an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half

 

I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

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‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller

 

It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am

capitalism, bonobos and feminism

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really?

I’ve been getting stuff in my Youtube feed from Chris Hedges and Richard Wolfe, for some reason. Noam Chomsky comes up too, of course. And because I’m writing about bonobos and a dream of a female dominated society, I’ve grabbed a book from our shelves by Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl, just one of many feminist texts waiting around for my consumption. And the above-mentioned individuals all have one obvious target in common – capitalism.

So what is capitalism? I’ll try to give my take. Capitalism isn’t a political system, except in the broadest sense. And it isn’t a system, or a behaviour, limited to humans. Birds seek to capitalise, bees seek to capitalise, even the plants and the trees seek to capitalise. Sometimes individually, sometimes in collaboration. The exploitation of solar energy, for example, is pure capitalism, capitalising on a more or less free resource. Shocking. As the most hypersocial of all species, we collaborate in capitalising, to the benefit of some of our own, to the detriment of others. Feudalism was essentially a capitalist system, the primary capital being land, or territory. It wasn’t a fair system – humans have never been fair, any more than any other species has. They’ve sought to optimise opportunities, for themselves and their rellies or in-group. It’s hardly surprising that we only really conceived the concept of human rights in the 20th century, after a few hundred thousands of years of existence as a species. It took two brutal world wars and the threat of being obliterated by a nuclear holocaust to bring us to our collective senses. Human rights are of course an artifice. We’re not created equal, we’ll never have equality of opportunity, and we’re only free to be human, which is quite a limitation. If you think we’re free to do whatever you want, try it and you won’t last long. In this we’re no different from elephants, hyenas and other highly social species.

The political pundits mentioned above rage a lot against capitalism, and prognosticate its overthrow in tomorrowland. What will replace ir? That’s a bit more vague, but they have faith in the young and the oppressed, who they consider a lot nicer than their overlords. Now I have to admit I haven’t met too many capitalist overlords, but I’ve met a few proles and strugglers, and I’d describe them as a mixed bag. In fact, that’s how I’d describe everyone I’ve met, including myself. This is surely why every state that has tried to institute ‘socialism’, some kind of fake equality sent down from above, ends up devolving into dictatorship. There’s a great line from Immanuel Kant, which roughly translates as ‘from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing was ever made straight’. It follows that no political system fashioned from crooked timber will ever be more ‘true’ than its rough constituents – but timber is valuable for all that.

The bonobo world isn’t free of violence, hierarchy or, if we can call it that, capitalism. It simply seems, from all observations, rather less violent, hierarchical and exploitative than the chimp world, out of which we appear to have grown, at least until recently. Now, after, it seems, eons of male-dominated human societies, which have mixed ingenuity and inventiveness with warfare and oppression, we are, at least in the WEIRD world, talking about female empowerment, and witnessing effective female leadership in government, science, business and other human affairs. We’re witnessing, I think, feel and hope, the start of something big. Leaving the sexual stuff to one side – though I wouldn’t mind a bit on the side – bonobos have learned to live within their means, to support each other in child-rearing, foraging and play. Humans are, of course, far more ambitious, and our hypersociality has brought about a biosphere-transforming dominance of the planet, for better or worse.

We’re recognising, now, the dangers posed by our own dynamism. ‘Disposable’ plastics everywhere, mountains of abandoned clothing and other rubbish, the consumption of millions of years of transformed carbon-based life-forms in the form of fossil fuel, the destabilisation and contamination caused by fracking, the deforestations and thoughtless reforestations that are destroying essential, age-old habitats, the warming and volatilising of our atmosphere and oceans, all of this is being increasingly brought to our generally limited attention. Ambitious solutions are being sought, fixes that will enable us to continue our rapacity regardless. Others suggest that we should pull our collective head in and live within our means. But how will we ‘begin infinity’ if we do that? By terraforming other planets and starting the same thing over again?

The current usage of terms such as capitalism and socialism, even of conservatism and liberalism, tend to get in the way of our future needs. There are no magic solutions to how we might negotiate our hypersocial future. Jess Scully’s book Glimpses of Utopia is excellent and highly recommended, my only slight quibble is with the title – there are no utopias in the real world. The book’s subtitle – ‘real ideas for a fairer world’ – is far less catchy but a more accurate description of the book’s contents. Scully recounts collective solutions to problems of housing, decision-making, taxation and financing in such far-flung countries as Iceland, Taiwan, Australia and India. They aren’t all being led by women of course, but they’re a great antidote and counter-example to the top-down, know-it-all macho thugocracies that have failed so miserably in dealing with the current pandemic – a failure whose history has, of course, yet to be written, and will, I’m sure, prove to be more devastating than we currently realise.

I need to point out that I have no dewy-eyed admiration of the superior capacities of human females – or of bonobo females, for that matter. Both genders are no doubt as diversely repellant as they are diversely inspiring, on an individual level. I’m impressed, though, with the ‘natural experiment’ presented to us by bonobos and chimps in negotiating their collective existence and their habitat. As we’ve come to question patriarchy only in the past 150 years or so, and to undermine it, to some small degree, in the last few decades, we’re seeing suggestive signs that female leadership in sufficient numbers – and we’ve yet to experience those numbers, and are in fact far from having that experience – makes a real difference in well-being, inclusivity and support. Will it diminish human creativity? To believe so assumes that creativity is dependent on competition, but the fruits of creativity rely on communication and collaboration – and in any case there’s no reason to believe that female humans are less competitive than males – just a little less murderously so.

So this is the point – bonobo society isn’t utopian, and overthrowing ‘capitalism’, or human behaviour, isn’t going to lead to utopia, or anything other than another capitalist arrangement. It’s just that bonobo society is happier, calmer, sexier and less destructive than chimp society, and this is clearly connected to the position of females in that society. Who doesn’t want that?

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2021 at 12:12 pm

bonobos, religion and feminism

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bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

a bonobo world 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.

References

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

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29187881

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

https://www.upworthy.com/female-bonobos-shut-down-violent-males-heres-what-humans-can-learn-from-them

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm

a bonobo world: the thirty percent rule

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the parliamentary glass ceiling?

 

Canto: We talked about the thirty percent rule before. So where did it come from and what does it signify?

Jacinta: Well that’s very much worth exploring, because if it’s true that a 30% ‘infiltration’ of women into various social organisations – such as business corporations, governments, political parties, law firms, military organisations, NGOs, whatever – improves the efficacy of those organisations, then what about a 40% infiltration – or 60%, or 80%?

Canto: Or total control? The ‘males as pets or playthings’ argument comes up again.

Jacinta: So yes, before we go there – and I do think it’s a fun place to go – let’s look at the origins of the 30% rule, or the 30% aspiration, or whatever. The UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995 was considered, by some, as a major step forward, at least theoretically. It developed, and I quote, ‘strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern’, one of which was ‘women in power and decision-making’. In that section, I found this passage:

Despite the widespread movement towards democratization in most countries, women are largely underrepresented at most levels of government, especially in ministerial and other executive bodies, and have made little progress in attaining political power in legislative bodies or in achieving the target endorsed by the Economic and Social Council of having 30 per cent women in positions at decision-making levels by 1995. Globally, only 10 per cent of the members of legislative bodies and a lower percentage of ministerial positions are now held by women. Indeed, some countries, including those that are undergoing fundamental political, economic and social changes, have seen a significant decrease in the number of women represented in legislative bodies.

The section went on to expand on the need for female decision-making input in ‘art, culture, sports, the media, education, religion and the law’…

Canto: So this 30% target goes back even before the Beijing Conference. Fat chance of achieving it by 1995!

Jacinta: It’s a bit ironic that this conference was held in China, where women are supposed to hold up half the sky. You could hardly find a nation more male-dominated in its leadership. They’ve virtually outlawed feminism there, as yet another decadent western thing.

Canto: So, looking at this document, it includes an action plan for governments, political parties and others, including women’s organisations, NGOs and even the UN itself, but it doesn’t present any argument for this 30% target. Presumably they feel the argument is self-evident.

Jacinta: Interestingly, in the UN section, they’ve made the demands upon themselves even more stringent: ‘monitor progress towards achieving the Secretary-General’s target of having women hold 50 per cent of managerial and decision-making positions by the year 2000’.

Canto: Haha, I wonder how that went? No wonder many people don’t take the UN seriously.

Jacinta: Well, maybe there’s nothing wrong in aiming high. Aiming low certainly won’t get you there. Anyway, there’s a 2015 update on women in power and decision-making, which finds slight improvements in political power positions, very unevenly distributed among nations, and there are problems with obtaining data in other decision-making fields. In short, creeping progress in empowerment.

Canto: What’s interesting, though, is the argument that having a higher percentage of women in decision-making is a good thing due to basic fairness – women being 51% of the population – but because women are somehow better.

Jacinta: Well I haven’t found that argument in the UN documents (though I haven’t looked too thoroughly), but I must say it’s an argument that I like to put to anyone who’ll listen, even though I’m not too sure I believe in it myself. And when I do, I get a fair amount of pushback, as the Yanks say, from men and women

Canto: Well I do believe in it, because bonobos. They’re an example of a female-dominated culture of advanced apes, after all. And they’re sexy, if somewhat more hirsute than I’d prefer.

Jacinta: Yes – I’m not quite sure why I’m not so sure. I think maybe it’s just the blowback I get – though it’s often anecdotal, some story about some lousy female boss. A recent article in Forbes (authored by a male) has this to say:

Over the past decades, scientific studies have consistently shown that on most of the key traits that make leaders more effective, women tend to outperform men. For example, humility, self-awareness, self-control, moral sensitivity, social skills, emotional intelligence, kindness, a prosocial and moral orientation, are all more likely to be found in women than men.

Check the links for evidence. He goes on to list the ‘dark side personality traits’ which are more common in men: aggression (often unprovoked), narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism  – see the recent global financial crisis, the current pandemic and white collar crime…

Canto: And they’re the cause of most road fatalities and injuries, by a factor of almost 2 to 1, on a per capita basis. Mostly due to the 17-25 age group, crazy aggression and risk-taking, like elephants in musth.

Jacinta: Yes, and I’ve met men who seriously think women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Moslem men actually, presumably brainwashed. And no doubt intent on brainwashing their kids. Anyway good on the UN for pushing this issue, and surely the success of women leaders in Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland and elsewhere, and the absolutely disastrous leadership of so many men during this pandemic – much of it yet to be properly investigated and assessed – will spur us on to more rapid change in the leadership field.

References and links

https://www.unwomen.org/en/how-we-work/intergovernmental-support/world-conferences-on-women

https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/decision.htm

Click to access WorldsWomen2015_chapter5_t.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomaspremuzic/2021/03/07/if-women-are-better-leaders-then-why-are-they-not-in-charge/?sh=1cfb2c716c88

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2021 at 5:22 pm

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

https://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/17/health/sti-infanticide-human-monogamy/index.html

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/dictatorship-countries

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2021-03-08/why-countries-with-female-leaders-have-responded-well-to-the-pandemic

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

https://antday.com/?lang=en&pageid=castes

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

bonobos, community and our good selves…

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owl monkeys just happen to be highly monogamous, and very cute. Photo by Kevin Schafer

I’ve been quite exercised recently by Ferdinand Mount’s 1981 book The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, which is a defence of marriage and the nuclear family, but not quite from a conservative perspective. I’m particularly interested in chapter 11, ‘The dilution of fraternity’, which critiques attempts to replace an institution seen as ‘selfish and inward-looking’, the family, with something more universal, or at least broad – the community, the tribe, the flock, and so forth. For some reason Charles Manson’s alternative ‘family’ keeps coming to mind, but that’s an aberration.

Mount describes these seekers after a better alternative as ‘fraternalists’, which seems immediately problematic, though he is certainly not anti-feminist. The idea of fraternity is old, but Mount argues that it’s as problematic as the other legs of the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity triad. I prefer to use the term community, and I won’t be looking at the old-guard quasi-communist ‘brotherhood of man’ notion that negatively dominates Mount’s thinking on the matter. I’m thinking more of the bonds that unite a pod of dolphins, a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves or hyenas, and a community (the agreed-upon term) of chimps or bonobos.

Mount makes the claim that human attempts at fraternity – in cults (or religious associations), communes, social movements and the like, have tended to run out of steam, as they require a discipline to maintain them, a discipline that is unnatural to us, especially as compared to the maintenance of the family. There is a feeling of enforcement about them which often makes the individual member uneasy or skeptical. A true sense of intimacy is difficult to maintain, and is sometimes replaced by a kind of fake heartiness.

There is some truth in all this, and it often seems that humanity is moving in the other direction, towards a sort of atomistic individualism, in spite of the popularity of political rallies and social media movements. The trouble with libertarians though, is that they seem not to realise that humans didn’t get to reach a population of nearly 8 billion, and to dominate the planet, for better or worse, by means of individual liberty. We achieved this by being the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and this social construct, in recent millennia, goes by the name of civilisation, or the state. It seems that the state – very tyrannical and hierarchical at its outset, becoming somewhat more egalitarian over time – has been the victim of its own success, creating a population of individuals convinced that all its achievements – in trade, education, infrastructure, technological development and the like, are somehow their own.

Returning to marriage, monogamy and the nuclear family, Mount wishes to claim that it is natural, though he’s somewhat hesitant about it. The basis of this claim is that it has withstood all attacks and critiques, first by the Church, which in earlier times preferred asceticism and celibacy, and later sought to regulate it almost out of existence, with dire restrictions on adultery and divorce, and second by Marxists, anarchists and various cults, who criticised marriage as bourgeois, selfish, inward-facing and imprisoning in various ways. It’s interesting that, in the forty years since The subversive family was published, marriage has gained further strength and legitimacy from a somewhat unexpected source (to me at least), in the demand for same-sex marriage, a demand that has been acceded to in many democratic nations. So marriage and monogamy is the majority human option for the foreseeable future.

This provides no proof that marriage is natural, however. Of course, in one obvious sense it is purely cultural, as marriage refers to a ceremony. The question really is whether monogamy is natural, for humans. Of course monogamy is natural for many species, but humans are the species that mess up the ‘natural’ concept, by building cities, sending spaceships out to beyond our solar system and calculating the age of the universe. And by conducting experiments, mostly failed, in alternative lifestyles.

Humanity, in any case, has never lived in a ‘state of nature’ as vaguely conceived, in virtually opposite ways, by Hobbes and Rousseau. In its gradual spread out of Africa it has created a multitude of cultures – monogamous, polyandrous and polygynous – with exceptions to general rules often making clear classification difficult. However, the situation as it stands today is clear enough in some respects. In a recent review of contemporary societies to answer the question ‘Are We Monogamous’, anthropologists Ryan Schacht and Karen Kramer wrote:

… we conclude that while there are many ethnographic examples of variation across human societies in terms of marriage patterns, extramarital affairs, the stability of relationships, and the ways in which fathers invest, the pair-bond is a ubiquitous feature of human mating relationships. This may be expressed through polygyny and/or polyandry but is most commonly observed in the form of serial monogamy.

I have no argument with this conclusion, but I have two questions. Was it ever thus? Will/must it always be thus? For the past, I look to bonobos, and for the future, I look to ‘the beginning of infinity’ – our extraordinary ability to transform ourselves and our world.

Bonobos and chimps split from each other between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, probably due to the formation of the Congo River. The question I’m interested in – and, as Milan Kundera once pointed out, the best questions are those we can’t answer, at least not easily – is, what was this species like before the split? Was it more like bonobos – female-dominated, gentle and sexual – or more like chimps – male-dominated and aggressive? These are relative terms, of course, as chimps too have their caring and sharing side, as much recent research has revealed. Another question we will probably never be able to answer is this. How did our common ancestor with chimps and bonobos, both of which (or should that be whom) ‘live in multi-male and multi-female communities, promiscuously mating with each other’ (BBC earth), come to be predominantly monogamous or pair-bonding?

I’ll look at what the research says about this – if anything – next time.

References

http://www.bbc.com/earth/world

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

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2019.00230/full

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1981

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2021 at 9:08 pm

A bonobo world 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

Jacinta: Why did Homo floresiensis go extinct? What happened to Homo neanderthalensis? What about mastodons, Australia’s megafauna, thylacines, dodos, stegodonts, mammoths, passenger pigeons, aurochs, great auks, quaggas, moas, and maybe hundreds more dead species?

Canto: Well humans are accused of being the direct cause, though no doubt there are lawyers out there with ingenious arguments to the contrary, or at least in mitigation. It might be argued for example that the rise to supremacy of H sapiens is a good thing, at least for H sapiens, and it could never have occurred without a bit of damage. I mean, there are plenty of species left, and more will come as nature selects them. And besides, we’re so smart we could bring many of those species back to life, if it’s not too inconvenient.

Jacinta: Hmmm, the issue of de-extinction aside, modern humanity is actually good at learning from its mistakes, and re-appraising our relationships with other species, and with other cultures within our own. That’s why I’m obsessing over bonobos and our own overly macho culture. We need an overhaul and more and more humans are becoming aware of it.

Canto: So I know you’re talking about that world-turned-upside down idea again, what with a large majority of our political leaders being men, surrounded by mostly male advisers and government ministers, dealing with overwhelmingly male business leaders and public intellectuals, male military brass, a male judiciary and scientific community…

Jacinta: Male billionaires, male mass-shooters, male sports stars, mostly… why are we so invisible in the public sphere?

Canto: The times they are-a-changin mate. Okay, forget that. It really is interesting to think what our world would be like if the men were in the position the women are now. And of course we can’t seriously turn to bonobos to find out. Can we?

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

Canto: Anyway, crazy as it might be, our current situation has a long history…

Jacinta: Yeah, like astrology and traditional Chinese medicine, which is mostly horseshit.

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

Jacinta: The point isn’t to understand our world historically, but to change it.

Canto: Yes, but in order to change gears, you need to know how a gearshift works.

Jacinta: ??

Canto: We need to know, I mean it would be helpful to know how we got into this lopsided mess, so we can extricate ourselves…

Jacinta: Yes, and sexual dimorphism isn’t the reason, because bonobos. Division of labour is more likely. Hunting and gathering. Both activities require getting out and about, far from GHQ, whatever that was in early hunter-gatherer days – makeshift constructions, caves. But the hunters would’ve travelled much further afield. Hunting trips may have lasted days.

Canto: But I think we need to be careful about that hunter-gatherer term. It’s surely too neat. I’m getting the impression, for example that the Australian Aboriginal survival life was much more complex, with fish traps, organised burnings and the like. A lot of accumulated knowledge to enable them to gain more foodstuff with less output. A bit like us really.

Jacinta: Yeah they knew how to store their food for a rainy day – but then so do tons of bird species. Anyway, let’s move on to the age of agriculture. Fixed dwellings. And remember it was the women who had the children.

Canto: Really?

Jacinta: They might carry the newborns out to the fields, but once they became pesky toddlers they were too much of a hindrance…

Canto: Yes, and more… Imagine this conversation: ‘Now Wilma you need to keep the little one home, she’s impossible to keep an eye on here, and you know how dangerous it is with those big flaming birds…’ ‘Oh don’t remind me again Fred..’ ‘Well I will – that big bloody bird took the neighbour’s little one, flew off with him, dropped him on that rock, and Bam Bam, that was the end of him’. ‘Dear god of our harvest, you’re a bastard, Fred’. ‘Bam bam, you should’ve seen the mess. Anyway you need to keep her home, keep her occupied, make some pretty jewellery…’ ‘I’m sick of being home, how many times have I told you…’ ‘Yeah but look – hey are you preggers again? Is that one mine, or has that Barney been creeping around? I know he wants another Bam-Bam, but I’ll Bam Bam him….’

Jacinta: Yes, thought-provoking. And Fred would stick his arm out and say  ‘Feel that muscle? That tells you I can do enough work for two. So you just stay home and prepare some of that great brain food you’re so good at. All those omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and trace elements and such, they’re just doing my head in they’re so good. A man sure needs a maid and you sure is the best’.

Canto: This is getting overly speculative I think. I mean, you’re assuming monogamy at this stage, which is perhaps reasonable but not certain. So this scenario is from around 10,000 years ago? That’s when they say agriculture got started, at the earliest. And we know that most primates are non-monogamous. I’m thinking of the connection between monogamy and division of labour. And there’s also the idea of wives – but not husbands – as property, which is a feature of the Old Testament.

Jacinta: Well to be fair husbands could often be treated that way, as in ‘stop trying to steal my man or I’ll rip your eyes out’, but mostly it was the husband who carried the club, now replaced by the Kalishnikov AK-47 among others. I think monogamy goes back a long way. Ferdinand Mount, in his book The subversive family, argues that monogamous romantically-based relations are a permanent feature of humanity, but by ‘permanent’ he really means as far back as written records, and not even that, as his examples mostly go back some hundreds of years. I’m prepared to accept that monogamy goes back as far as agriculture and the establishment of fixed dwellings, and more restricted notions of property…

Canto: So do you think that if we did have a world-turned upside down we’d be less monogamous?

Jacinta: Uhhh, hesitantly I’d say yes, but in such a way that the offspring wouldn’t suffer. I mean you can see the trend in developed countries – with the rise of women’s rights came the new appreciation of children and their rights and value. ‘A woman’s place is in the home’, and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, those clichés went together in blighted Victorian England.

Canto: Funny that, considering that Victoria was a woman, I’ve heard. But that was Irony Age England for you.

Jacinta: Again, with bonobos and other less male-dominated primate societies, infanticide is virtually non-existent. It’s quite prevalent in other primate societies. Female promiscuity is used as a strategy to keep males from killing the kids. ‘Oh shit, that one was mine, I think. Now I feel such a fool’.

Canto: Well I’m okay with female promiscuity personally.

Jacinta: Yeah and it also happens to be fun – variety’s the spice of life and all. Of course monogamy can be defined in various ways, for example as a tendency rather than a strict rule. But the tendency toward monogamy might’ve evolved as a response to environmental stresses – stresses that generally no longer exist for us. And so we see a rise in single-parent families, because they can manage now, albeit with difficulty, which they could barely do in previous centuries. Genetic studies, by the way, place human monogamy as having evolved between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. But I’m sure that’ll be endlessly disputed.

Canto: So have we worked out how we got into this lop-sided mess?

Jacinta: Well, sort of, and I think we’re slowly extricating ourselves. Less aggression, more collaboration, in an extremely uneven way from a global perspective, and in a two steps forward, one step back, Steven Pinker-type sense. Which requires work, community-building work to bring us all together out of the stresses that plague too many of us. We’re mostly in a post-industrial society, but exploitation proceeds apace. We need to call that out, in government, in business, and between nations. Anyone would think we’re not just one species, the way some people carry on.

References

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-infanticide-idUSKCN0IX2BA20141113

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

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Barbujani G (2003). “A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity”. J Mol Evol. 57 (1): 85–97.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

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