a bonobo humanity?

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

Archive for the ‘Beauvoir’ Category

more frayed and fractured thoughts on the long and winding road that leads to your bonoboism

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I have attempted to show, in my book The Second Sex [1949], why a woman’s situation still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, 1960

L’admission des femmes à l’égalité parfaite serait la marque la plus sûre de la civilisation et elle doublerait les forces intellectuelles du genre humain.

Stendhal, De l’amour, 1821



Little Women

The move towards female dominance in the WEIRD world has begun. Or has it? If so, it has a bloody long way to go. Here in Australia, our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are male, but at least our Foreign Minister is female. As a relatively new country, federated in 1901, we’ve had 31 Prime Ministers, 30 of whom have been male. That’s slightly (or much?) better than the USA, with 45 Presidents, all male, from 1789. Of course, Australia’s only female PM, Julia Gillard, came to power in the 21st century (unelected ‘by the people’, due to internal ructions in the sitting government, though her party, the Australian Labor Party, went on to retain government in 2010 – but then the party dumped her before the next election). Our neighbour New Zealand has had three female PMs, one of whom, Helen Clark, managed to hold the post for nine years. And New Zealand was the first country in the WEIRD world to allow women to vote, in 1893.

We don’t have a presidential system, we have a far better party-based system, in which we vote for policies and party platforms rather than a one-on-0ne between two ‘I alone can fix it’ noise-makers. Having said that, I’m being a bit disingenuous – it’s very likely that a lot of Aussies vote based on the ‘personality’ of Mr Labour or Mr LNP (the federal LNP has never had a female leader, while federal labour has had only Gillard). But at least the party can dump their leaders at the behest of the elected members, and there’s nothing in the way of immunity or ‘pardoning powers’. And that goes for virtually every democracy in the WEIRD world, apart from the USA. Getting rid of all that bullshit would, I think, be a move in the bonobo direction for that teetering nation. Don’t hold your breath.

The bonobo world, as I see it, is not just a predominantly female world, it’s a collaborative world. And with a greater spirit of collaboration in the structure or design or evolved culture of a company or a discipline – think education, the law, but above all the sciences, which don’t suffer from the negativities of in-built adversarial systems (politics, courts, industrial relations) – more women will be attracted, and will succeed. The horrorshow regions of the world – China, Russia, the Middle East (including Israel) and much of Africa, Asia and South America, are mucho macho. Which, frankly, doesn’t leave much territory for women to display their wares. Those that succeed, politically, often do so by aping the confrontational male approach, to the delight of their male ‘advisors’. Pew research from a few months ago tells us that fewer than a third of UN member states have ever had a female leader, and that of the mere thirteen current female leaders, nine are the first female leaders of their nation. Of course, if we go back 100 years, when the League of Nations was struggling to survive, the situation was far worse. So unless change occurs exponentially, we’ll be waiting a few centuries before bonoboism takes its rightful place in our world.

And yet, we must take the long view. It has amused and annoyed me that so many scholars, who should know better, take issue with Steven Pinker’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and Peter Singer’s ‘expanding circle’. The evidence of extreme, mass human violence and cruelty going back centuries into millennia has been gathered and presented by countless historians, and the fact that so many millions were killed in just the past century or so of warfare is not due to our growing thuggishness and indifference to suffering, but the greater efficiency of our killing machinery, culminating in the Hiroshima-Nagasaki horror. Some may say this is wishful thinking, but I consider that double event as a watershed in our history. What followed was a period of unprecedented peace in the WEIRD world, and the establishment of a concept of universal human rights, developed and promoted by the indefatigable Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.

Over the years I’ve known many individuals to sneer at and dismiss the UN as a toothless tiger, and it would be easy enough to enumerate its failings, but the very existence of ‘peacekeeping forces’ is, historically, a completely novel, and quite bonoboesque, phenomenon. After all, bonobos aren’t entirely non-violent, but they tend to employ violence only to prevent further violence.

Bonobos are less territorial than chimps. They both live in distinct troupes (think ‘nations’) but while bonobos are observed to share food (and cuddles) with bonobo foreigners, chimps are just as likely to engage in death-fights. In recent centuries, humans have created nations, whose integrity obsesses us, so that we patrol borders, we obsess over the ‘legality’ of those who cross those borders, we pride ourselves on being ‘us’ and not ‘them’. Before we developed those obsessions, an intrepid voyager, or ‘immigrant’, might have travelled from Albion, where I was born, to the European mainland, and on east for thousands of kilometres, to arrive at the northern Pacific, perhaps around where Vladivostok is now, without ever having crossed a border, or been asked to produce her ‘papers’. Of course she may well have been robbed or raped a few times along the way, all part of the adventure, and would’ve learned about safety in numbers, and the art of ingratiation… Intrepid travellers generally have many skills to rely on, for surviving and even thriving in new arenas, enlivening and enriching those arenas to the benefit of all, a process that has occurred time and time again – but when males have dominated, there has aways been a conflictual downside. If female dominance manages to become the norm, as one day, long after the eight billion humans currently doing their diverse things around the biosphere have passed away, I believe it will, this downside will be greatly reduced, and a true golden age for humanity, and for the biosphere within which it is enmeshed, will begin.

Or maybe not. I always like to have an each-way bet, even when I’ll never know in my lifetime what the outcome will be. Got to protect my future rep after all. But I really don’t think a future without greater female empowerment can be contemplated with equanimity. China, Russia, the Middle East and most of Africa are currently shithole regions for women, but arguably this isn’t because women’s situation has deteriorated in these regions. It has never been good for them, since their history has been recorded. Or perhaps not never. There have been brief periods – before the Ayatollahs turned Persia into Iran, for example, or when Catherine the Great introduced the idea of (limited) education for women in Russia – but it so often seems like one step forward then two steps back.

Anyway, Vive les bonobos. We need to keep learning from them.





Written by stewart henderson

November 3, 2023 at 4:55 pm