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women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

women and warfare, part 1: humans, chimpanzees and patriarchy

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Recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve only just started to read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we have progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident.

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ have so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2018 at 9:18 pm

some preliminary reflections on patriarchy

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worried woman

Canto: I want to talk about patriarchy, it’s weighing on my mind more and more.

Jacinta: Go on. And by the way, since we’ll obviously be talking about males and females and difference here, I notice that this blog is currently getting quite a few hits on a previous post, What do we currently know about the differences between male and female brains in humans?, and I think there’s information I’d want to add to that post, based on more recent research.

Canto: Go on.

Jacinta: Well what the research found, and it doesn’t in any way contradict the above-mentioned post, is that there are no categorical differences between the male and female brain, only statistical differences. It’s a nice thing to emphasise, that human brains are a kind of mozaic of ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits, with a very broad spectrum of possibilities. It essentially means that, unlike with genitalia, which, with a few statistically insignificant exceptions, can be used to identify maleness or femaleness, you wouldn’t, even with a lifetime’s neurological experience behind you, be able to say categorically that an individual was male or female based on an examination of the person’s brain alone.

Canto: But there might in some cases be a high probability.

Jacinta: Oh yes, maybe 80% in some cases, but that wouldn’t pass muster in a court of law, beyond reasonable doubt and all that. That would require a 99.9% probability or more. Think DNA ‘fingerprinting’. So, in all that was written in the previous post, the words ‘on average’, a statistical reference, should be kept in mind.

Canto: Right. And that term was used in the post, but perhaps not enough. But now let’s look at some other stats. According to IFL science, males commit some 85% of homicides, 91% of same-sex homicides, and 97% of same-sex homicides in which the victim and the perp aren’t known to each other (that’s to say, in which the likely motive was ideological)…

Jacinta: Or business-related, as in hired hit-men and the like…

Canto: It’s a stark but probably not surprising set of statistics. The IFL science post from which I got this data went on to provide an explanation, of sorts, in evolutionary psychology, through concept such as ‘precarious manhood’, clearly embedded in a patriarchal society which appears to be taken for granted. The notoriously macho Yanomamo people of South America are cited as an example, because the more men they kill the more their status rises. This is claimed as evidence that the quest for dominance is pretty well universal among males…

Jacinta: Well I can see a clear problem there.

Canto: Good.

Jacinta: And it relates very much to what I’ve been saying about male (and female) brains. Just as they vary over a very wide spectrum, so males themselves vary in the same way. So how can the quest for dominance be universal among males when males themselves are so various in their brain wiring and function?

Canto: Excellent point, and so let me leave this evolutionary psychology stuff aside, at least for the time being, and get back to patriarchy. There are many reasons that have converged to make western society less violent over the centuries, but I strongly believe that a ‘drop’ in patriarchy and a rise in gender egalitarianism has been one of the major civilising factors – possibly the major one.

Jacinta: So you have a solution for the world: patriarchy bad, matriarchy good?

Canto: Matriarchy probably better, but that wouldn’t make for such a good bumper sticker.

Jacinta: Seriously, I think you may be right. And it might actually be safer to challenge certain societies – Arabic, African and Indian societies for example – on their patriarchy than on their religion. It might actually be their soft spot, because if they react violently to a criticism of patriarchal violence they’ve lost the argument, haven’t they?

Canto: They probably wouldn’t care about losing the argument, as long as they kept their patriarchy.

does your boss look like this?

does your boss look like this?

Jacinta: I would challenge the women in those societies, too. Nowadays, in the interests of multiculturalism, we’re asked to respect the hijab, and we get soft interviews with women who almost invariably say it’s their choice to wear it, and when asked why they choose to wear it they almost invariably say something about modesty. And that’s where the tough questioning should come in, but it never does.

Canto: Such as?

Jacinta: Such as, Does your husband (or father, or son) wear a hijab? If not, is that because modesty isn’t a male virtue? And if not, why not?

Canto: I’ve no idea what they’d say. Maybe they’d say that in their culture women dress differently from men, just as they do in western culture. You don’t see many western men going about in frocks, or hot-pants.

Jacinta: Well… you don’t see that many women going about in hot-pants actually. And not even frocks except on special occasions. Trousers and a top, that’s probably the most common everyday dress for both sexes. But we’ll get back to that, imagine I’m trying to pin them down on this modesty question. I think maybe they’d have to admit that modesty is regarded as a feminine virtue in their culture.

Canto: Ah, and then you’d go for the killer blow, saying ‘isn’t this because modesty is a self-effacing virtue, whereas the male virtues would be more about confidence and assertiveness? And which of these virtues would you associate with power?’

Jacinta: Yes, that’d kill them stone dead.

Canto: Well, actually you don’t go for the killer blow, you soften them up with Socratic manoeuvrings.

Jacinta: Ah. Well, Socrates I’m sure that self-confidence and assertiveness are more associated with power than modesty.

Canto: And modesty, that tends to more associated with a desire not to wield power – to be, or to seem to be, lacking in power?

Jacinta: Yes, that is certainly true, Socrates.

Canto: So it would follow, would it not, that those who don’t wear the hijab, namely the males, would be assertive and dominant within such a culture, and the hijab-wearers would be more submissive, and rather dominated? For to be modest is surely not to be dominant.

Jacinta: Surely it isn’t.

Canto: And yet, research tells us that both females – the hijab-wearers in this culture – and males are both a mosaic of various traits, some of which have been traditionally associated with maleness, some with femaleness, though perhaps not with good reason.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s what the research clearly shows. And yet there’s this problem, even in our somewhat less patriarchal society, of male violence against women, both domestic and general. Is this just because of the statistical differences between male and female brains – not only in connectivity between neurons and between specific regions in the brain, but the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and testosterone and dopamine?

Canto: Well, yes, now we’re getting into very tricky territory.

Jacinta: Yes, like ‘I wasn’t responsible for killing her, it was my brain that was responsible – I can’t help the dangerous cocktail of chemicals that is my brain’.

Canto: Yes, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us, those chemicals are ‘in check’, they don’t cause us to harm others or ourselves, in fact they’re essential to our living socially constructive, civilised lives. And it seems that the feedback from the wider society regulates the circulation and effect of those chemicals. If you live in a society which rewards you for denouncing someone as a witch, or which more or less sanctions pack rape – and such societies or sub-cultures do exist, though hopefully they’re diminishing – then many will act accordingly. And many societies, as we know, sanction or reward the two genders differently.

Jacinta: Well, that’s interesting, and it raises another question – the extent to which the culture we live in, or the family we grow up in, affects the actual physiology of our brains. So, ‘my culture/my family made my brain make me do it’.

Canto: Well, we can’t get away from that. What we want is something like the universal declaration of human rights having real impact, so that these universal values are actually imposed at the level of the brain.

Jacinta: Brainwashing? And are they universal values?

Canto: They’re useful ones for our flourishing, that’s enough. Ok forget the word ‘impose’, but they should be encouraged and rewarded, and we should ask people to look critically, through education, at whether there are any effective alternatives – such as shari’a law, or any other cultural laws or customary behaviours.

Jacinta: Individual flourishing, or is there some other possibly better sort of flourishing?

Canto: No I’m actually talking about a broad social, human flourishing, imposing limits within which individuals can thrive, as members. And those useful values deal pretty well with patriarchy, in that they show that both the Catholic Church and whole religions such as Islam are violating those values by discriminating in terms of gender.

Jacinta: But the UDHR has freedom of religion as one of its values.

Canto: It’s not perfect.

Jacinta: Some values are more valuable than others?

Canto: Well actually yes. And, getting back to what we know about human brains, and what they tell us about diversity within each gender, any cultural or religious practice which delimits that diversity is a curtailment of self-expression, freedom and flourishing.

Jacinta: Fine words, but get this. This diversity within genders you talk about is based on one study. How many brains were examined in this study, and more importantly, from which cultural backgrounds were they drawn? Could it be that brains taken from subjects who inhabited cultures that had imposed strict gender divisions for generations would show considerably less diversity? Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue.

Canto: Good point, and unfortunately the details of the research are behind a paywall, but there’s been a lot of reporting on it, for example here, here and here. Some 1400 brains were studied, and there was a connected study of behavioural traits among 5500 individuals, and ages ranged from 13 to 85, but I couldn’t find anything on the cultural backgrounds of the subjects. The research was done from Tel Aviv University, using existing datasets of MRI images. I’m not sure what can be derived from that.

Jacinta: Well OK, I don’t think we’ve quite solved the patriarchy problem or even sufficiently addressed it here, but it was a start. Time to finish.

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2016 at 11:26 am

movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Limi-Girl-2014-4

Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 16.04.49

Heigo joins in the song

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

the ‘as if’ principle: or, how to cultivate happiness

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William James – a surprisingly fun guy

The following post is based entirely on Richard Wiseman’s book Rip it up, which should be better known, but perhaps it is, I don’t know.

William James, Henry’s more interesting big brother, was one of the world’s first professional or academic psychologists, though I’d say more academic than professional. His most significant contribution to psychology was the utterance of a single simple sentence: ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ It sounds anodyne and not particularly original – I’m sure a lot of us have imagined from childhood that acting as if you’re a knowledgeable, intelligent person might make people treat you like one, even if it’s all BS. I know I have.

The fact is, though, that a ton of research has shown that James really was onto something. I’m going to present an annotated list of the research, but first, some background to James’s thinking. He followed a well-worn track for original thinkers (if that’s not a contradiction, which it is) of deciding that the common-sense view of ‘x’ isn’t true, or at least needs considerable tweaking (think Newton on motion, Einstein on space and time, etc). The common-sense view on emotions is that when we feel anxious, we sweat; when we feel happy, we smile; and when we feel sad, we weep. This seems pretty well unarguable. Here’s what James himself had to say:

Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

But James had learned to be wary of the obvious, and his thoughts about emotion and behaviour were piqued by one of Darwin’s most important books, The expression of the emotion in man and animals, in which he noted how easily and reliably we can identify the emotions of others from their facial expressions. James took this in another direction. Maybe if we took more notice of our own facial expressions we would gain more insight into how we were feeling. Then he took it a step further: Maybe if we changed our expressions we could change our emotional state.

James got a little carried away with his own insight, as you do. He imagined that we really had got the causal connection round the wrong way. As he put it:

You do not run from the bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of it because you run from it.

We now know, though, that it isn’t that the causal connection is reversed, it’s that it runs both ways. Yes, we smile because we’re happy, but it’s also true that smiling makes us happier. And that’s just the start. James was no experimental psychologist – more of an armchair ideas man, so it took a while for this idea to catch on and be tested, but in recent decades we’ve really caught up. So here’s the evidence – and I’ll number and describe the research pieces (they’re not all empirical research, as you’ll see, and they’re in no particular order) and provide academic details, if any, at the end.

1. Volunteers were first asked to smile or frown, then report on their feelings. Then the experimenter, James Laird, decided a more reliable method was needed. He told the subjects he’d be examining electrical activity, and placed electrodes at various facial muscles. He explained that their emotional state might affect the experiment, so asked them to report on their feelings. In fact the electrodes were fake. Then they were asked to manipulate their faces into what we would see as happy or angry expressions, though emotional terms were never used. Instead they were asked to draw their eyebrows up or down, to purse or spread their lips, to clench their teeth, etc. Those whose faces were ‘forced’ into smiles reported feeling significantly happier than those who frowned – who felt more angry. When asked why, they had no ready answer – few attributed it to the facial manipulations.

2. Constantin Stanislavsky was the ‘inventor’ of method acting. He encouraged actors to experience real emotion through behaviour – the key idea being ‘if I was really experiencing this emotion, how would I behave?’ Many famous actors have used the ‘magic if’ principle to great effect.

3. Other psychologists, inspired by Laird’s research, used other tricks to change people’s facial expressions, such as getting people to use ‘ee’ words (as in ‘say cheese’) or ‘eu’ words (as in ‘ooh yuk’), which produced similar results to (1). A German team told half of their subjects to hold a pencil horizontally between their teeth, forcing a smile, while the other half held the pencil with lips only, forcing a frown. All results supported the power of the ‘as if’ principle.

4. Volunteers were attached to a machine that monitored heart rate and skin temperature. They were asked first to think of an event that made them feel angry, and to try to relive that event as intensely as possible. Then they were asked simply to manipulate their faces into a recognisably angry expression. These two separate tasks were repeated for other emotions – surprise, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. Not surprisingly, heart rates and skin temperatures changed considerably when the first of the tasks were carried out, in line with the emotions being experienced. More surprisingly, the same effects were measured when the subjects simply manipulated their faces. This experiment, first carried out with western subjects, was repeated with subjects from a remote Indonesian island. The results supported the idea that the ‘as if’ principle is universal among humans.

5. Participants were placed in a brain scanner and asked to contort their faces into a fearful expression. This time there was no need to ask subjects for feedback. Instead, scientists measured directly the activity in the amygdala, known to be highly associated with fear responses.The experiment provided strong evidence that the ‘as if’ principle has a definite effect on the brain.

6. A national survey was conducted in which people rated their cheerfulness levels, from 1 (not at all cheerful) to 7 (very cheerful). 45% of the population rated themselves from 5 to 7. Then a study was conducted involving some 26,000 internet respondents. Participants were randomly assigned to various groups and asked to engage in activities designed to make them happier (e.g. encouraged to feel grateful, to relive happy memories, etc). One group was simply asked to smile for a brief period every day. When participants were asked to rate their happiness after the exercises, those who simply smiled had the most positive results. (no research data available)

7. In a study designed to determine whether walking style influenced emotional state, subjects were asked to take a 3-minute walk in 2 ways. One half were asked to take long strides, swing their arms and hold their heads high. The other half were asked to shuffle and look at their feet. The first half afterwards rated themselves significantly happier than the second half.

8. Sabine Koch has conducted research which reveals that people feel happier when they move in a fluid way, and avoid sharp, straight movements. She focused particularly on hand-shaking. She trained some experimenters to shake hands in a smooth flowing way, and others to shake hands more jerkily. Koch then asked people who’d been subjected to these different handshakes how they felt. Those subjected to the flowing handshake felt considerably happier, and closer to and more trusting of the experimenter (I like this one).

9. Clinical psychologist Emmett Velten wanted to create a happy atmosphere in the lab. He experimented by dividing volunteers into 2 groups, handing each a stack of 60 cards. For group 1, the first card, which the subject was asked to read aloud, said ‘today is neither better nor worse than any other day’. The next card read ’I do feel pretty good today though’. The subject slowly read through the whole stack, which contained increasingly positive messages. Group 2’s cards simply contained statements of fact, such as ‘The Orient Express travels between Paris and Istanbul’. After the read-through, the subjects in group 1 reported feeling in a ‘wonderful’ mood, while group 2 subjects reported no change. This striking effect led to a number of similar experiments.

10. One group of participants were asked to read aloud a short paragraph describing how their friend had thrown them a surprise birthday party. Another group read a story about how a family member had been diagnosed with an illness. The participants’ moods were genuinely affected, as if these stories were true.

11. On reading about the medical benefits of laughter, Dr Madan Kataria went to a local park with some friends. They told each other jokes and laughed loudly. It became a regular thing and soon grew into the first laughter club. When the jokes started becoming offensive, he tried a new tack, employing the as if principle. He found that laughing out loud as if you’ve heard a great joke had much the same effect (no research data)

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12. Research based on laughter clubs has been carried out in the USA. Subjects were split into 3 groups. Group 1 spent a minute smiling, group 2 spent a minute laughing aloud, group 3 spent the minute engaged in an activity requiring a similar physical effort to laughing, but with no amusement factor (howling like a wolf). Group 2, the laughing group, felt happiest afterwards, followed by the smiling group. The howling group reported no effect.

13. Another popular ‘fun’ activity is dancing. Researchers split 300 students into 4 groups. Group 1 participated in an hour-long aerobic exercise class, group 2 in a body conditioning session, group 3 in hip-hop dancing, and group 4 went ice skating. Due to feel-good endorphin release, all groups felt happier afterwards, but the hip-hop group were happiest (not precisely an illustration of the ‘as if’ principle, but fuck that, let’s dance). Other research has shown that non-competitive, easily-learned dance moves have the most positive effect on mood.

14. Not surprisingly, another activity which has an overwhelmingly positive effect on mood is singing. In one experiment, choristers were asked to sing sections of Mozart’s Requiem, against controls who only listened to recordings of the piece. The singers reported far higher levels of happiness.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ve taken these research pieces entirely from the first chapter of Wiseman’s book, which focuses on happiness. Other chapters deal with romance and relationships, mental health, and the art of persuasion. Among many insights, the importance of role-playing is emphasised throughout. That’s to say. it’s not just a matter of thinking yourself in others’ shoes, but wearing those shoes that effects change. The notorious Stanford prison experiment, and the famous blue eyes, brown eyes experiment are two classic, albeit largely depressing, accounts of the power of role-play, but clearly it can be used to more positive effect. One of the most inspiring aspects of Wiseman’s book, for me, is to show that change might be easier than we think (and again that’s a two edged sword, depending on the nature of the change). The call to action is very useful, especially if, like me, you tend to be more wedded to thinking than to doing.

1.Laird, James D. (1974). “Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29(4): 475–486. doi:10.1037/h0036125.

2. Merlin, Bella. 2007. The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 978-1-85459-793-9.

3. Strack, F et al. (1988) ‘Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-77

4. Levenson, R W et al (1990) ‘Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity’, Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-84

5. Lee, T W et al (2006) ‘Imitating expressions: emotion-specific neural substrates in facial mimicry’, Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 1, 122-35

7. Snodgrass, S E et al (1986) ‘The effects of walking behaviour on mood’. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association convention.

8. Koch, S C (2011) ‘Basic body rhythms and embodied inter corporality: from individual to interpersonal movement feedback’, in W Tsacher, & C Bergomi (eds), ‘The implications of embodiment: cognition and communication’ (pp151-71), Exeter: Imprint Academic

9. Velten, E (1968) ‘A laboratory task for induction of mood states’, Behaviour research and therapy, 6, 473-82

10. Hatfield, E et al (1995)’The impact of vocal feedback on emotional experience and expression’. Journal of social behaviour and personality, 10, 293-313

12. Neuhoff, C & Schaefer, C (2002) ‘Effects of laughing, smiling and howling on mood’, Psychological Reports, 91, 1079-80

13. Kim, S & Kim, J (2007) ‘Mood after various brief exercise and sport modes: aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ice skating ad body conditioning’. Perceptual and motor skills, 104, 1265-70

14. Clift, S et al (2010) ‘Choral singing and psychological well-being’, Journal of applied arts and health, 1, 19-34; Kreuz, G et al ‘Does singing provide health benefits?’ Proceedings of the 5th triennial ESCOM conference, 216-19

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2015 at 3:09 am

what can we learn from religion?

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atheists

 

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am