an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘bonobos’ Category

Did bonobos do it with chimps? Well, duh

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bonobos or chimps? Or both? Or neither? What’s in a name…?

Canto: So we’ve been learning than we did it with Neanderthals, and that Neanderthals did it with Denisovans, and I remember hearing an anthropologist or palaeontologist saying that it’s likely that our split with our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos – they call it the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor, eliminating bonobos altogether, sigh) – wasn’t necessarily a clean break, which surely makes sense.

Jacinta: Well, yes, as we’ve read, the split was caused by the relatively sudden creation of the Congo River, but the word ‘relatively’, is, well, relative. So this raises the question of speciation in general. Think of those Galapagos finches that so intrigued Darwin. All about differently-shaped beaks, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Canto: Right, so here’s what a website with the rather all-encompassing title “Science” says about our topic:

Tens of thousands of years ago, modern humans slept around with Neandertals and swapped some genes. Now, it turns out one of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, also dallied with another species. New research reveals that chimps mixed it up with bonobos at least twice during the 2 million years since these great apes started evolving their own identities. Although it’s not yet clear whether the acquired genes were ultimately beneficial or harmful, the finding strengthens the idea that such cross-species mating played an important role in the evolution of the great apes.

Jacinta: Interestingly this Congo River separation which led to a completely different species was repeated by other separations which led to four sub-species of chimps. Which leads me to wonder – what’s the difference between a new species and a sub-species? Why are bonobos ‘deserving’ of being called a different species?

Canto: Well the Science article has some fascinating further information. This was the work of Christina Hvilsom and colleagues, described as ‘conservation geneticists’. They were using any genetic differences they could find to work out where particular chimps were being caught or hunted. But, since the interbreeding of humans and Neanderthals, proven by DNA, had hit the headlines, Hvilsom wondered about the DNA of chimps. So, using the same methods that uncovered Neanderthal in humans –

she and her colleagues determined that 1% of the central chimpanzee’s genome is bonobo DNA. The genetic analysis indicates that this inbreeding happened during two time periods: 1.5 million years ago bonobo ancestors mixed with the ancestor of the eastern and central chimps. Then, just 200,000 years ago, central chimps got another boost of bonobo genes, the team reports today in Science. In contrast, the western chimp subspecies has no bonobo DNA, the researchers note, suggesting that only those chimps living close to the Congo River entertained bonobo consorts.

Jacinta: What this highlights, more than anything to me, is the importance and excitement of genetic and genomic analyses. Not that we’re experts on the topic, but it has clearly revolutionised the science of evolution, complicating it in quite exciting ways. Think again of those Galapogos finches. Separation, some interbreeding, more separation, less interbreeding, but with a few kinks along the way.

Canto: And we’re just beginning our play with genetics and genomics. There’s surely a lot more to come. Ah, to live forever…

Jacinta: So how did they know some inbreeding occurred? Can we understand the science of this without torturing ourselves?

Canto: David Reich’s book Who we are and how we got here tells the story of interbreeding between human populations, and how population genetics has revolutionised our understanding of the subject. With dread, I’ll try to explain the science behind it. First, the Science article quoted above mentions a split between bonobos and chimps 2 million years ago. Others I’ve noted go back only about a million years – for example a Cambridge University video referenced below. The inference, to me, is that there was a gradual separation over a fair amount of time, as aforementioned. I mean, how long does it take to create a major river? Now, I can’t get hold of the data on chimp-bonobo interbreeding in particular, so I’ll try to describe how geneticists detect interbreeding in general.

I’ll look at the human genome, and I’ll start at the beginning – a very good place to start. This largely comes from Who we are and how we got here, and the following quotes come from that book. The human genome consists of a double chain of 3 billion nucleobases, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. That’s 6 billion bases (often called letters – A, C, G and T) in all. Genes are small sections of this base chain (called DNA), typically a thousand or so letters long. They’re templates or codes for building proteins of many and varied types for doing many different kinds of work, although there are segments in between made up of non-coding DNA.

Researchers have been able to ‘read’ these letters via machinery that creates chemical reactions to specific DNA sequences:

The reactions emit a different colour for each of the letters A, C, G and T, so that the sequence of letters can be scanned into a computer by a camera.

What anthropologists want to focus on are mutations – random errors in the copying process, which tend to occur at a rate of about one in every thousand letters. So, about 3 million differences, or mutations, per genome (3 billion genes, coding or non-coding). But genomes change over time due to these mutations and each individual’s genome is unique. The number of differences between two individuals’ genomes tells us something about their relatedness. The more differences, the less related. And there’s also a more or less constant rate of mutations:

So the density of differences provides a biological stopwatch, a record of how long it has been since key events occurred in the past.

As Reich recounts, it was the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the tiny proportion of the genome that descends entirely down the maternal line, that became a corner-stone of the out-of-Africa understanding of human origins, which had been competing with the multi-regional hypothesis for decades. ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ – a rather ‘western’ moniker considering that the Adam and Eve myth is only one of a multitude of origin stories – lived in Botswana in Southern Africa about 160,000 to 200,000 years ago, given the variability of the genomic ‘clock’ – the mutation rate.

So, what does this have to do with chimps and bonobos? Well, The exact detail of how Hvilsom et al proved that their (slightly) more recent interbreeding events occurred is hidden behind a paywall, and you could say I’m a cheapskate but the reality is I’m quite poor, trying to bring up seven kids and a few dozen grandkids in a home not much bigger than a toilet, so… but truthfully I’m just getting by, and I just want to know in general the techniques used.

First, they have to find ancient specimens, I think. But, in a video referenced below, they raised the question – Can we ‘excavate’ ancient DNA from modern specimens? We’ve learned that many modern humans have a certain percentage of Neanderthal DNA, say around 2%, but each person’s 2% may be different. Aggregating those different segments can, if we analyse the genomes of enough humans, create a whole Neanderthal genome, though not one of any Neanderthal who ever lived!  At least that’s how I’m reading it, in my dilettantish way. So what exactly does this tell us? I’m not at all sure – it’s a relatively new research area, and completely new to me.

The presenter of this video uses the heading, at least at the beginning of his talk, ‘A little Archaic introgression goes a long way’. So now I need to know what introgression means. A quick look-up tells me it’s:

‘the transfer of genetic information from one species to another as a result of hybridization between them and repeated backcrossing.

I’ve bolded two key words here. Hybridisation, in mammals, is ‘breeding between two distinct taxonomic units’.  Note that the term species isn’t used, presumably because it has long been a questionable or loaded concept – life just seems too complex for such hard and fast divisions. Backcrossing seems self-explanatory. Without looking it up, I’d guess it’s just what we’ve been learning about. Canoodling after speciation should’ve ruled canoodling out.

But, looking it up – not so! It’s apparently not something happening in the real world, something like backsliding. But then… Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

Backcrossing may be deliberately employed in animals to transfer a desirable trait in an animal of inferior genetic background to an animal of preferable genetic background.

This is unclear, to say the least. How could an animal, even a human, deliberately do this? We could do it to other animals, or try it, based on phenotypes. We’ve been doing that for centuries. What follows makes it more or less clear that this is about human experimentation with other animals, though.

Anyway, I’m going well off-topic here. What I wanted to do is try to understand the proof of, or evidence for, bonobo-chimp interbreeding. I accept that it happened, well after the split between these two very similar-looking species. What could be less surprising? Along the way I’ve been reminded inter alia, of homozygous and heterozygous alleles, but I’ve been frustrated that straightforward information isn’t being made available to the general public, aka myself. I’ll pursue this further in later posts.

Jacinta: What a mess. Phenotype isn’t everything my friend. To a bonobo, a chimp probably looks like a neanderthal – a real bonehead… They probably only had sex with them out of pity. ‘Boys, we’ll show you a good time – like you’ve never had before.’

References

https://www.science.org/content/article/chimps-and-bonobos-had-flings-and-swapped-genes-past

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aag2602?adobe_mc=MCORGID%3D242B6472541199F70A4C98A6%2540AdobeOrg%7CTS%3D1675502724

David Reich, Who we are and how we got here, 2018

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2110682-chimps-and-bonobos-interbred-and-exchanged-genes/

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2023 at 8:50 pm

love, monogamy, marriage and bonobos

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To claim that a union founded on convention has much chance of engendering love is hypocritical; to ask two spouses bound by practical, social and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p 478.

Discuss…

Canto: So we’re reading Beauvoir’s The second sex, inter alia, and though things have changed a bit in the WEIRD world over the past seventy-odd years, the section titled ‘The Married Woman’ does give something of a historical perspective, via the writings of such males as Montaigne, Balzac, Diderot and Kierkegaard, on the perceived differences between love and marriage and the problems that arise from these differences.

Jacinta: Yes, and marriage and monogamy are something of a mystery, historically, in spite of arguments such as those of Ferdinand Mount in The subversive family, that they are a more or less natural element of human life. We don’t know much about the state of affairs of early Homo sapiens or their ancestors and extinct cousins vis-a-vis monogamy. We do know that our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimps, aren’t monogamous. And as to the claim, made by some, that humans are meant to be monogamous, that’s of the same type as, say, that humans are meant to be bipedal. No, it’s just something that we evolved to be, as some, but not all of us, socially evolved to be (more or less) monogamous.

Jacinta: The question is when? I suppose an obvious answer is when the concept of property became important, and the handing down of property to offspring. So that families started to become powerful rather than individuals. The beginnings of agriculture?

Canto: Some say division of labour may have played a part, though I’m not sure why…

Jacinta: Scientific American has an interesting online article from a few years ago reporting on studies that ‘aimed to find the best explanation for monogamy among three persistent hypotheses: female spacing, infanticide avoidance and male parental care’. So female spacing is just what it says: according to SciAm:

The female-spacing hypothesis posits that monogamy arises after females begin to establish larger territories to gain more access to limited food resources and, in the process, put more distance between one another. With females farther apart, males have a harder time finding and keeping multiple mates. Settling down with a single partner makes life easier, reducing a male’s risk of being injured while patrolling his territory and enabling him to ensure that his mate’s offspring are his own.

Canto: Females began to do that? In the bonobo world, female closeness was the key to their success – the females I mean, but perhaps also bonobos in general. It seems to me more likely that women would work in teams, helping each other to find and exploit resources, or am I being too hippy-happy-clappy?

Jacinta: Yeah maybe, but I note also the assumption here that males would have a hard time keeping multiple mates – the assumption being that early humans were already male-dominated.

Canto: Yes that quoted paragraph is all about the males… though to be fair most primate species are male-dominated. Still, one can’t assume…

Jacinta: Well, the proponents of this hypothesis did a statistical analysis of couple of thousand mammalian species, and found, apparently, that they started out solitary, but many, or some, switched to monogamy during their evolutionary history. How they proved that I’m not sure. They claimed that ‘monogamy most frequently occurred in carnivores and primates…’

Canto: Hang on. Isn’t it true that most primates are not monogamous?

Jacinta: Ahh, you’re probably thinking only of apes. There are hundreds of primate species, and they’re still being discovered. Three more were added in the last couple of years.

Canto: Shit! It’s all so hard to keep up with.

Jacinta: Lorises and lemurs, tarsiers and hatfuls of monkeys. Simians and prosimians, old world and new world, greater and lesser apes, etc. And actually, most primates are monogamous.

Canto: Well, I don’t think we should let it bother or constrain us. If we don’t feel monogamous, I mean individually speaking, we don’t have to be so.

Jacinta: But there are social constraints. They’ve loosened, no doubt, in the WEIRD world, but they’re there still. Besides, it’s convenient to settle down with one person, especially as you get older. It’s hard work trying to impress one partner after another into canoodling, what with rivalries and jealousies, and children who end up not knowing who’s what.

Canto: Well, yes – it does spice up life a bit, but too much spice can be overly acidic, or something. Still, I cling hopefully to the bonobo way…

Jacinta: Anyway, let’s get back to the second hypothesis – infanticide avoidance. I don’t think there’s much in this, re humans, but here’s the rationale:

Primates are uniquely at risk for infanticide: they have big brains that need time to develop, which leaves babies dependent and vulnerable for long periods after birth. And the killing of babies has been observed in more than 50 primate species; it typically involves a male from outside a group attacking an unweaned infant in a bid for dominance or access to females.

I suppose early hominids lived in smallish groups, like troupes of other primates, and I never considered that there’d be an alpha male among them, but I suppose it makes sense. But the bonobo part of me is in denial….

Canto: Well, warfare goes back a long way and capturing and raping women has always gone along with that, and it’s often been about capturing and expanding territory – e.g. Putin and Ukraine – and in those earlier times when resources were scarcer and harder-won, children, that’s to say the children of the defeated, would’ve been a burden. And the winners knew they could make more of their own with the captive women. It’s all quite plausible. I saw it in Empress Ki!

Jacinta: Hmmm. Having it off with captive women – essentially rape – doesn’t really fit with monogamy. In those Korean historicals you love there are wives and also concubines, and your alpha-maledom would be defined by the number of concubines you commanded, I’m guessing. So the male parental care hypothesis is most palatable to us moderns, I hope. Here’s what the SciAm site says:

When a baby becomes too costly in terms of calories and energy for a mother to raise on her own, the father who stays with the family and provides food or other forms of care increases his offspring’s chances of survival and encourages closer ties with the mother. A related idea… holds that the mere carrying of offspring by fathers fosters monogamy. Mothers have to meet the considerable nutritional demands of nursing infants. Yet for primates and human hunter-gatherers, hauling an infant, especially without the benefit of a sling or other restraint, required an expense of energy comparable to breast-feeding. Carrying by males could have freed females to fulfill their own energetic needs by foraging.

Canto: Yes, that’s a much more Dr Feelgood hypothesis, but interestingly this assumes an understanding of the relationship between sex and offspring. Males wouldn’t want to be caring for someone else’s kids, would they? And I’m sure I read somewhere that even some cultures living today, or at least not so long ago, aren’t clear about that relationship.

Jacinta: Well, and yet I’ve heard that bonobo females try to control who their adult sons mate with, as if they have an inkling… Bronislaw Malinowski (the first anthropologist I ever heard of) claimed that Trobriand Islanders thought that males played no role in producing children, but that’s been found to be a bit questionable. Seems plausible to me though. And something to aim for.

Canto: One thing anthropologists seem to say nothing about in these reflections on monogamy is love. This eternal bonding force that unites Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleo, Sonny and Cher…

Jacinta: Yeah, hormones they say. And when offspring come along, a certain force of duty, often reinforced by the community, or the State. So the male parent ends up staying, not really knowing whether it’s because he wants to or not. And one of the forces, a principle force, is societal, or cultural. He sees pairings-off all around him, physically reinforced by separate houses, fenced in. It’s the ‘norm’. With bonobos, no physical or, apparently, ethical barriers have been erected against polyandry/polygyny – to use human terms that would be meaningless to them. Does that mean no love? Of course not – on the contrary, our cousins can still teach us a thing or two about love…

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1982

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-monogamy-has-deep-roots/

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

https://slate.com/technology/2013/01/when-did-humans-realize-sex-makes-babies-evolution-of-reproductive-consciousness-of-the-cause-of-pregnancy.html

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2023 at 9:26 am

do bonobos love each other?

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Fly with me, lift me up to my feet, set me free from this skin I’ve been too long in

Leddra Chapman, ‘Picking Oranges’

I got to know that your heart beats fast, and I got to know I’m the only one for you. What have I become? I’m a fucking monster, when all I wanted was something beautiful. My love, too much. Your love, not enough

Meg Myers, ‘Monster’

It wasn’t that I didn’t wanna hold your hand, I just knew if we held tight once, we would never let go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call you mine – but, you’re not mine

Liza Anne, ‘Watering Can’

right… but why only two?

Canto: So bonobos have been called the ‘make love not war ‘ apes, a joke moniker in a way, but I’ve been thinking about that in an attempt to be more serious about love, fellow-feeling and all that stuff, in bonobos, humans, and other species.

Jacinta: Yes, the idea of ‘true love’, which involves some kind of eternal monogamy, and is seen as peculiarly human, and sells ye olde penny romances, is still with us, and whole governments are raised around it – the couple, the nuclear family and such. Of course, in the WEIRD world, there are increasingly diverse ‘household arrangements’, but they still generally involve separate, enclosed households. Ye olde hippy free love encampments, if they were anything other than an imaginary figment, seem as distant now as our connection with bonobos. A while back we read Ferdinand Mount’s 1982 book The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage, a fairly well-reasoned defence of marriage and monogamy, and its glorious survival in spite of the free love mini-revolution, but of course he didn’t mention bonobos or speculate about the domestic arrangements of australopithecines.

Canto: Mount was – still is – a lifelong conservative, so his history was always going to be tendentious, and as you say, limited to more recent times, so it didn’t really address how we came to be monogamous, if that’s what we are. And just to set the scene with our loving cousins:

Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous sexual relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age, with the possible exception of abstaining from sexual activity between mothers and their adult sons.

Wikipedia entry: bonobo sociosexual behaviour

 

Jacinta: Conservatives wouldn’t be too happy about that sort of indiscriminate behaviour among humans, but they’d be hard pressed to argue that bonobos are ‘immoral’ or selfish, or dysfunctional and a behavioural threat to the well-being of their own society.

Canto: No, they’d probably just argue that they’re not humans and we have nothing much to learn from them. We’re 8 billion, after all, and they’re just a few thousand. We win! But I don’t think our success has much to do with our domestic arrangements. It presumably has more to do with the enlargement of our prefrontal cortex, and the causes of that, which were presumably numerous and incremental, may have also brought about an increasing division of labour along patriarchal lines.

Jacinta: Certainly our history, at least since it has been recorded, has been overwhelmingly patriarchal. Hunting as a largely male activity, as I believe it also is in chimps, could be kind of brutalising, as it’s a kill-or-be-killed activity at its worst.

Canto: Meanwhile bonobos have been evolving in their own way over the past few million years. Or not. I mean, they’ve been content to stay in the forest, in a pretty lush part of the Congo, consuming a very largely vegetarian diet, not exactly requiring a lot in the way of muscles and physical prowess. And get this, again from Wikipedia:

Bonobo clitorises are larger and more externalized than in most mammals; while the weight of a young adolescent female bonobo “is maybe half” that of a human teenager, she has a clitoris that is “three times bigger than the human equivalent, and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks”

As they say ‘exercise makes the clit grow longer’. Dunnit?

Jacinta: Well, it’s true, bonobo females engage in genito-genital rubbing more than males do, and this seems to form the basis of female group dynamics, which has led to female dominance. Unfortunately in humans, clothing creates a major barrier to this activity, at least in public.

Canto: Ahh, the terrible price of civilisation. But what I’m interested in is the effect of female dominance. Yes, it’s mediated to a large degree by sexual play, and a general closeness, which we don’t seem to have the maturity to adopt, so obsessed have we been with sexual possessiveness and jealousy, to the point of stoning people – sorry, women – for adultery. Death by drowning was the punishment back in Hammurabi’s day, almost 4000 years ago. Under Ancient Greek and Roman law, women could be executed for adultery, while the men would rarely get more than a smacked bottom.

Jacinta: Actually, stoning is still a punishment, for both genders, in countries that apply strict Shari’ah law. But in the WEIRD world, where no-fault divorce is increasingly accepted, adultery has faded as an issue. And generally we’ve become more relaxed about sexuality in all its varieties, and more sceptical about ‘love’, of the everlasting and exclusive type.

Canto: Yes, and yet… love, whether it’s a human invention or not, or whether it’s just hormones – it really hurts. You develop this ridiculous passion for someone, her movements, her smile, her vitality – though she has as much interest in you as in a rotten egg. Or she takes a general interest but backs off when she senses your need. And that’s just ‘unrequited love’. Even when it’s a mutual passion it can sooner or later turn to shit. The quotes above are just three of thousands that could be mined from songs, stories, legends and our own lives. Great expectations, dashed, sublimated, given up on, nursed in solitude. A tension between the cult of individuality and its freedoms and the love that loves to speak its name, where those individuals go together like a horse and carriage, like fire and ice, Batman and Robin, Venus and Mars…

Jacinta: Well, humans do tend to overthink these matters, or over-feel them perhaps, what with our heightened sensibilities. And our civilisations have tended to push us towards exclusive ‘love relations’, and the concept of ownership:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)

So it’s not just that we’ve fallen for the myth of true love and the ideal partner – our society has created a monogamous reproductive norm, and for a good few millennia (not really so long in human history, but we know hardly anything about our sociosexual behaviour beyond the last 10,000 years or so) we’ve fallen in with it – leaving aside sultans, random monarchs and the odd billionaire entrepreneur. Our homes have, over time, become designed to largely rule out even extended family togetherness. Bonobos don’t have homes and they’re not particularly territorial….

Canto: Well, to change the subject, I’m interested in that description of bonobo clitorises. It sounds wild -so to speak. And of course it sounds very much like a penis. It all makes me think of the whole penis envy malarky of Freudian psychotherapy. Not a problem for bonobos, clearly. If we get our social evolution right, our female descendants in the non-foreseeable future (if that makes any sense) will be waggling those clits about most merrily.

Jacinta: Hah, makes a change from current-day ‘clitoridectomy’ aka FGM.

Canto: Well, they could give em a trim, like modern-day circumcision. Or have em shaped and coloured, like orchids….

Jacinta: Lovely. Interestingly, Simone de Beauvoir touches on this in The Second Sex, probably influenced by the penis envy ideas of the time. Writing of woman:

her anatomy condemns her to remain awkward and impotent, like a eunuch: the desire for possession is thwarted for lack of an organ to incarnate it. And man refuses the passive role.

No organ permits the virgin to satisfy her active eroticism; and she does not have the lived experience of he who condemns her to passivity.

the second sex, trans. C Borde & S Malovany-Chevallier, vintage books 2011

 

But in the WEIRD world, things have changed, or are changing, and hopefully girls are much more expert at playing the organ. Though, unlike bonobos, it’s largely done in solitude.

Canto: But do bonobos love each other, or just each others’ organs? It’s probably as uninteresting a question as What’s this thing called, love? 

Jacinta: Well, that’s it, bonobos just get it together, not just for sex, but for safety in numbers, for huddling and cuddling, for play, for warmth, food-sharing and back-scratching. I doubt if they wonder if it’s really love, or how selfish or selfless they’re being. It’s their life – one of community rather than pairing off – as long as they can be left to get on with it.

References

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/adultery

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1982

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2023 at 12:20 pm

Exploring the future of nuclear fusion

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Canto: So, with Christmas cookery and indulgence behind us, it’s time to focus on another topic we know little about, nuclear fusion – or I should say human-engineered nuclear fusion. Ignition has recently been achieved for the first time, so where do we go from here?

Jacinta: Well I listened to Dr Becky the astrophysicist on this and other topics, and she puts the ignition thing into perspective. So it occurred back on December 5 at the National Ignition Facility in California. As Dr Becky explains it, it involves ‘taking 4 atoms of hydrogen and forcing them together to make helium’, which is slightly lighter than the four hydrogens, and this mass difference can, and in this case has, produced energy according to special relativity. Of course fusion occurs in stars (not just involving hydrogen into helium) and it can potentially produce huge volumes of clean energy. But there’s a big but, and that’s about the high temperatures and densities needed for ignition. Those conditions are needed to overcome the forces that keep atoms apart. 

Canto: Yes they used high-powered lasers, which together focus on heavy hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – to produce helium. And this has been achieved before a number of times, but ignition specifically occurs when the energy output is greater than the input, potentially creating a self-sustaining cycle of fusion reactions. And the difficulties in getting to that output – that is, in creating the most effective input – have been astronomical, apparently. They’ve involved configuring the set of nearly 200 lasers in the right way, using ultra-complex computational analysis, recently guided by machine learning. And this has finally led to the recent breakthrough, in which an energy input of 2.05 megajoules produced an output of 3.15 megajoules…

Jacinta: 1.1 megajoules means ignition, though it’s nothing earth-shattering energy-wise. It’s apparently equivalent to about 0.3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) – enough energy for about two hours of TV watching according to Dr Becky. And also this was about the energy delivered to the particles to create the reaction, it didn’t include the amount of energy required to power the lasers themselves – approximately 300 megajoules. So, good proof-of-concept stuff, but scaling up will be a long and winding road, wethinks. 

Canto: Another favourite broadcaster of ours, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, also covers this story, and provides much the same figures (400 megajoules for the lasers). She also points out that, though it’s a breakthrough, it’s hardly surprising given how close experimenters have been getting to ignition in recent attempts. And she is probably even more emphatic about the long road ahead – we need to ramp up the output more than a hundred-fold to achieve anything like nuclear fusion energy at economically viable levels. 

Jacinta: I’m interested in the further detail Dr Hossenfelder supplies. For example the NIF lasers were fired at a tiny golden cylinder of isotopes. There must be a good reason for the use of gold here. She also describes the isotopes as ‘a tiny coated pellet’. What’s the coating and why? She further explains ‘the lasers heat the pellet until it becomes a plasma, which in turn produces x-rays that attempt to escape in all directions’. This method of arriving at fusion is called ‘inertial confinement’. Another competing method is magnetic confinement, which uses tokamaks and stellarators. A tokamak – the word comes from a Russian acronym meaning ‘toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’ – uses magnetism to confine plasma in a torus – a doughnut shape. A stellarator…

Canto: Here’s the difference apparently:

In the tokamak, the rotational transform of a helical magnetic field is formed by a toroidal field generated by external coils together with a poloidal field generated by the plasma current. In the stellarator, the twisting field is produced entirely by external non-axisymmetric coils. 

Jacinta: Ah, right, we’ll get back to that shortly. The Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for toroidal systems at 0.7, which presumably means they’re a little over two thirds of the way to ignition. 

Canto: A poloidal field (such as the geomagnetic field at the Earth’s surface) is a magnetic field with radial and tangential components. Radial fields are generated from a central point and weaken as they move outward.

Jacinta: PBS also reports this, citing precisely 192 lasers, and a 1mm pellet of deuterium and tritium fuel inside a gold cannister:

When the lasers hit the canister, they produce X-rays that heat and compress the fuel pellet to about 20 times the density of lead and to more than 5 million degrees Fahrenheit (3 million Celsius) – about 100 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. If you can maintain these conditions for a long enough time, the fuel will fuse and release energy.

Canto:  So the question is, does nuclear fusion have a realistic future as a fuel?

Jacinta: Well, did the internet have a realistic future 50 years ago? We’ve had a breakthrough recently, and the only way is up. 

Canto: Yeah the future looks interesting after I’m dead. Still, it’s worth following the progress. Back in February The Guardian reported that JET had smashed its own world record, producing ’59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power)’. Whatever that means, it wasn’t ignition – it might’ve been the .7 you mentioned earlier. Creating a mini-star for five seconds was what one experimenter called it, which I think was in some ways better than the current effort, in that it created more energy in absolutes terms, but less energy than the input. 

Jacinta: Perhaps, but what they call ‘gain’ is an important measure. This recent experiment created a gain of about 1.5 – remember just over 3 megajoules of energy was put out from just over 2 megajoules of input. It’s a start but a much bigger gain is required, and the cost and efficiency of the lasers – or alternative technologies – needs to be much reduced. 

Canto: Apparently deuterium and tritium are both needed for effective fusion, but tritium is quite rare, unlike deuterium, which abounds in ocean waters. Tritium is also a byproduct of the fusion process, so the hope is that it can be harvested along the way. 

Jacinta: Of course the costs are enormous, but the benefits could easily outweigh them – if only we could come together, like bonobos, and combine our wits and resources. Here’s an interesting quote from the International Atomic Energy Agency:

In theory, with just a few grams of these reactants [deuterium and tritium], it is possible to produce a terajoule of energy, which is approximately the energy one person in a developed country needs over sixty years.

Canto: Really? Who will be that lucky person? But you’re right – collaboration on a grand scale is what this kind of project requires, and that requires a thoroughly human bonoboism married to a fully bonoboesque humanism….

References

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/what-a-breakthrough-in-nuclear-fusion-technology-means-for-the-future-of-clean-energy

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/13/carbon-free-energy-fusion-reaction-scientists

https://www.iaea.org/bulletin/what-is-fusion-and-why-is-it-so-difficult-to-achieve

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60312633

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2022 at 6:26 pm

Imagining a Bonobo magazine, then back to harsh reality – Taiwan, Iran, Cuba, the UAE

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Jacinta: I have this fantasy of going back in time to my younger self, a few decades ago, knowing what I know now (so that I could invest in companies I now know have been successful, and wouldn’t have to work ‘for the man’). I’d start a magazine promoting female empowerment, highlighting female high achievers in science, art, politics and business, and I’d call the magazine Bonobo. It would of course be ragingly successful, promoting the cause of women and bonobos in equally dizzying proportions…

Canto: Yeah, and I have this fantasy of going back to pre-adolescent days and changing sex. Gender reassignment and all that, but I’d definitely be a lesbian.

Jacinta: And later you’d land a plum job, working for Bonobo. But returning to the 21st century, and I’m disappointed to hear that Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, recently resigned as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, due to its poor showing in recent local elections. The opposition Kuomintang, a party with a pretty dubious history, tends to be pro-China – that’s to say, the Chinese Testosterone Party – so I’m not sure what’s going on there. I’ve read that the elections were fought mostly on local issues, but it’s still a worry. We might do a deeper dive on the topic in the near future. I read about Taiwan’s new democracy in Glimpses of Utopia, by the author and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, Jess Scully, and it sounded exciting – I recall one Taiwanese commentator saying something like ‘because we’re a new democracy we’re not hidebound by tradition [unlike the USA with its revered and hopelessly out-dated constitution etc etc], we can be more innovative’. But the forces of conservatism are always there to drag us back.

Canto: And speaking of conservatism, or more like medievalism, how about Iran?

Jacinta: Well I don’t feel optimistic, at least not for the near future. Of course the enforcement of the hijab is pure oppression, but these male oppressors have been in power since 1979, and before that the Shah had become increasingly oppressive and dictatorial, so one kind of quasi-fascism was replaced by an ultimately more brutal religious version. The recent protests were sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman in custody, but unrest has been brewing for some time, not just over the hijab and the disgusting treatment of women, but the increasingly dire economic situation.

Canto: Meanwhile Iran is supplying drones to Russia, to help them kill Ukrainians. WTF is that all about?

Jacinta: Well mostly it seems to be about the fact that both nations have an obsessive hatred, and I suppose fear, of the USA. So ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. That’s how the New York Times puts it, though I’d say it’s not just the USA, it’s democracy and ‘western values’. Iran and Putinland have worked together before, to decimate the opposition to that Syrian dictator, Whatsisface, for whatever reason. Interestingly, though the Iranian dictatorship’s support for Putin is another cause of domestic dissent – the Iranian people tend to favour the underdog, unsurprisingly.

Canto: And many of the most seasoned experts believe this war – essentially between Putinland and NATO, but with most of the victims being Ukrainians – could drag on for years. Putin is stuck with a predicament of his own making, having gotten away with similar behaviour in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and of course Ukraine back in 2014. This time has been disastrously different, but he won’t let go before killing as many Ukrainians as he possibly can. And having created a macho thugocracy, it’s likely his main adversaries within Putinland are those even more thuggish than himself.

Jacinta: Yes, all claims that he’s about to flee the country, or that he has testicular cancer of the brain or whatever, are nothing more than phantasy. Still, as we’re a little younger than he is, and imbibing a less toxic atmosphere, it will be a joy to witness his last end.

Canto: It’s funny but of all the current crop of malignant male ‘leaders’, the one that, for some reason, fills me with the most uncontrollable rage is Xi Jinping. I’m not sure why. I’m clearly not cut out to be a diplomat, my fantasies are way too nasty.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Possibly because he, and the Chinese thugocracy in general, are much more low key and business-like in their campaigns of oppression and mass-murder. Xi, of course, is an admirer, or pretends to be, of old Mao, the greatest mass-murderer of his own people in the history of this planet. I can hardly imagine Xi flying into a Hitlerian rage about anything. It makes him see all the more inhuman. I’ve been hoping, without much hope, that the USA – the only country Xi might be a little afraid of – would elect a female leader in the very near future, and that she would then slap him about in a well-publicised heads-of-state meet-up.

Canto: Haha, now that’s a fruitier fantasy I must say. So what about the USA, supposedly our ally? Are we supposed to accept their hubristic jingoism – with a pinch of salt? Clearly we want to be on their side against the different varieties of thugocracy on offer, but this obsession with dear leaders instead of parties and policies and negotiations and compromises and dialogue, it’s pretty tedious. Maybe we need female leaders to slap sense into all these partisan screamers….

Jacinta: There are plenty of female partisan screamers actually. With female leadership it’s a matter of degree. There are publicity hounds who make a lot of partisan noises, but most of them are male. Many of them are female of course, and I have no illusions about that, but all the evidence shows that by and large women are more into mending fences rather than smashing them, but that’s not what gets the publicity.

Canto: I do feel inspired, in a small way, about the Australian situation, arrived at recently, with a substantial increase in female representation in parliament. This has been ongoing, but the May Federal election has boosted female numbers substantially. 38% female representation, the highest in Australian history. Compare that to 27% in the US Congress, and 35% in the UK Parliament – another all-time high.

Jacinta: Well here’s a story, from the Washington Post:

New Zealand made history — or herstory — this week as female lawmakers became the majority, narrowly outnumbering their male counterparts in Parliament for the first time. On Tuesday, Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in as a lawmaker for the Labour Party, tipping the country’s legislative body to 60 women and 59 men.

That was posted in late October. And there were more surprises, for me at least:

Only five countries share Wellington’s achievement, with at least half of lawmakers being women, among them Rwanda, where more than 60 percent of its lawmakers are women, Cuba (53 percent), Nicaragua (51 percent), Mexico (50 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (50 percent), according to data from the [Inter-Parliamentary Union]. The countries that fall just short of 50 percent include Iceland, Grenada and South Africa.

Canto: Well, that’s surprising, even shocking. We don’t think of many of those countries as being enlightened or particularly pro-female.

Jacinta: Yes we’ll have to do a deeper dive. I have heard good things about the UAE, I think, but not so much about Cuba or Nicaragua. Think of Latino machismo and all that. So I’ve been reading a piece on Cuba from a few years ago, and plus ça change… or I could say, lies, damn lies, and statistics. Here’s a couple of quotes:

As far as power dynamics go, the machismo mentality ensures that men receive the upper hand. All you have to do is walk down the street to see machismo at work. Catcalls, or piropos, and other forms of (non-physical) sexual harassment are unavoidable for women, even on a five-minute walk. This culture of machismo is deeply embedded in Cuban society and indicative of deeper, institutionalized gender inequalities as well.

And forget all that apparent parliamentary representation:

In actuality, employed women in Cuba do not hold positions of power—either political or monetary. The Cuban Congress, although elected by the people, is not the political body that truly calls the shots. The Cuban Communist Party—only about 7 percent of which is made up of women—holds true political power. Markedly, the systems of evaluating gender equality in other countries around the world aren’t universally applicable, as women are much less represented in the true governing body of Cuba than we are led to believe. In addition, the professions that are usually synonymous with monetary wealth and the power and access that come with it (doctors, professors, etc.) do not yield the same financial reward here. Doctors and professors are technically state-employed and, therefore, earn the standard state wage of about $30 per month. This means women employed in these traditionally high-paying fields are denied access to even monetary power as a form of establishing more of an equal footing with men.

Canto: Yes, cultural shifts happen much more rarely, or slowly, than we always hope….

Jacinta: So now to check out the UAE, where I expect to find my hopes dashed once more. But it seems the UAE definitely stands out, at least a bit, in one of the world’s most ultra-patriarchal regions. The website of the UAE embassy in Washington has a puff piece in which it proudly references the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index, in which the UAE is ‘ranked first in MENA [the Middle East and North Africa] and 24th globally on women’s inclusion, justice and security’. However, it’s a Muslim culture, and culture rarely shifts much with the political winds, as DBC Pierre eloquently argues in a brief piece on Kandahar and the Afghan wars in volume 34 of New Philosopher. It might be argued that even Islam is a Johnny-come-lately in the tribal traditions of these desert regions. The Expatica website, which is designed to prepare workers for the challenges of living and working within a foreign culture, also argues that many of the political changes represent the thinnest of veneers. For example, female genital mutilation is still relatively common in rural areas, and Islamic Law is followed in the matter of domestic violence, to the detriment of women. This website claims the UAE ranks 49th in the world for gender equality, somewhat contradicting the embassy site, but without reference.

Canto: Hmmm. I’d rather work with bonobos. But they don’t really need us, do they?

References

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63768538

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/26/new-zealand-women-parliament-gender/

Glimpses of utopia, by Jess Scully, 2020

https://www.britannica.com/event/Iranian-Revolution/Aftermath

https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2022/12/16/iran-questions-and-answers-about-the-situation-and-sanctions

https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking?month=1&year=2022

https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/the-truth-about-gender-equality-in-cuba

https://www.uae-embassy.org/discover-uae/society/women-in-the-uae

‘Hidden truths’, by DBC Pierre: New Philosopher 34: Truth

https://www.expatica.com/ae/living/gov-law-admin/womens-rights-in-the-united-arab-emirates-71118/

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 23, 2022 at 9:20 pm

erogenous zones, domination, submission, bonobos and other sexy stuff

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Jacinta: So Simone de Beauvoir has a section in The second sex called ‘Sexual initiation’, which seems to me much influenced by all that Freudian stuff we’ve been exploring in Freud’s women, particularly all that clitoral versus vaginal malarky. However, she does try to get to the bottom of the physiological aspects rather than the psychological, which the Freudians (and many of their opponents) seemed to be stuck on. Still, she seems overly influenced by the passive-active distinction that Freud, especially in the early years, assumed as ‘natural’ vis-a-vis the female-male attitude to coitus.

Canto: Well, to be fair, in much mammalian coitus, the male ‘mounts’ and the female assumes the ‘lordosis position’, according to zoologists. It all appears a bit dominant-submissive to me.

Jacinta: Yeees, sort of, and this seems to have much to do with the evolved features of the sexual apparatus. Think of birds – the male jumps on top, wiggles around and that’s it, it lasts a couple of seconds. Consider that birds generally bond in lifelong pairs, with the odd bit on the side, and the males aren’t generally dominant, though it varies a lot species-wise, and birds, at least some species, are quite intelligent…

Canto: Yeah we don’t tend to think of the lifelong psychological effects of the physical act, or positioning, of sex in birds, or cats and dogs. We’re very speciesist that way.

Jacinta: Which reminds me of another story – actually a memory, of a dog we had, a female who regularly masturbated on top of her favourite fluffy toy, when she wasn’t ‘fighting’ with it all over the house. I can’t remember whether she’d been desexed or not, but clearly her erogenous zones were still intact. Was this clitoral or vaginal stimulation? Does it really matter? But of course for we humans it’s all so much more complex, apparently. Especially for us women. Here’s what Beauvoir has to say – and I sympathise to some extent:

The act of love [sic] finds its unity in its natural culmination: orgasm. Coitus has a specific physiological aim; in ejaculation the male releases burdensome secretions; after orgasm, the male feels complete relief regularly accompanied by pleasure. And, of course, pleasure is not the only aim; it is often followed by disappointment: the need has disappeared rather than having been satisfied. In any case, a definitive act is consummated and the man’s body remains intact: the service he has rendered to the species becomes one with his own pleasure. Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation…. instead of integrating forces of the species into her individual life, the female is prey to the species, whose interests diverge from her own ends; this antinomy reaches its height in woman; one of its manifestations is the opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina.

The second sex, pp 394-5

Canto: Yes… well, if dogs don’t much care if it’s clitoral or vaginal pleasure, why should women? It’s all an erogenous zone, some parts more than others maybe, but when the ‘act is consummated’, who cares? And the remark that ‘the female is prey to the species’ presumably refers to pregnancy and all its attendant issues. Beauvoir was writing before the contraceptive pill, which changed so much, at least in the WEIRD world.

Jacinta: Well, yes but there’s the whole issue of teen pregnancy, due to rape, ignorance and the like, and abortion and its enemies. Look at the USA today, still messed up about this issue. But, yes, this clitoris-vagina stuff is largely a red herring to me.

Canto: Yes it all smells a bit fishy.. oh sorry that was a bit below the belt…

Jacinta: Haha I recall an American sex video actor saying all her male co-performers’ dicks stank of marihuana – which may or may not be worse depending on your taste. But speaking of sex, there is an obvious imbalance in the sex game. How often do women rape men? Or even ‘coerce’ men into having sex. And think of gang rape. And the horrific consequences for women. And of course most men don’t rape, or even give it a moment’s thought – at least I hope they don’t – but I know the danger is often on the minds of women when they’re having a night out.

Canto: Safety in numbers, and that seems to be the bonobo way too, and getting back to other mammals again, it’s generally the case – think dogs, horses, any four-legged beastie – that the male mounts the female. Often from behind, like sneakily, creepily. Males on top, and females more or less taken unawares, more or less unwillingly. It seems like the urge to copulate invariably comes from the male.

Jacinta: Yes, evolution appears to have worked it that way, though social evolution can turn this around, at least somewhat. Not just safety, but power in numbers, that seems to be the bonobo way.

Canto: So how exactly do bonobos deal with the sex issue? I’d like some details. I know they engage in regular stimulation of each others’ erogenous zones, aka masturbation, but what about actual copulation, for the purpose of reproduction, though presumably they don’t make the connection. And when did we humans make the connection, when it comes to that?

Jacinta: Well bonobos reproduce at the same rate as chimps, despite all their sexual shenanigans. Humans differ from our primate cousins in that we don’t ‘come into season’ with ‘attractive’ pink swellings, which have an effect on the males, that’s both visual and probably chemical – pheromones and all.

Canto: And if we did – I mean if you females did – it might well be covered up, not only with clothing but deodorants and the like. I wonder if there’s any vestigial elements of being ‘in heat’. as they say, in humans.

Jacinta: Well this is where we move onto hormones. Here’s a quote from a sexual health website, which is pretty reliable:

Medical experts associate changes in sex drive with changes in the ratio of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are produced by the ovaries. These shifts occur at different phases of your monthly cycle. During your period and for a few days after, the concentration of both hormones is low, resulting in less sexual desire. By the time ovulation rolls around, estrogen peaks, naturally increasing libido. Once the process of ovulation wraps up, there’s a boost in progesterone production, and you might notice a dip in your sex drive.

Canto: Ah yes, menstruation – I don’t recall Freud saying much about that. Do bonobos menstruate?

Jacinta: Do bears shit in the woods? We should do a whole interaction on the menstrual cycle, for your benefit. Anyway, here’s a useful brief guide to bonobos and chimps:

  • Bonobos are sexually receptive for a large portion of their reproductive cycle, even when not near the time for ovulation.
    • This trait has sometimes been called concealed ovulation because the male has no clear signal for the optimum time for mating.
    • Bonobos also engage in sex in non-swelling phases of their cycle in about 1 out of 3 copulations.
    • Chimpanzee females tend to be sexually active only during their maximum swelling phase.

Canto: Right. Uhhh, no mention there of menstruation. Forgive my ignorance but what’s the difference/connection between ovulation and menstruation?

Jacinta: Okay here’s the story with us humans. Ovulation starts at puberty. It’s when an egg is released from one of the ovaries (we have a left and right ovary). You can say this is when we’re fertile, when we’re liable to get pregnant. Ovulation occurs at around day 14 of the 28-day menstrual cycle, on average. The cycle starts, and ends, with that thing called ‘the period’, when material from the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, is shed, along with blood and other yucky stuff. You can imagine the psychological impact that might have on girls when they’re not prepared for it. It can be a real trauma. So menstruation strictly refers to the whole cyclical process, but it’s often used to refer to that flushing out ‘period’. All of this is mediated by hormones. Estrogen is the main builder of new endometrium – the biochemistry of it would require a whole other conversation.

Canto: Yes that’s enough for now, but it seems that oestrogen also boosts libido…

Jacinta: Yes, that’s important, the urge to copulate doesn’t just come from the males. And this physiological stuff seems like solid ground after all the flights of psychoanalysis we’ve been trying to get our heads around recently.

Canto: And we haven’t yet gotten onto what has been made of Freudian and post-Freudian theory by the likes of Lacan, Kristeva, Irigary, Cixous, Derrida, Deleuze, and of course Guattari, among many others…

Jacinta: Yeah, mostly French – funny that. It seems Freud’s influence has waned, though, in the 30 years since Freud’s women was published. The broad Freudian notion of the unconscious – rather than the unconscious processes that go on through our nervous and endocrine systems – has been buried, it seems, by neurological advances, which, as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, have been fast and furious in the 21st century. But that period, and that physical and metaphysical region centred around Vienna when Freud was active in the first decades of the 20th century, was very fruitful, and in many ways revolutionary. Anil Seth, one of today’s leading researchers into human consciousness, paid tribute to it in his book Being you:

In the fluid atmosphere of Vienna at that time, the two culture of art and science mingled to an unusual degree. Science wasn’t placed above art, in the all too familiar sense in which  art, and the human responses it evokes, are considered to be things in need of scientific explanation. Nor did art place itself beyond the reach of science. Artists and scientists – and their critics – were allies in their attempts to understand human experience in all its richness and variety. No wonder the neuroscientist Eric Kandel called this period ‘the age of insight’, in his book of the same name.

Canto: Well, that’s a nice conciliatory note to end this conversation on.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud’s women, 1992

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

https://flo.health/menstrual-cycle/sex/sexual-health/sex-and-menstrual-cycle-are-they-connected

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/reproduction

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/menstrual-cycle-an-overview

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Anil Seth, Being you: a new science of consciousness, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2022 at 11:41 am

less testosterone? – such a worry

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the Chinese Testosterone Party – ‘let’s wear boring western outfits and shit on “western values” – that’ll fix em’

Okay, so back to the real stuff, testosterone. The inimitable Sabine Hossenfelder, of the dry humour and sexy German accent, has explored its supposed reduction among humans and how it is deplored among the wannabe macho fraternity.

So first of all I must go straight to bonobos, our more or less female-dominant cousins. There’s precious little data on bonobos and testosterone, but see my previous piece, referenced below. A 2005 study of wild bonobos found, unsurprisingly, that ‘the alpha male had the highest circulating levels of T’, though a comparison with chimp T levels would have been useful. And when I say ‘little data’ I should qualify that – there’s not much data that can be made sense of (by me), it’s so complicated. For example, testosterone levels in female bonobos are just as important as in males, and they vary with age and circumstances. What seems to be the case, which I suspected all along, is that testosterone levels follow rather than lead social aggression and lifestyle patterns, which is why I’ve always been interested in the social development of humans along bonobo lines, so to speak, without worrying about hormones too much.

Now, returning to Sabine, who does a great job of summarising the pros and cons of having too much or too little T. Her most important point, which is well-known but can hardly be stressed enough, is that testosterone levels drop when males are holding or playing with a child (or maybe even thinking of doing so, or having pregnancy fantasies, or just wearing his favourite little black dress…), and they rise after divorce – which may help to explain some restraining orders. But these effects are relatively small for most males.

The evidence is clear, though, that T levels really are falling (oh frabjous day!). Sabine provides graphic, heartening evidence, at least to this dweeb. But there are downsides – both men and women are becoming physically weaker, slower and fatter, especially in the WEIRD world. High protein diets are more common than ever before, and weight gain lowers T, which in turn results in weight gain. And even the abandonment of cigarettes reduces T somewhat – another pleasant, if bizarre, surprise. Of course, as Sabine points out, all this is far from pleasant to some, such as the perennial dweeb who would be otherwise, Tucker Carlson, but others, such as myself, call it progress. Sabine winds her piece up with a most excellent quote from the sadly missed Carl Sagan which I’ll set down here for my own delight:

Why is the half of humanity with a special sensitivity to the preciousness of life, the half untainted by testosterone poisoning, almost wholly unrepresented in defence establishments and peace negotiations worldwide?…. Testosterone also causes the kind of aggression needed to defend against predators and without it we’d all be dead….  Testosterone is there for a reason. It’s not an evolutionary mistake.

Testosterone won’t disappear, in humans or bonobos. If we have more need of it in the future, it’ll probably mean bad news, as Sabine points out. Meanwhile we have the near-apoplectic Mr Poo-tin (a sobriquet for which I’m most grateful) and the Chinese Testosterone Party as ongoing examples of the downside of T.

So while T isn’t an evolutionary mistake, evolution doesn’t stand still. Indeed social evolution is a more accelerated version of earlier forms. It took a couple of million years, at most, for bonobos to depart from chimps in terms of their happy, sharing-and-caring lifestyles. Humans, so much smarter and quicker off the mark once they’ve grasped the benefits (think Deutsche’s The beginning of infinity), have just started to move towards a more female-empowered society in the last century or so, at least in the WEIRD world. And it’s largely females in collaboration that have made it happen, just as occurred, I’m sure, in bonobo society. Of course, this is still too slow for those of us growing older and more impatient. However, horrible as this is to admit, super-macho events such as the ‘great wars’ of the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s half-century of brutal slaughter and rape in the East, and now Poo-tin’s crime against Ukraine, lead to a quickening of positive responses – the United Nations, international monitoring agencies, defensive alliances, and the like. Global human-caused problems are leading to globally-negotiated attempts at solutions, and the lure of global trade dollars also has its benefits.

We need also to learn from previous mis-steps. Here in Australia we commemorate Anzac Day every year, and we hear kids saying ‘they died to save our country’ or ‘…that we can be free’. In the USA we hear praise of Vietnam vets, who fought ‘to defend our country’ or ‘our values’. Against the Vietnamese? It’s such arrant bullshit. The US was in Vietnam first at the behest of the French, who decided to quit their overlordship because it wasn’t delivering enough benefits – to the French. And of course it was impossible for the locals to govern themselves, in spite of having inhabited the region for millennia. It’s just another story of the powerful against the powerless, stories that go back to the dawn of civilisations. As to the ANZACs, fighting the Turks on the other side of the world, what was that about? Certainly nothing to do with Australian freedom. Australia just happened to be much more closely linked to Britain in 1914 than it is now, and two imperialisms, Britain with its quite vast empire, and Germany, the late-comers, spoiling for more power and influence, and a great muddle of other countries trying to work out which side would best suit their interests, came to blows in much the same way as two troupes of chimps have been known to do, but with much more horrific consequences. And blind patriotism, and its fanatical encouragement, didn’t help matters. The ‘Great War’ was an avoidable catastrophe and all our remembrance should surely be focussed on this avoidability.

To accentuate the positive, we are getting better. Yes, there’s the horrors in Ukraine, Iran, Burma and a number of African nations, which have diverse roots. Often it’s to do with the powerless rising up against their disempowerment, having virtually nothing to lose. Such conflicts have been going on for millennia, but we shouldn’t turn our backs o them. None of us get to choose whether we’re born in a rich or poor country, or a rich or poor sub-section of that country. We need to always bear this in mind. Of course it’s hard. It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 50,000 bonobos left in the wild. Humans number 8 billion. Even if we turned our backs on 99% of them, that would leave us with millions to worry about. And we all have our own problems… but sympathy and sharing seem to do us all a power of good. Vive les bonobos!

References

more on hormones, bonobos and humans

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2022 at 11:09 am

more on hormones, bonobos and humans

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So having recently read Carole Hooven’s Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, an extremely informative and well-argued book that was basically a necessary read for me, considering my obsession with a more bonobo-like world for humans, I’m left with – what to do? How can I incorporate all this hormonal stuff into my ‘bonobo world and other impossibilities’ essays? I know I’ve mentioned hormones here and there, but never in any detail. Basically I’ve noted, along with Steven Pinker and others, that ‘we’re getting better’. Less violent, more caring of our children, more appreciative of our ‘feminine’ side, more questioning of the nature of gender, a little less male-dominant, at least in the WEIRD world. And since this doesn’t seem to have involved hormones, at least on the face of it, the testosterone issue was never so much front and centre in my dreams of human transformation as was the example, largely ignored by the human world, as it seems to me, of bonobo society.

Sadly, Hooven hardly mentions bonobos, so I need to do some bonobo-testosterone research myself. Here are my initial thoughts. Since bonobos, along with chimps, are our closest rellies, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re hormonally very similar (research required). So how did they evolve into the make-love-not-war apes (yes, an over-simplifying cliché), and why did we evolve more along the chimp line (yes, with great diversity, but very few cultures that ‘aped’ bonobos)?

Again, before I start looking at research abstracts, I can surmise a little. Chimps eat more meat than bonobos, which means more hunting and killing. Testosterone helps with that. The males are more into it so they gang together, leaving the women – sorry, the females – behind. There will be teamwork but also show-offy competition and a muscular hierarchy within the team. And the excitement of the hunt will boost testosterone all the more, which will be worked off on the females afterwards. Bonobos on the other hand spend more time in the trees, in a relatively nutrient-rich part of the DRC rainforest, eating mostly fruit and nuts. Not the sort of stuff you have to chase around and bash to death. And they hang around together, so the males might spend more time entertaining the kids, more or less by default.

And there are mysteries. The male bonobos are bigger than the females, by about the same proportion as humans. The females keep control by female-female bonding, often sexualised, but since ‘sexual healing’ goes on in every possible combination, why don’t the males gain control by the same means? Or why haven’t they? (It wouldn’t be a matter of deciding to do so, more an evolved thing, which didn’t happen). Also dominant females appear to have favoured male offspring, who might serve as their captain-at-arms, in a sense. But now I’m starting to speculate more wildly.

So, the research: in 2010, a paper was published in PNAS (pronounced ‘penis’ by the cognoscenti), entitled ‘Differential changes in steroid hormones before competition in bonobos and chimpanzees’. It described an experiment conducted on male pairs of chimps and bonobos (chimp with chimp, bonobo with bonobo). The pairs were tested for hormonal changes before and after two different food-sharing settings:

We found that in both species, males showed an anticipatory decrease (relative to baseline) in steroids when placed with a partner in a situation in which the two individuals shared food, and an anticipatory increase when placed with a partner in a situation in which the dominant individual obtained more food.

However, these ‘endocrine shifts’ occurred in cortisol for bonobos, and testosterone for chimps, which was more or less as predicted by the researchers. And why did they predict this?

Given that chimpanzees and bonobos differ markedly in their food-sharing behavior, we predicted that they would differ in their rapid endocrine shifts.

Cortisol is generally regarded as a stress hormone, or the fight or flight hormone. I used to get one of those ‘shifts’ (which sent me to the toilet) before teaching a new class. I haven’t asked female teachers if they ‘suffered’ similarly.

Because competition for overt markers of status and mating opportunities is more relevant to males, these effects are less consistent in females.

I’m not sure I was concerned about mating opportunities when starting a new class – could get me into a spot of bother – but status, maybe. But what interests me is that hormone shifts follow social behavioural patterns. That’s to say, shifts in testosterone will be rapid in all-male groups such as male gangs (which I experienced as a young person), in which the pecking order is constantly under challenge, all the way down the line. Cortisol too, I suppose, but gangs are all about ‘proving manhood’, which didn’t at the time seem to be all about sex, but in a not-so-roundabout way, it was.

Chimps, as mentioned, tend to hang together in these sorts of tight hierarchical groups, and so show a stronger ‘power motive’, a term used in human competition research. Bonobos are more co-operative, to the point of becoming stressed when food isn’t easily shared:

Because bonobo conflicts rarely escalate to severe aggression, we might classify bonobos as possessing a passive coping style…

That sounds like me, especially in my youth – considering that, all through my school years, I was one of the two or three smallest kids in the class, male or female, what other coping style could I have? But unfortunately, in the human world, too many blokes have an active coping style, together with a power motive, making misérables of the rest of us.

So, I’ve focused only on this one piece of research for this little essay, and I’ll have a look at more in the future. What it tells me is that we can, indeed, and should, shape our society to become more bonoboesque in the future, for the good of us all. It is heading that way anyway (again with that WEIRD world caveat), in spite of the Trumps and their epigones (dear, the idea that Old Shitmouth could bring forth epigones is grossly disturbing). One last quote from the researchers:

These findings suggest that independent mechanisms govern the sensitivity of testosterone and cortisol to competition, and that distinct factors may affect anticipatory vs. response shifts in apes and humans. Future species comparisons can continue to illuminate how ecology has shaped species differences in behavioral endocrinology, including the selection pressures acting in human evolution.
And of course human evolution continues…

can’t get enough of bonobo bonding

References

Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021

https://ussromantics.com/category/bonobos/

https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1007411107

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 1, 2022 at 10:52 pm

Evolutionary biology, testosterone and bonobos

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this is the first of a 22-part slide show on the topic – hormones don’t rate a mention!


Canto: So I think we need to get back to another obsession of ours – bonobos and how we can harness a bit more bonoboism for human purposes. We’re currently observing, horrified, as Russia’s alpha male chimp flips out on his own testosterone, perhaps….

Jacinta: Yes, it could well read like something out of Jane Goodall – a long-term alpha male, who has done reasonably well in holding his troupe together by inordinate bullying, random slaughter and regular breast-beating, and by smart alliances, suddenly endangers everything in attempting to take over another troupe…

Canto: And having read three books on the trot, referenced below, on China and its all-male thugocracy, it’s more than tempting to cast that thugocracy in chimpian terms – alpha male after alpha male after alpha male. 

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve long considered how best to rename the soi-disant Chinese Communist Party (CCP), arguably the most absurd misnomer in the known universe. I considered the Chinese Fascist Party, but that seems a bit ‘trendy’, and to call it simply The Party seems too bland, neutral, and even festive. But to call it the Chinese Testosterone Party – that fits the bill perfectly. I really really want that to catch on in the WEIRD world. So anyway, with the evidence mounting that female leadership leads to better outcomes, politically, socially and, I hope, sexually – though we’ve been a bit nervous about that tediously sensitive issue – how can we speed up the trend towards human bonoboism?

Canto: It’s hard, especially when all these macho shenanigans bring out my own most bloodthirsty revenge fantasies. But I’ve been wondering about hormones: Are there any hormonal differences between chimps and bonobos that might help to explain the bonobo turn towards female-female bonding and control of males – and the freewheeling sexual play within bonobo society?

Jacinta: You mean – could we control and transform our human world through some kind of hormone replacement therapy? Sounds promising. 

Canto: We’ll here’s some food for thought re males versus females, and not just in humans:

Empathy is our ability to understand how others are feeling, and men are less able to do this than women, across cultures. This is a widely replicated and consistent finding, and it’s not true just of human males and females. In chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, elephants, dogs and wolves, researchers have observed that males engage in lower rates of behaviours related to empathy, like caregiving, cooperating, helping and comforting.

Carole Hooven, Testosterone, p159.

Jacinta: So the question is – is there a hormone we can take for that? Sadly, it’s never that simple. 

Canto: Sure, but anyway, let’s ask Dr Google. Hmmm, top of the page:

There is some evidence that high levels of estradiol and progesterone are associated with low levels of aggression 

Jacinta: That’s enough for me. Compulsory high-level doses for all males. Overdoses in fact. They either die or shut the fuck up. 

Canto: So there’s a university textbook, Principles of social psychology, which has a section, the biological and emotional causes of aggression, and of course Hooven writes a lot about aggression and testosterone in humans and other animals. There’s just so much to dig into here. For example, pair-bonding male birds and other animals, such as bonobos, who have more of a share in child-rearing, have lower testosterone levels than those in social situations where there is a greater separation between males and females. Arguably that is the case in agricultural societies as opposed to hunter-gatherers. 

Jacinta: So much easier to change hormone levels by just stuffing them into people’s bodies than by changing behaviour, though, surely. Can’t you just add them to the water supply?

Canto: That might be possible, especially if we lived in a thugocracy. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, it gets more and more confusing. 

Canto: What’s interesting about the findings is the chicken-egg issue. Does the gradual social evolution of male caring – if that’s what’s happening – reduce hormone levels or vice versa? I would hypothesise that it’s the caring that’s affecting the hormone levels, but how to test this?

Jacinta: Seriously, testosterone plays a huge role in our development, physiologically to take it to its most basic level. It makes for more athleticism, and probably for more of the competitive urge that leads to that obsessive athleticism, and bodybuilding claptrap. Somehow it makes me think of Mr Pudding, and his caricaturish experience of first being bullied by Charles Atlas types, and then learning a few martial arts-type skills to get revenge, with the end result of controlling a whole nation, and leading a military to rape and murder women and blow kids to bits in Ukraine. Testosterone has a lot to answer for. 

Canto: And yet. Look at bonobos. Look at Scandinavia. The beast has been tamed, in a few pockets of our universe. 

Jacinta: Do aliens have hormones, there’s a question. 

Canto: Yeah we first have to answer the earthling question – are there aliens in the universe?

Jacinta: But haven’t quite a few humans been kidnapped by aliens? 

Canto: Ha, oh yes, the ones who escaped…. but all the missing persons…

Jacinta: Returning to Earth, the hormone issue, and possibly even the neurophysiology issue, these raise the questions of masculinity and femininity – which Hooven explores from an endocrinological perspective – does a woman with a high testosterone level have a disqualifying advantage over another ‘normal’ woman, in running, jumping, throwing and lifting?

 Canto: Hilariously – depending on your perspective – this has become a minefield in the world of sport and athletics. Hooven cites an athlete, Caster Semenya (and I know v little about this topic) who had a habit of blitzing the field in running events a decade ago –  in fact from 2009 to 2018. Unsurprisingly, I would say, she had ‘suspiciously’ high testosterone levels (which of course would never have been measured before the 21st century), so complaints were made. Was this woman really a man? Which raises obvious masculinity and femininity questions…

Jacinta: Which, just as obviously, should be quashed by – fuck, she’s fast, that’s so fantastic! Go, girl! 

Canto: But I suppose there’s a legitimate question – do abnormal levels of x give you an advantage?

Jacinta: Yeah, like long legs, in running? Shouldn’t leg length be subject to restrictions? 

Canto: It’s a good point. We want to think maleness and femaleness are distinct, but we tend to think in terms of averages – the average female is 80% of the mass of the average male, the average male produces x more testosterone than the average female, etc, but there’s enormous variation within each gender, and that’s genderbendingly problematic for more than just athletics officials. 

Jacinta: Anyway, just how important is endocrinology for a future bonobo world? Should we be focussing on promoting estradiol and progesterone rather than femaledom? Should we be screening politicians for the best hormonal balance rather than the best policies?

Canto: Ah but if my previously mentioned hypothesis is correct, we should be screening potential ‘leaders’ for their caring and sharing, which will lead to a greater expression of the ‘good’ hormones. 

Jacinta: Yes, good for a society in which aggression has more serious consequences than it had in the past, what with WMDs and the like – the slaughter of women for their ‘contemptuous’ flouting of dress codes, the slaughter of ethic communities for their insistence on a modicum of independence. Aggression with a massive state apparatus behind it, and more effective weaponry than ever before. But how do we rid ourselves of these aggressive states without aggression? How do we even defend ourselves against them without aggression?

Canto: Maybe we’re just wanting too much too soon. I note that we’re getting more female political leaders than in the past, though they tend so far to be countries with relatively small populations – Scotland (our birth country), Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Baltic States… and, as with bonobos, it’s not just the alpha females, it’s the status of the whole female sex that makes the difference. 

Jacinta: Yes, if we had but world enough, and time….

References

Jane Goodall, Through a window, 1990

Trevor Watson & Melissa Roberts, ed. The Beijing bureau, 2021

David Brophy, China panic, 2021

Bill Birtles, The truth about China, 2021

Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the story of the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5942158/

Nicky Hayes (?), Principles of social psychology, c2015?

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2022 at 3:03 pm

nuclear issues – the end of complacency? Vive la révolution des bonobos!

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So, Japan’s sense of itself as a mighty, controlling power, which had been corroding fast since its foolhardy attack on Pearl Harbour, was brought to an abrupt end in August 1945, the result of two atomic bombs, the only such weapons ever used against a human population.

Those explosions also set off two contradictory trends, which have persisted ever since; the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the behest of two ‘superpowers’, the USA and the Soviet Union (together with desperate attempts to acquire such weapons by wannabe superpowers), and a refrain of ‘never again’ by most members of the world community. This disastrous contradiction has persisted to this day, so that we’re now faced with the bizarre scenario of a worldwide anti-nuclear consensus, together with a total nuclear arsenal which could destroy the biosphere many times over. If ever any alien needed proof of the crooked timber of humanity, surely this scenario would be the first thing to point out.

It’s hard for a non-military person to make sense of the quantity and type of nuclear weaponry owned and deployed, if that’s the word, by the USA. But I’ll give it a go. Here’s the first thing I found:

As of 2021, American nuclear forces on land consist of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs spread among 450 operational launchers. Those in the seas consist of 14 nuclear-capable Ohio-class Trident submarines, nine in the Pacific and five in the Atlantic.

This doesn’t appear to tell us anything of the destructive power of these ICBMs. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, gets to the point quickly enough:

 Less than one percent of the nuclear weapons in the world could disrupt the global climate and threaten as many as two billion people with starvation in a nuclear famine. The thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by the US and Russia could bring about a nuclear winter, destroying the essential ecosystems on which all life depends.

So the first quote is from Wikipedia, I think, and clearly 400 isn’t thousands, but does it really matter when we know from experience that two bombs can bring a nation to its knees? Those bombs may have killed as many as 200,000 – the exact total will never be known – but even while the world was reeling from the shock, the USA was experimenting with more powerful hydrogen fusion bombs, and the Soviet Union was trying desperately to catch up. The situation today, I’ve read somewhere, is that Russia has slightly more bombs than the USA, but with these numbers, comparisons are meaningless, and odious.

We’ve lived with this situation for the whole of my 66-year lifespan. Presumably the leaders of the nuclear-armed countries feel that this situation, this stand-off of sorts, should continue ‘forever’, which reminds me of Mr Pudding’s recent remark that the regions of eastern Ukraine that he subjected to sham referenda were now  Russian ‘forever’, forgetting that Russia itself has only been a country for a mere few centuries – as has Australia, New Zealand, all the countries of North, South and Central America, most of Europe and Africa. It all makes this ‘forever’ talk sound pretty shallow to me.

The point I’m making is that we can’t rely on the ‘foreverness’ of the mutually assured destruction argument for possession of nuclear weaponry. After all, as the buffoon that the USA recently allowed to become its President allegedly said while in office – ‘What’s the point of having nuclear weapons if you don’t use them?’

Yes, true, in a sense. There’s no point in using them, so there’s no point in having them. We can surely do better than this, despite our crooked timber.

Again, I look to the women. Think of these two self-styled superpowers. The USA is on its 46th President. How many of them have been women. I suspect that country will only be brought to its senses when the number of female Presidents historically matches the number of males. That’s unlikely to happen in the next 500 years. Hopefully, though, before that happens, they will have ditched their abysmal Presidential system entirely. I hope, but I don’t expect. United Staters are way too worshipful of their Presidential monarchy to submit to a more collaborative and flexible political system. Again, the ascent of women is their best hope for political improvement.

As to Russia, it experienced some of its best days under their Empress Catherine II, which admittedly, isn’t saying much. The description ‘enlightened despotism’ Is often used to describe her reign, and she certainly compares well to her predecessors and those who followed her, but again that’s not saying much. She was the last female ruler of Russia, as her son Paul introduced the Pauline Laws in 1797, effectively preventing women from succeeding to the Tsardom. And of course we know how many women became leaders during the Soviet period.

Returning to the present, clearly Mr Pudding’s days are numbered, even if he survives his obscene Ukrainian venture. There is no clear system of succession, and I suspect that the scramble for power, post-Pudding, will be vicious. My hope, though, is that a more accommodating leadership will emerge – and indeed that will, I think, be more likely than the alternative, if only for pragmatic reasons. Relying solely on old Xi’s China for companionship is a more than risky proposition. Not much honour among thieves. Eventually, some time, one day, the Russian leadership will have to turn west, and start to moderate its thuggery. And then, maybe, the nuclear de-escalation, not to say disarmament, might begin. Yeah, and human bonobos will preside benignly, and playfully, over the earth.

References

Click to access RL33640.pdf

https://www.icanw.org

 A brief history of Afghanistan, by Shaista Wahab & Barry Youngerman, 2007

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

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 8, 2022 at 6:16 pm