursions of ‘fellow’ humans. Compare, say, dolphins, who live in pods, for the protection, resource provision and welfare of all members. And yet, we know that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe our domination precisely to this fact. And we don’t, many of us, find anything odd about this paradoxical scenario.

So it seems that bonobos have evolved a mentality of sharing, of food, of space, and of each others’ bodies. This isn’t likely total, they surely experience greed, jealousy, spite and other such primal emotions, but it’s more like a spectrum and we’re tending, with affluence, to drift to one end of it, to what’s mine is mine, and what a depressing failure you are.

I recall, as autonomous (and electric) vehicles looked like they might be ‘five years away’, as the cliche had it, claims that they would not only solve the problem of petrol emissions, but also of traffic congestion, since we could not only dispense with drivers, but also with owners. Vehicles could be owned communally, and so be put to regular use as technological slaves, instead of hanging around idly in driveways and carparks. The libertarian reaction was swift and predictable. ‘I worked hard to get my bright shiny badge of a Tesla – daddy didn’t help me, honest – and I’m damned if I’m going to share it with any freeloading riff-raff etc etc’.

There are, of course, people pushing back against this libertarian drift. Most of them are women, it seems to me. People who support community banking, ethical investments and resource sharing. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth fighting, because the alternative is, I feel, pretty horrible to contemplate.

Reference

The subversive family, by Ferdinand Mount, 1982

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2021 at 10:51 am

a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.

Reference

Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

a bonobo world 36: there is no bonobo nation

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nations, some say

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 and 300 thousand years, depending on various theories and interpretations. I always like to point out that the ‘first’ H sapiens had parents and grandparents, who wouldn’t have noticed any difference between junior and themselves, so when does a new species actually begin?

Leaving that thorny problem, I’ll turn to another – when did the first nation begin? My uneducated conjecture is that it was an evolving concept, post-dating the evolution of human language, and we have little idea about when that process was completed, at least to the point where we could conceptualise and communicate such ideas. Modern nations, with boundaries, checkpoints, passports and state paraphernalia, are of course ultra-new, with some fresh ones popping up in my lifetime, but I’ve heard Australian Aboriginal language groups described as nations, with the first of these H sapiens arriving here around 65,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Australia. Of course they wouldn’t have arrived here as nations, however defined, so when did they become such?  Bill Gammage, in The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, makes this point at the outset:

Hundreds of pages try to define Aboriginal social units (tribe, horde, clan, mob, language group, family, kin) without achieving clarity or consensus.

So is this a silly question? Surely not, since the term ‘First Nations’ has gained currency in recent decades. Rather bizarrely, the Wikipedia article on First Nations focuses solely on the early inhabitants of what is now Canada. This is presumably because these people are recognised as such by the Canadian government, at least for statistical reasons. In any case, these early people of North America, Australia and elsewhere mostly didn’t use writing, and their doubtless various self-references might be translated by us, at their bidding, as nations, but it’s clear that using such a term adds a certain gloss borrowed from modern lingo. Gammage does the same thing, perhaps justifiably, in referring to Aboriginal Australia as an estate, a term which I tend to associate with snotty landowners and gated communities. However, it also puts the focus on land, rather than people. 

We’ve come to associate nationhood with progress, civilisation and sophistication. No wonder the Kurds, the Basques and other cultural-linguistic groups are striving for it, and in particular for land on which to fix these qualities. The progression appears to go from group – as with chimps, bonobos and no doubt early hominids – to tribe, to settlement, to a collection of settlements or villages, to a centralised, sort of inward-facing region of shared culture, flourishing up to a civilisation of sorts. So it starts, for us, with our common ancestry with our primate cousins. 

We know that chimps and gorillas separate into groups that control particular territories, but if these groups are too small or avoid interaction with other groups, inbreeding will become a problem. This problem, which confronts all social species, can be solved by male or female dispersal – that’s to say, by breeding or ready-to-breed young adults flitting from their natal group to a neighbouring one. But moving to a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood might be as fraught, or more so, for non-human species as it is for us. According to an article published by the Royal Society in 2017, when there are limited opportunities for dispersal, many species appear to have a behavioural avoidance pattern to prevent inbreeding. For example, closely related elephants avoid mating altogether. In other species, they manage to mate without producing offspring, or produce healthy offspring even where the chances of inbreeding would seem to be high. 

We often make jokes about human inbreeding, especially with island populations (Tasmanians are sometimes targeted), but there are real issues with inward, ultra-nationalist thinking, which can lead to a kind of cultural inbreeding. This can even transcend nations, as with the touting of ‘Asian values’. Considering that millions of Asians have paired up with non-Asians, this might pose a problem for the offspring, if such notions were taken seriously.

Anyway, my own view of nations, for what it’s worth, is that that they’ve become a useful mechanism for divvying up land into states. Land has been an essential feature of human culture – this land is my land, this land is your land, this land is made for you and me. The obsession humans have with the myth of land ownership is something I’ve often found rather comical. I won’t go into the shenanigans around Antarctica, but I’ll relate a couple of illustrative anecdotes.

In my boisterous youth I accompanied a couple of housemates in visiting a nearby tennis court, which I’d previously noticed was surrounded by the usual high, open-wire fencing, but fronted by an unlocked gate. On the far side of the court were the vast sporting fields of St Peter’s College, one of the most exclusive private schools in the city, and beyond that, the imposing buildings of that august institution. I’d persuaded my housemates to take our racquets over for a fun hit out, though there was no net, and we only had two racquets between three. So we’d been at it for about 15 minutes when I spotted a figure marching towards us across the sward. As he closed in, I took note of the tweed jacket, the flapping flag of his woollen scarf, the swept-back, neatly combed blonde hair. I won’t try to mimic his accent or recall his exact words – distance lends a certain enchantment to the view – but there was no forgetting his sense of complete outrage. ‘Excuse me boys, but you must realise that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY!’ Those last two words are the only ones I’m certain of. 

I spent the next few weeks daydreaming of hoisting this gentleman by his own petard, but also reflecting on the quasi-religious power of landed property. It was exactly as if we’d abused, or worse, denied, someone’s god.  

Another incident was much more recent. An Aboriginal woman complained to me on the street that I – meaning we ‘whites’ – were on her land. I responded to her, perhaps in a frustrated tone, that land was land, it belonged to itself. This wasn’t particularly articulate, but she didn’t have any response. I suppose what I meant was that the Earth’s land, ever changing, shifting and subducting, had been around for billions of years, and for most of human existence we thought no more of land ownership than did the animals we hunted. How things have changed. 

Of course, nationalism is not going away any time soon, and I’m prepared to make my peace with it. States have their obvious uses, in binding a smaller proportion of the human population together via laws, economic co-operation and political policies. The Einsteinian dream of a world government is unworkable, and the United Nations still needs a lot of work, though it has been beneficial on balance, especially via its ancillary organisations. The problem of course is ultranationalism, in both its outward expansionist form, and its inward-facing exclusivity and xenophobia. Diversity, or variety, is obviously a good thing, whether in diet, industry, arts or genetics. My own modest experience in teaching students from scores of nations tells me that Homo sapiens, like Pan paniscus, are one people, with similar interests, in laughing, loving, wondering and striving for more. Our strivings and problems are much more global than national – a veritable internet of interests. I hope that this realisation is growing.  

References

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Nations

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.160422

Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, 2012.

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2021 at 7:57 pm

A bonobo world 35: what the world needs now

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If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman

Margaret Thatcher

surplus to requirements

The latest piece of macho thuggery (on a massive, international-newsworthy scale) has been the military coup in Myanmar. Before that it was the standover tactics around Hong Kong. Not much mentioned these days is the macho threat building around the eastern borders of Ukraine. And few in our faraway country are even aware of the Turkish offensive into north-east Syria, caused by Trump’s abandonment of the region. Then of course there’s the ongoing brutality in the West Bank and Gaza, the thuggery in Xinjiang, the slaughter in Syria and Yemen, and the largely political executions in China, Saudi Arabia…

It’s a man’s world. Well, not quite. According to Worldometer, Taiwan – always on tenterhooks due to the thugs looming beyond its western shores – wins the gold medal for its handling of the devastating Covid19 pandemic. It has so far recorded 11 deaths from the virus, out of a population of 24 million. Australia, with a similar population, has suffered 909 deaths,and is trumpeted as a success story. 

But perhaps the most useful comparison to make is deaths per million. Australia has suffered 35 deaths per million, a low figure by world standards. New Zealand, though, has suffered only 5 per million. Taiwan has suffered only 0.5. New Zealand and Taiwan, let me whisper, have female political leaders. Now, I should mention that Tanzania, according to Worldometer’s figures, has done better than any highly populated country, with only 0.3 deaths per million. But wait – a few minutes’ research tells me that Tanzania’s leader, one John Magafuli, a fanatical Christian, Covid-19 denier and mask refusenik, died last month, purportedly of Covid-19. Tanzania hasn’t provided any data about the virus to outsiders for almost a year. Fortunately for Tanzania, Magafuli’s successor Samia Suluhu Hassan is a woman, and apparently a very capable one. She also happens to be the only female political leader in the whole of Africa at present, which is less fortunate, but unsurprising. Hopefully we’ll get real figures from Tanzania soon – or eventually.

These Worldometer figures tell a revealing tale about female leadership, though of course there are many political and other factors determining a nation’s effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic. What is surely even more revealing, however, is the impact of male ‘I know best’ leadership. Brazil is arguably the most tragic example, and it’s very much ongoing. A million or so new cases have been identified in the last fortnight or so, just as other nations are seeing reductions, and the death-rate is at an all-time high. Altogether, Brazil has suffered the second-highest number of Covid-19 fatalities, behind the USA, but again the deaths per million is most revealing. Brazil currently has a death per million figure of 1661, fractionally behind the USA, but that figure is rising more rapidly and will soon push ahead of the USA’s. It should be noted that such prominent Western European nations as Italy and the UK have even higher death per million figures, and worse still are a number of Eastern European nations, such as Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only Slovakia has female political leadership, but the problems in these and other countries cannot of course be sheeted home to gender. For example, Belgium has become an increasingly balkanised nation in recent times, and this lack of centralised co-ordination appears to have cost them dearly. Nevertheless, Germany is doing considerably better than its neighbours, and the lengthy leadership of Angela Merkel, as well as the German people’s famous/notorious capacity for organisation, is surely a major factor. Doesn’t this attest to women’s capacity for organisation and co-operation in general, especially in times of health and welfare crises? I firmly believe so.

Of course I’m talking in general, or statistical terms. The general tendency of women to be more co-operative and collaborative is one of the arguments driving the push towards more women in the military, as the military becomes, in western nations, a less offensive and more defensive, peace-keeping force. Young women today are advised to go out nightclubbing or partying in groups, and to me this connects with bonobos having evolved to form female bonds to control male sexuality, and to more freely express their own. The next step is for females to dominate the space, not only for sexual encounters, but for a host of other transactions, political, economic and technological. Women today are more dominant in the arena of human or community services – though I notice, having worked in the area, that senior management tends still to be male-heavy. On the one hand I recognise the slow pace of change – and remember that only a century ago women couldn’t attend university – but on the other hand, as we try to recover from a pandemic, male pig-headedness and in-the-wayness has highlighted our need for more rapid sociopolitical transformation, to a bonobo world with human benefits.

There are many aspects to this transformation. One is financial. It’s often noted that wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It’s less often noted that those hands are almost all male. I remember, many years ago, hearing a talk in which the speaker used the mantra ‘money is energy’. I recall thinking at first that this was a bit crass, but then, reflecting on my own life, its pits of poverty and bumps of relative richesse, I recognised that there was enough truth in the phrase to adopt it as my own mantra for a few weeks. It didn’t make me any richer however.

According to the Statista website, 11.9% of the world’s billionaires – the superenergised – are women (as of 2019). None are in the top ten. According to Forbes, the world’s richest woman is L’Oreal’s ‘Francoise Bettencourt Meyers & family’, surely a revealing description. She’s described on Wikipedia as ‘an heiress’, and a strict Catholic known for her bible commentaries. Not exactly my idea of a go-getting role model.

Of course, counting individual billionaires doesn’t tell us how much of the world’s wealth – a disputable term, but for now I’m thinking in terms of filthy lucre – is in the hands of women. That would be difficult to calculate, but it would surely be far less than 11.9%. But maybe, I’m being overly pessimistic. The Boston Consulting Group website claims that 32% of global wealth is owned by women, but how they come by that figure is a mystery. In any case, female wealth ownership is surely greater now, percentage-wise, than it has ever been before, while being nowhere near enough.

Calculations of these kinds are fraught, of course. Women tend to spread wealth – and power, and love – around, so the more they gain in these frangible assets, the better it will be for us all. 

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56437852

https://www.statista.com/topics/2229/billionaires-around-the-world/

https://www.forbes.com/real-time-billionaires/#5f3fa3c23d78

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Françoise_Bettencourt_Meyers

https://www.bcg.com/en-au/publications/2020/managing-next-decade-women-wealth

Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2021 at 8:42 am

Posted in bonobos, feminism, power, sex, wealth

Tagged with , , ,

a bonobo world 34: bonobo and human families

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bonobos – family into community

In her brief, largely autobiographical book The heartache of motherhood, Joyce Nicholson captures many of the problems of married life and motherhood in the fifties and sixties, just before second-wave feminism became a thing. A mother of four, she sums up her experience:

In my case I wanted my first two children and managed well with them. Three I found difficult. Four were a disaster.

I’ve met at least one young woman recently who plans to have four children, but they’re few and far between. Women are choosing to ‘settle down’ into some sort of monogamous relationship, with children, rather later these days, and the current average number of children in today’s Australian family is between 1.8 and 1.9, so even having two is a bit too many for Australia’s human apes.

Other primates fare better – if that’s the word – in terms of birth, but keeping them alive is another matter. It’s a jungle out there. Bonobos average 5 or 6 births in a lifetime, about five years apart, and starting at about 13 years of age. Pregnancies last about eight months. Mothers have principal care of infants for the first six years or so, but of course bonobos are highly social beasts, unseparated by walls, so others are always there to help out. Bonobo females are sexually receptive all year round, and engage in face-to-face copulation (aka fucking, etc) regularly, whereas this attitude is very rare in chimps. In both bonobos and chimps several hundred copulations are required – if that’s the word – for each conception, whereas for human apes many zillions of copulations may be undertaken, and often are, with no intention to conceive. Nice work if you can get it.

Ah, but I was writing about families. Bonobos don’t separate into nuclear families of the modern human type (the provenance of this family type is a subject of intense debate, which I’ll explore later). That’s to say, they’re not monogamous like many species of birds and most humans. Both male and female bonobos tend to partner up indiscriminately and often briefly, regardless of sex or age. 

These days, in more affluent societies, we’re pretty demanding about what we want. Not too many kids, if any, and all of them as perfect as money can buy and science can create. As well as a long, very long, and fulfilling work-life balanced life, for all sexes. 

But this is really about what individuals want. Or what they require from and of their families, and from the wider society that is expected to support those families, with jobs and services. I suspect people are failing to realise that creating a successful family life – and I prefer the broadest possible definition of family – requires work. Not particularly hard work, but work nonetheless. Or maybe work is too strong a word, maybe a better word is focus. Bonobos seem to manage it quite well. 

Having said that, there’s an awful lot of pressure on the modern human family – pressure rarely felt by other primates and social species. For anyone who doubts this, I’d advise them to read Andrew Solomon’s monumental, essential work Far from the tree, which recounts the stories of families who have to deal with deafness, dwarfism, schizophrenia, autism, Down Syndrome, prodigies, homosexuality and severe intellectual and physical disability within their ranks. And it seems there are very few extended families these days that are untouched by such complications. Modern medicine, for example, has created viable human life forms which would never have survived more than a few weeks or months before the twentieth century. Other species, living in the wild – that’s to say, their natural environment – would, after giving birth to a litter of offspring, focus on the most viable, which might be all of them, but if one shows definite signs of what we would call disability, they’d be left behind. In modern human society – at least in the more affluent regions – this would be unthinkable, and probably criminal. And we’re approaching 8 billion human apes. Just how successful do we want to be? And then there’s religion and the supposed sacredness of human, and only human, life. Best not to get started on that one. 

But in spite of all the pressures, families continue, for better or worse. We seem to want the species to expand and to thrive, which means making sure that virtually every human ever conceived has a long, rich and fulfilling life, while maintaining biosphere diversity, reducing toxic waste, solving the global warming problem, increasing productivity, and of course reducing stress. There does seem to be a sense that we’re the victims of our own ambition. 

Bonobos are nowhere near so ambitious, and they don’t carry the caretaker responsibilities of the planet on their shoulders. Having a smaller brain, and an inability to see the forest for the trees, has distinct advantages. Their inward focus is on providing food and security for themselves and their offspring, and the wider group enveloping them. 

For us, that providing involves work, something that we’ve hived off from the rest of our lives. We do it in a different location, which might be just a different room if we’re working from home, but more often somewhere remote from the family we’re providing for – if we have one. And more often than not our work involves us in a hierarchy, of supervisors and less visible managers and unreachable CEOs. The work itself may or may not be fulfilling, but the hierarchical web is always something of a vague threat – ‘will you still pay me tomorrow?’

So there’s always this pressure – to survive, for some, to thrive, for others. Some version of a universal basic income could provide a solution to the survival problem – the currently ludicrous wealth disparities wouldn’t be noticeably reduced by such a dispensation. It’s the thriving problem that’s more intractable, as this is about systemic disadvantage, lack of opportunity, and problems of isolation, community, self-esteem and the like. In Jess Scully’s valuable book, Glimpses of Utopia, she writes of Aboriginal and other indigenous workers and what they value in their environmental work – work which they organise in their own way, the way of their culture. They tend to agree, wholeheartedly, that it is pride in what they are doing. Pride isn’t, of course, a monetary value. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative. It is one of the major factors missing from most hierarchical work situations, and of course it can’t be divvied out to people like the UBI. Scully writes about what might be seen as both supplementary and an alternative to a universal basic income, a form of work or activity that can provide those qualitative values, as well as bringing people together – universal basic services. More on that later.

It is this kind of activity, the kind which actually produces community, which is an extension of family and which blends family into community, that is often its own reward. It may be hierarchical – and we can no more escape hierarchy than bonobos can – but the hierarchy is less rigid and can shift with particular tasks and expertise. We need more of it, and we shouldn’t consider it in opposition to individualism. Individuals have no value without a community to evaluate them. And we humans – more than bonobos or any other apes – are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet.  

References

Joyce Nicholson, The heartache of motherhood , 1983

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

April 12, 2021 at 3:27 pm

Posted in bonobos, community, family, work

Tagged with , , , ,

Getting wee Donny 5

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DA Fanni Willis – going for it


Canto: so our last conversation on this topic was subtitled ‘the waiting game’. We’re still waiting.

Jacinta: Never fear, the arc of the universe bends slowly, but it bends towards getting wee Donny. 

Canto: Yeah well I want it to happen within his lifetime thanks. It seems the number of civil and possibly criminal cases keeps rising, but it’s like heaven, where nothing ever happens. 

Jacinta: Yes, we are not amused, but we are a bit. Wikipedia even has a page called ‘list of lawsuits involving Donald Trump’, but it’s probably well out of date. 

Canto: I suppose we need to divide them into civil cases – suits for damages – and criminal cases. We’re certainly not lawyers, though of course we’re super-smart, so we should be able to make sense of it all. 

Jacinta: Yes, well we’re not going to deal with them in order of importance, because there’s a certain degree of subjectivity in such ordering – many civil cases are of vital and immediate concern to some but not to others. For us non-United-Staters little of this is of direct concern, we’re just watching from the peanut gallery. 

Canto: Yes, so Trump v Vance – which has been rather long-running, but with important recent developments. It started with a subpoena by Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance in August 2019 to obtain multiple wee Donny documents from the Mazars accounting firm – though there’s been pressure on the wee one to present his tax returns ever since his infamous election. 

Jacinta: Yes, and it’s been resisted with BS like he’s perennially under audit, that nobody cares about his taxes, and that he’s the boss of everyone so nyanya. Anyway, on July 20 2020 the US Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, found that a sitting president wasn’t above having to comply with a state criminal subpoena. The case was sent back to do the rounds of the lower courts, on the basis that Donny and his wee minions might be able to find other reasons for not complying, and so it went – the lower courts dismissed claims that the subpoena was over-broad, and the case eventually arrived back at the Supreme Court, which sat on it from October 2020 to February this year, presumably because of the election, but eventually it denied the request to hear the case again, so Mazars has handed over the docs for review by a grand jury in Vance’s criminal case, which started with hush money payments to Stormy Daniels but has since clearly broadened. The House Oversight and Reform Committee, which issued a subpoena for the same Mazars records some years ago and was ignored, has now reissued that subpoena, which the wee one will no doubt fight. 

Canto: Expensive business. But the Vance case has generated much attention due to his hiring of forensic analysts and a highly-touted mob prosecutor recently. An interesting piece in the New Yorker last month, though, presents the case as running for at least the rest of this year, just in its investigative phase, which means Vance will have retired by the time we get to see any action. It’s still very much a waiting game. 

Jacinta: The other major case is out of Georgia, where they’re trying to rig elections beforehand, so that future trumpery types don’t have to get their hands dirty trying to throttle votes out of hapless officials next time around. Fulton County DA Fanni Willis, who’s pursuing wee Donny on illegal interference, including ‘solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy and racketeering’ in the 2020 election in Georgia, has hired one John Floyd, a lawyer who has written a book on prosecuting racketeering cases. I suspect, though that these possible charges will end up being watered down. 

Canto: Well it might be that Willis has a thing for racketeering, as she won a high-profile racketeering case, re cheating on school tests, but this one takes high-profile to a higher level, to put it mildly. 

Jacinta: Anyway Willis is being gutsy, in a traditionally Republican state (though it might well be changing, as witness the Ossoff and Warnock victories), taking on the Republican enfant terrible, wee Donny, when the Republican governor is doing his utmost to support the wee one by trying to make it impossible for Democrats to win there again. 

Canto: But I really think the Republicans are shooting themselves in the arse with all this voter suppression shite. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out over the next few months, with, it seems, the Democrats on the up and up re popular support. But I must say, I rather enjoy watching United Stater politics compared to the Australian version. I’m talking just as a spectator sport. There are just so many arseholes, lick-spittles, gold-diggers, out-and-out morons, and their counterparts, underdog heroes, justice warriors, passion-spun vloggers and the like – it all makes Australian politics look hopelessly staid. 

Jacinta: Well, having 14 times Australia’s population certainly helps, with the good, the bad and the ugly. But getting back to wee Donny, clearly his criminal activities over a lifetime should see him in jail for the rest of his hopefully long and painful life…

Canto: And may dogs have mercy on his bloated carcass. 

Jacinta: … but we’re talking about the USA here, so he won’t get much if anything in the way of jail time. For example, like Al Capone, he might get caught on his tax dodges, but not on fomenting insurrection or causing widespread death through covid disinformation and negligence. 

Canto: Hopefully all the lawsuits will lighten his wallet, but I have to concede that he’s an expert sponger and grifter, and I imagine that an ex-President’s emoluments would be eye watering from our modest perspective, never mind all the real estate he’s accumulated. 

Jacinta: Well let’s be optimistic, apart from the 29 lawsuits, most of which are undoubtedly of the sort any decent lawyer would love to act on, it really does look like the Manhattan case has legs. Everybody knows he’s a tax crook – he’s more or less admitted it himself. 

Canto: Interestingly, an Australian news piece agrees that he could see jail time, though they quote some of his associates saying he’s more likely to flee the country – something I’ve often thought myself. Vlad would welcome him – he’d get an erection at the very thought of harbouring wee Donny, and having him speak out endlessly against the US from his new home. 

Jacinta: Yes, Vlad would make him very comfy, that’s for sure. More fodder for the peanut gallery. It would be amusing if these turkeys didn’t do so much damage…

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lawsuits_involving_Donald_Trump

https://abcnews.go.com/US/fulton-county-da-opens-criminal-probe-trumps-efforts/story?id=75804119

https://www.news.com.au/world/north-america/us-politics/very-real-chance-donald-trump-will-go-to-jail-amid-escalating-legal-woes/news-story/a33a9fa9e9ecb5cbfbdb3bb174e1d10e

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 7, 2021 at 5:17 pm

a bonobo world 33: they don’t wear stillettos

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anti-shoes, designed by Leanie van der Vyver

Bonobos don’t wear stilettos. Here’s why.

Bonobos don’t wear anything. But that’s not the end of the story.

Bonobos aren’t bipedal, though they have spurts of bipedalism. Their feet aren’t built for long-term bipedalism, of the kind we have evolved. It’s mostly to do with the big toe. Humans and our ancestors became bipedal after moving out of trees and into savannahs. This along with our hands, the opposable thumb and so forth, helped us in hunting, as we were able to handle and manipulate weaponry, and to outstrip our prey in long-distance running. Losing our body hair and being able to sweat to keep our body temperature down – sweat is about boundary layers, something like evaporative air-conditioning – was also an adaptation to our new hunting lifestyle, as, perhaps was language or proto-language, which would’ve helped us to form groups and bring down a feast of big prey. Goodbye mammoths – too bad we didn’t evolve early enough to sample brontosaurus burgers.

So I imagine we developed solid pads of skin on our soles and heels as we scrambled over scree and bounced through brambles during hunts and childhood play. I experienced a bit of that in my own childhood, in the paths and fields of early Elizabeth (the town was the same age as myself). My heels were hardened in those early barefoot years as they were never to be again.

I suppose it was settlement that softened our feet and led to the idea of covering them for those increasingly rare outings into thorny bushland, or even just out in the fields, for the female and young male gatherers. The first shoes we know of, dating back only 10,000 years, were made of bark. These were, of course, utilitarian. We’re still a while away from stilettos, the ultimate non-utilitarian symbols.

The oldest leather shoes yet found date to c5,500 years ago. We can’t be sure of how old ‘shoes’ were – the first may just have been makeshift coverings, more or less painted on, or bound around and then tossed aside. Clearly they would’ve been more commonly used as we moved to a ‘softer’ more cindoor, village life, and would have become more decorative and status-laden – though, interestingly, gods and heroes were invariably depicted barefoot by the ancient Greeks. The Romans used chiral (left and right) sandals in their armies (though standard chiral footwear is a modern phenomenon), and generally considered it a sign of civilised behaviour to wear shoes regularly, possibly the first people to do so, even if only among the upper class. So it was around this time, a couple of thousand years ago, that shoemaking became a profession.

Fast forward to the 15th century, and the first elevated shoes, designed to keep tender feet above the ordure of urban streets, became popular. These were originally in the form of overshoes or pattens. They protected not only the feet but the decorative, thin-soled poulains, with their long pointy toes, which were de rigueur for the fashionable of both sexes.

These original high-heels, then, were practical and clunky. Made from wood, their noisiness was an issue – mentioned in Shakespeare and Jane Austen – and they were mostly banned in church. More refined high heels were used by the upper classes, aka the well-heeled, especially royalty. Catherine de Medici and England’s Mary 1 wore them to look taller, and France’s Louis XIV banned the wearing of red high heels for everyone except those of his court.

The mass-production of footwear began in the nineteenth century, and so shoes for all sorts of specific purposes became a thing. And so we come to the notorious (for some) stiletto heel.

Named after the much more practical stiletto dagger, the stiletto heel, or shoe, invented by the usual moronic continental fashion types, has come in and out of style over the past century. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on stilettos has a section on their benefits and disadvantages, with about five or six times more verbiage devoted to the benefits than the disadvantages. I’d love to meet the person who wrote it – while armed with a stiletto. Much of the benefit – according to this expert, lies in postural improvement, a claim completely contradicted by the disadvantages section, unsurprisingly:

All high heels counter the natural functionality of the foot, sometimes causing skeletal and muscular problems if users wear them excessively; such shoes are a common cause of venous complaints such as pain, fatigue, and heavy-feeling legs, and have been found to provoke venous hypertension in the lower limbs.

No mention of the fact that they instantly lower the wearer’s IQ by several points, unfortunately. Where is science when you need it?

Some of the benefits mentioned are risible – e.g. ‘they express your style and make you feel good’. As would going barefoot or wearing clodhoppers, if that’s your style. Another claim is that you can use the heels as a weapon to defend yourself. I mean, wtf? So you ask your assailant to wait while you unstrap your shoe and limpingly lunge at him? Or do you kick him in the nuts while keeping your balance on a square centimetre of padded metal? I’d like to see that.

Another apparent benefit is that they make you look femme fatale tough. I wonder that the military hasn’t considered them as essential for female personnel. While I admit that, in US-style or James Bondage-type movies, the black-leather-clad heroine-villain in matching stilettos and revolver does give me the proverbial kick in the fantasies, the plethora of YouTube videos showing absurdly-heeled models and other victims stumbling on stages and catwalks, their ankles twisted to right angles, provides a thrill of schadenfreude I could do without. A finer thrill, for me, would be to watch vids of the guilty fashion designers being tortured to within an inch of their lives by their own creations.

But let me go on. Our Wikipedia expert writes that the stilettoed look ‘boosts women’s self-confidence and that in turn makes them more likely to get promoted at work’. Now there’s a workplace I’d pay good money not to belong to. The expert goes on to point out the well-attested, but essentially shameful fact that tall people are more likely to get elected to leadership positions. In other words, had Donald Trump been a foot shorter, hundreds of thousands of US lives would surely have been saved in 2020. I should also feel relieved that, as a shorty myself, I’m automatically absolved from any leadership responsibilities.

So why was this claptrap allowed on Wikipedia? It seems that the website, so fabulously rigorous in fields such as maths, physics and biochemistry, has decided to slacken off when it comes to ‘popular culture’, which is both understandable and frustrating. The fact is that stilettos are way more decorative than functional, as is women’s role in the business world, by and large.

I admit that my views on clothing and footwear are heavily influenced by the years of my impressionable youth in the sixties and early seventies, when men sported long, flowing locks, multicoloured shirts and pants, and women mostly the same, though I loved to spot the odd tweedy female in short back and sides, and kickarse Doc Martens. There’s no accounting for taste.

Bonobo females are statistically smaller than males, in much the same proportion as human females. And yet they dominate. There’s nothing more to say.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiletto_heel

 


 

Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2021 at 5:49 pm

on blogging: a personal view

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I have a feeling – I haven’t researched this – that the heyday of blogging is over. Even I rarely read blogs these days, and I’m a committed blogger, and have been since the mid 2000s. I tend to read books and science magazines, and some online news sites, and I listen to podcasts and watch videos – news, historical, academic, etc. 

should read more blogs. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. Even out of self-interest – reading and commenting on other blogs will drive traffic to my own, as all the advisers say. Perhaps one of the problems is that there aren’t too many blogs like mine – they tend to be personal interest or lifestyle blogs, at least going by those bloggers who ‘like’ my blog, which which gives me the distinct impression that those ‘likers’ are just trying to drive traffic to their blogs, as advised. But the thing is, I like to think of myself as a real writer, whatever that is. Or a public intellectual, ditto. 

However, I’ve never been published in a real newspaper, apart from one article 25 years ago in the Adelaide Review (the only article I’ve ever submitted to a newspaper), which led to my only published novel, In Elizabeth. But I’ve never really seen myself as a fiction writer. I’m essentially a diarist turned blogger – and that transition from diary writing to blogging was transformational, because with blogging I was able to imagine that I had a readership. It’s a kind of private fantasy of being a public intellectual.

I’ve always been inspired by my reading, thinking ‘I could do that”. Two very different writers, among many others, inspired me to keep a diary from the early 1980s, to reflect on my own experiences and the world I found myself in: Franz Kafka and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s influence, I think, has been more lasting, not in terms of what he actually wrote, but his focus on the wider world, though it was Kafka that was the most immediate influence back in those youthful days, when I was still a little more self-obsessed. 

Interestingly, though, writing about the world is a self-interested project in many ways. It’s less painful, and less dangerous. I once read that the philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell, who had attempted suicide a couple of times in his twenties, was asked about those days and how he survived them. ‘I stopped thinking about myself and thought about the world’, he responded.

I seem to recall that Montaigne wrote something like ‘I write not to find out what I think about a topic, but to create that thinking.’ I strongly identify with that sentiment. It really describes my life’s work, such as it is. Considering that, from all outside perspectives, I’m deemed a failure, with a patchy work record, a life mostly spent below the poverty line and virtually no readership as a writer, I’m objective enough and well-read enough to realise that my writing stands up pretty well against those who make a living from their works. Maybe that’s what prevents me from ever feeling suicidal.  

Writing about the world is intrinsically rewarding because it’s a lifelong learning project. Uninformed opinions are of little value, so I’ve been able to take advantage of the internet – which is surely the greatest development in the dissemination of human knowledge since the invention of writing – to embark on this lifelong learning at very little cost. I left school quite young, with no qualifications to speak of, and spent the next few years – actually decades – in and out of dead-end jobs while being both attracted and repelled by the idea of further academic study. At first I imagined myself as a legend in my lunch-time – the smartest person I knew without academic qualifications of any kind. And of course I could cite my journals as proof. These were the pre-internet days of course, so the only feedback I got was from the odd friend to whom I read or showed some piece of interest. My greatest failing, as a person rather than a writer, is my introversion. I’m perhaps too self-reliant, too unwilling or unable to join communities. The presence of others rather overwhelms me. I recall reading, in a Saul Bellow novel, of the Yiddish term trepverter – meaning the responses to conversations you only think of after the moment has passed. For me, this trepverter experience takes up much of my time, because the responses are lengthy, even never-ending. It’s a common thing, of course, Chekhov claimed that the best conversations we have are with ourselves, and Adam Smith used to haunt the Edinburgh streets in his day, arguing with himself on points of economics and probably much more trivial matters. How many people I’ve seen drifting along kerbsides, shouting and gesticulating at some invisible, tormenting adversary.

Anyway, blogging remains my destiny. I tried my hand at podcasting, even vodcasting, but I feel I’m not the most spontaneous thinker, and my voice catches in my throat due to my bronchiectasis – another reason for avoiding others. Yet I love the company of others, in an abstract sort of way. Or perhaps I should say, I like others, more than I like company – though I have had great experience in company with others. But mostly I feel constrained in company, which makes me dislike my public self. That’s why I like reading – it puts me in an idealised company with the writer. I must admit though, that after my novel was published, and also as a member of the local humanist society, I gave a few public talks or lectures, which I enjoyed immensely – I relish nothing more than being the centre of attention. So it’s an odd combo of shyness and self-confidence that often leaves me scratching my own head. 

This also makes my message an odd one. I’m an advocate of community, and the example of community-orientated bonobos, who’s also something of a loner, awkward with small-talk, wanting to meet people, afraid of being overwhelmed by them. Or of being disappointed.

Here’s an example. Back in the eighties, I read a book called Melanie. It was a collection of diary writings of a young girl who committed suicide, at age 18 as I remember. It was full of light and dark thoughts about family, friends, school and so forth. She came across as witty, perceptive, mostly a ‘normal’ teenager, but with this dark side that seemed incomprehensible to herself. Needless to say, it was an intimate, emotional and impactful reading experience. I later showed the book to a housemate, a student of literature, and his response shocked me. He dismissed it out of hand, as essentially childish, and was particularly annoyed that the girl should have a readership simply because she had suicided. He also protested, rather too much, I felt, about suicide itself, which I found revealing. He found such acts to be both cowardly and selfish. 

I didn’t argue with him, though there was no doubt a lot of trepverter going on in my head afterwards. For the record, I find suicides can’t be easily generalised, motives are multifactorial, and our control over our own actions are often more questionable than they seem. In any case human sympathy should be in abundant supply, especially for the young. 

So sometimes it feels safer to confide in an abstract readership, even a non-existent one. I’ll blog on, one post after another. 

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2021 at 3:40 pm

a bonobo world 32: bonobos and us

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female-dominated society (male version)

So let me look at the role of the adult female in the bonobo world. Why do they tend to be the bosses, in spite of being smaller on average than the males, and how did this come to be? If we can trace this, maybe we can find out how to live in a more female-dominated, peaceful, integrated and – yes maybe a more loving, even sexy community. 

Frans de Waal has described bonobo society as a gynecocracy, a pre-feminist term which simply means a society or culture governed by women, without going into detail, for example about matrilineal descent or inheritance. De Waal’s findings, mostly drawn from captive bonobos, have been criticised, but further confirmed by wild studies. 

Bonobos are initially hard to distinguish from chimps, from whom they separated, species-wise, 1.5 to 2 million years ago. They’re officially described as more gracile, meaning a little more slender, less robust, but I can’t easily see it myself. What I do notice is their charming middle-parted hairstyle, a la Marcel Proust or Oscar Wilde, which has earned them the title the gay ape. Or should have. Although omnivorous like clothed apes and chimps, they have a more vegetarian diet in practice than the other two, probably because they tend to be more arboreal and inhabit a more restricted area, south of the Congo River. The name bonobo is of course human-created, possibly deriving obscurely from a misspelling of Bolobo, a Congolese town. We don’t know how they refer to themselves. 

There’s been a lot of contentious but fascinating debate about the dating of the last common ancestor between clothed apes and the chimp-bonobo line. For a time the consensus seemed to be converging around a date of 6-7 million years ago, but the doubtless contentious work of Madelaine Bohme, published in a book, Ancient bones (2019)  pushes the date back by a few million years. 

Bonobos weigh on average between 35 and 40 kgs, and, standing, measure about 110cm. The females have prominent boobs compared to other unclothed apes, but nothing a human ape would want to slobber over. Generally they’re more physically divergent than chimps – so you’ve got your plain Janes and your beauty queens, your Adonises and your ghouls. Their bipedalism – or their use of bipedalism – varies with habitat and habituation. In captivity they use it more, as they spend less time in trees. 

It’s argued that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in a more stable, less threatened environment – the threats to them in the wild are entirely due to clothed, and weaponised, apes, against whom they are, of course, entirely defenceless. Chimps, on the contrary, occupy a wider range, and so, like clothed apes, tend to separate into distinct, competitive communities, who fight over resources and territorial ascendancy. The difficulty here is that, due to the dangerous conditions that have pertained in the Congo for many decades due to long-term clashes and survival struggles among clothed apes, bonobo behaviour has been difficult to analyse outside of zoos. But even under captivity, bonobos clearly behave differently and have a different societal structure than their close cousins the chimps. And this is what should get feminists much more excited than they are, IMHO. 

So, among the higher primates – humans, bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orangutans – bonobos are the only species in which the females have an equal or dominant role in the social organisation. I should perhaps make an exception of orangutans, the most solitary of all the higher primates. For this reason, the question of social hierarchy isn’t so relevant fo this species, though it’s notable that orangutan males are two to three times larger than females. Certainly there’s no question of females being dominant. 

The key, it seems, to the more prominent position of females in bonobo society, is female-female bonding, and female alliances. That’s why, I would argue, nothing is more important to the future of human apes than female alliances. It may take time, but I’m hoping we’ll eventually wake up to the essentiality of this phenomenon, for our continued success. The tight social bonding between bonobo females seems to have had a more general socialising effect, something that human apes, who have become increasingly isolated, competitive, covetous and demoralised by new class divisions, would do well to take note of.

In terms of what we need for a more successful, harmonious future, within and beyond our own species, I’m arguing for female prominence rather than dominance (though I do believe we’d be better off with the latter), and I believe we’re inching – with agonising slowness – in that direction, especially in so-called advanced, more science-based societies. Here’s part of Wikipedia’s most up-to-date account of bonobo social behaviour.

Different bonobo communities vary from being gender-balanced to outright matriarchal. At the top of the hierarchy is a coalition of high-ranking females and males typically headed by an old, experienced matriarch who acts as the decision-maker and leader of the group. Female bonobos typically earn their rank through age, rather than physical intimidation, and top-ranking females will protect immigrant females from male harassment. While bonobos are often called matriarchal, this is a trend rather than an objective fact. It is not unheard of for some communities to have a male who decides where the group travels to, and where they feed. However, these male leaders never harass or coerce the females, and they can choose to ignore his suggestions if they feel like it. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. A male derives his status from the status of his mother. The mother–son bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, and although the son of a high ranking female may outrank a lower female, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Relationships between different communities are often positive and affiliative, and bonobos are not a territorial species. Bonobos will also share food with others, even unrelated strangers. Bonobos exhibit paedomorphism (retaining infantile physical characteristics and behaviours), which greatly inhibits aggression and enables unfamiliar bonobos to freely mingle and cooperate with each other.  

I quote this passage at length because I feel there are various clues here to creating a more effective human society, on a global scale. Let’s be ambitious. Here are some of the clues:

  • respect for our elders, and keeping them within the community, rather than shuffling them off to nursing homes. This includes allowing them the right to die, when or if they feel their time has come
  • respecting knowledge and experience rather than physical strength or military might. Finding strength in unity of purpose, shared goals and experience in achieving those goals
  • recognising over-arching concerns shared by all nations, whether these be nations with officially-drawn (but often artificial) boundaries or nations of cultural identity – the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Cherokees, the Pitjantjatjara, etc – while recognising, respecting and learning from different cultural perspectives and methodologies.
  • respecting experience and knowledge over rank, and so creating a greater communal fluidity, and avoiding the accumulation of resources by a small elite group 
  • encouraging play and playfulness, youthful exuberance (especially among the no-longer-youthful) and free expression
  • being generally more forgiving and less punitive

Are such clues to an improved human society dependent on a more prominent role for females in that society?

Do bears shit in the woods? 

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm

A bonobo world 31: are bonobos people?

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William Damper’s Aussie disappointment


Apparently, under current US law at least, there is a clear distinction between people, or persons – that’s to say, all human animals – and everything else, with the emphasis on thing. From a legal perspective, bonobos, chimps, rats and lice are things. This of course raises questions about a human embryo or blastula or morula etc, which I won’t explore here.

Clearly bonobos, chimps and our pet birds and animals aren’t things, except in the sense that we’re all things – living things. It’s also clear that many non-human animals do many of the things people do, such as feeling angry, sad, bored, scared, tired, confused etc. With these obvious facts in mind, a US organisation called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought habeas corpus hearings in a New York State court ‘to determine whether Kiko and Tommy, two captive chimpanzees, should be considered legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty’. The chimps, who have different owners, are each kept in conditions which any reasonable person would describe as inhuman – but then, they’re not humans. According to current US law, they’re human possessions, subject no doubt to certain animal welfare laws, but arguably not to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking to strengthen their case, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought together a series of amicus curiae (friends of the court) essays by philosophers and ethicists, published in 2019 in a booklet, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosopher’s Brief. 

All of this should make us wonder what a person actually is, and whether there are degrees of personhood. On this point I want to share an anecdote. 

I was walking my young dog in the park, and she was bouncing and darting about friskily in front of me. We passed two women on a park bench, and one of them beamed at me, ‘I bet she’s a girl!’ ‘Yes, she’s a girl’, I smiled. ‘Yeah, they’re always the lively ones,’ she asserted. Being ever a contrarian, as I’ve been told, I wondered about the truth of this assertion, which led to a far more interesting question – was Mulan (the dog) still a girl? A quick calculation, using the human-to-dog years rule-of-thumb, told me that she was now in her early-mid twenties, just that age when it starts to become dodgy, PC-wise, to keep using the girl moniker.

So, this dog was a woman now?

We actually call our pets girls or boys even deep into old age. Isn’t this a form of infantilism? It goes with the word ‘pet’ of course. So what about, say, lions? Do we condescend to confer adulthood on those regal animals? Well, sort of. We use male and female, and of course him and her, and personal names if we’ve thought ones up. But the terms man and woman are only for us.

This is understandable, while at the same time it has the odour of human specialness. I imagine that zookeepers or zoologists who get friendly with wild animals might employ the term girl or boy to refer to them, a term of affection laced with superiority. We just can’t allow them to rise to our level. That’s why, with bonobos, it’s okay, and indeed very fruitful, to learn about them, but to learn from them is a step too far, is it not?

And yet. Gillian Dooley, a research fellow at Flinders University, and Danielle Clode, of the same university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, recently co-edited The first wave, a collection of writings on Europeans’ early contacts with Aboriginal cultures in Australia. The book’s cover features ‘the first known illustration of the Aboriginal people of Australia, which appeared in a rare 1698 Dutch edition of William Dampier’s 1697 New voyage around the world.’ It was only recently brought to light in the library of the University of Hawaii. The image depicts a confrontation of sorts between Dampier and his crew and the Aborigines, in which the Europeans tried to get them to carry barrels of water, perhaps in exchange for articles of clothing, as one Aborigine is depicted sporting a European jacket. It seems the Aborigines didn’t ‘get it’ and were unwilling to comply. Dampier wrote umbrageously that ‘we were forced to carry our water ourselves’.

The scene beautifully illustrates the European attitude, over many centuries, to the people of what they liked to call ‘the new world’ – which effectively meant the world beyond Eurasia. The term savage, noble or ignoble, was first applied to human apes (of a certain condition), as far as we know, by John Dryden in a 1672 play, though the idea goes back to Montaigne and beyond. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Europeans of the last few centuries, with their elaborate clothing and appurtenances, their monumental architecture, their complex religious rituals and beliefs, their technological developments and political systems, would mostly see the ‘natives’ as part of the fauna of these exotic    new lands. And history tells us that it doesn’t even take a sense of their inferior otherness to turn our fellow humans into beasts of burden or slaves. Aristotle defended slavery and believed that some people were ‘natural slaves’. Athenian soi-disant democracy was entirely dependent on slaves, who vastly outnumbered citizens. Many of the indigenous nations of the Americas had slaves before they themselves were enslaved by the Conquistadors. The feudal system that pervaded Europe for centuries was essentially a slave system. Montaigne was able to retire to his castle and write the essays that inspired me decades ago because he inherited that castle, the productive lands around it, and the people who worked the land. They were his. If he asked them to carry water for him, they would feel obliged to do so. 

I imagine that if we travelled back in time and asked Aristotle whether slaves were people, that he would come up with a long complicated discourse to the effect that there were natural slaves who were best suited to be beasts of burden, and that these natural slaves beget more natural slaves, entirely suited to serve their masters – which is essentially the basis of the feudal system. What has, of course, blown all this type of thinking away (though fragments still remain) is modern biology, especially neurophysiology and genetics. Our understanding of human connectedness has been raised by these disciplines, as has our understanding of the connectedness of all species. So we look at ‘first nation’ culture and technology and its adaptation to environment with more enlightened eyes, and we see other species more in terms of family, culture and problem-solving, even if in very different contexts from our own. But the human context is constantly changing. For seventy-odd years now, we’ve built and maintained the weaponry to destroy human and other life on a grand scale. the USA alone has over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Surely there’s nothing more to achieve on the warfare front. Our survival is assured against all comers, except of course, ourselves. The future has to be about making peace, making connections, learning how to do things more cleverly, more supportively, more sustainably for all the life forms we’re connected with. 

Which returns me to bonobos. The question, of course, isn’t whether they are people. They’re in many ways like us, as are their chimp cousins. I just happen to think they’re more worth learning from than chimps (though I must say, I always feel guilty about dissing our chimp rellies – they’re not that bad!). They know how to nip violence in the bud, they’re relaxed and open about sex (though not obsessed, either positively or negatively), they keep their menfolk – sorry, males – in line, and in all those things they do better than we human apes. If we can follow bonobos in these ways – and maintain and build on the best of what’s human – our curiosity, out ingenuity, our sympathy, and our extraordinary creative capacity – I think we’ll be around for a long time.

savages – or maybe just greeny nudists – upholding Denmark’s coat of arms

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2021 at 1:57 pm