a bonobo humanity?

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

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.

References

https://www.forbes.com.au/lists/people/forbes-billionaires-2023-australias-50-richest-revealed/

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/03/25/the-miners-daughter

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniechiu/2018/07/25/the-rise-of-female-philanthropists-and-three-big-bets-they-make/?sh=5823161c5f89

https://qz.com/1033621/scientists-assumed-that-patriarchy-was-only-natural-bonobos-proved-them-wrong

Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2023 at 9:24 pm

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