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more oxytocin fantasies: an interminable conversation 3

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not sure if this measures a significant difference


Canto: So, as it turns out, the bonobo-oxytocin connection is all the rage on the internet. I mean, there are at least two articles on it. Here’s a quote from a PubMed article called ‘Divergent effects of oxytocin on eye contact in bonobos and chimpanzees’:

Previous studies have shown that bonobos and chimpanzees, humans’ two closest relatives, demonstrate considerable behavioral differences, including that bonobos look more at others’ eyes than chimpanzees. Oxytocin is known to increase attention to another’s eyes in many mammalian species (e.g. dogs, monkeys, and humans), yet this effect has not been tested in any nonhuman great ape species.

Jacinta: Hmm, so how do they know this? Presumably they’ve dosed subjects with oxytocin and measured their eye contact against controls?

Canto: No no, they know that bonobos have more eye contact than chimps, simply from observation. So they might infer from this that bonobos produce more oxytocin naturally than chimps…

Jacinta: So do women produce more oxytocin than men I wonder? I presume women make more eye contact than men.

Canto: Well in this study they dosed both bonobos and chimps with oxytocin, and the effect – more eye contact – was greater in bonobos than chimps. In fact, chimps even tended to avoid eye contact when shown images of conspecifics.

Jacinta: So, it’s a matter of interplay between this hormone/neurotransmitter and social conditioning?

Canto: Maybe, but you’d think that an increase in this supposedly touchy-feely hormone would act against social conditioning. Isn’t this the point of that drug, ecstacy? That it reduces social inhibitions…  But presumably nothing is ever so simple. Being poor, I only have access to the abstract of this paper, but another abstract, which looks at the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on chimps, describes them as neuropeptides, just to confuse matters. The abstract also refers to about a dozen brain regions, as well as specific oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, so it gets pretty complicated.

Jacinta: Okay, vasopressin… from Wikipedia:

Human vasopressin, also called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), arginine vasopressin (AVP), or argipressin, is a hormone synthesised from the AVP gene as a peptide prohormone in neurons in the hypothalamus, and is converted to AVP. It then travels down the axon terminating in the posterior pituitary, and is released from vesicles into the circulation in response to extracellular hypertonicity (hyperosmolality). AVP has two major functions… etc etc

Canto: Okay thanks for that, let’s stick with oxytocin for now. It’s produced in the hypothalamus, a smallish region buried deep within the brain, just below the larger thalamus and above the even smaller amygdala. It releases and manages a variety of hormones. Brain signals are sent to the hypothalamus, exciting it to release oxytocin and other hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland….

Jacinta: Can you tell me what oxytocin is actually made of? Its structure? The term ‘hormone’ is just a black box to me.

Canto: Okay, here’s a diagram of oxytocin to try and make sense of:

It’s a polypeptide. A peptide is basically an amino acid chain. FYI:

An amino acid is an organic molecule that is made up of a basic amino group (−NH2), an acidic carboxyl group (−COOH), and an organic R group (or side chain) that is unique to each amino acid. The term amino acid is short for α-amino [alpha-amino] carboxylic acid.

Jacinta: So these are coded for, ultimately, by genes?

Canto: Yes, we’re heading backwards here, but each amino acid is encoded by a sequence of three of the four base pairs in our DNA. Anyway oxytocin, among other things is sometimes given to women while in labour. It helps with the contractions apparently. I’ve also heard that the recreational drug ‘ecstasy’, or MDMA, works essentially by releasing oxytocin.

Jacinta: It just so happens I’ve found an interesting 2014 paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology, my new favourite journal, called ‘Effects of MDMA and Intranasal Oxytocin on Social and Emotional Processing’, and here’s a quote from the abstract:

Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.

Canto: That is interesting. If that finding can be replicated, I’d say forget the MDMA, dose people with oxytocin. A small but significant increase in feelings of sociability might just be enough to transform our human world.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Small but significant – that sounds a mite contradictory.

Canto: Not the same as significantly small. That slightly significant dose, administered to Messrs Pudding and Pingpong and their enablers, might’ve saved the lives of many Ukrainians, Uyghurs and advocates of multiculturalism, democracy, feminism and other wild and woolly notions. And it doesn’t really transform characters, it just softens their edges.

Jacinta: Yes it’s a nice fantasy – more productive than butchering the butchers, a fantasy I occasionally indulge in. But not workable really.

Canto: Why not? We dosed petrol with lead, and look at how that worked out. It certainly had an effect. In Japan they still use radium baths (at very low levels) for health purposes, even claiming it as a cure for cancer. I’m not sure if oxytocin baths can ever be a thing, but if so I’m sure there will be early adopters.

Jacinta: Well, it’s good to think positively. Oxytocin is often thought of as a bonding hormone between mother and child. The key would be to ensure it facilitates a more general bonding: to cause Mr Pingpong, for example, to see Uyghur, Tibetan, Yi, Limi, and all the other non-Han ethnicities in China as his sisters – or lovers even, revolting as that would be to those peoples.

Canto: Better than being their oppressors and exterminators.

Jacinta: Slightly. But I wonder, quite seriously, if, assuming such a dose of bonding could be effectuated, we could still function as the sometimes rational, problem-solving, highly creative species we indubitably are. Would there be a price to pay for all that oxytocin? And how would this affect all those other hormones and neurotransmitters and all their myriad effects? Humans are notorious for causing extra problems with their solutions, e.g lead, DDT, etc etc.

Canto: Well, there’s no need to worry about the fallout from this solution as yet. I just googled Putin and oxytocin together and came up empty. Obviously we’re way ahead of the curve.

Jacinta: Haha, it’s not a curve these days, it’s a pivot. Get with the program!



Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2022 at 10:38 pm

leadership, thugs, hormones, bonobos, oxytocin and the future: an interminable conversation 2

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

Jacinta: So, in pointing out that, according to the democracy index, female leadership and some of the best democracies go together, I didn’t mention the fairly obvious chicken-and-egg issue. Does quality governance lead to more female leadership, or does female leadership lead to better quality governance?

Canto: Isn’t this called a synergistic effect? So it’s not quite chicken-and-egg. Or is it?

Jacinta: No matter, you’re right. The term’s generally used in science – here’s an overly-complicating definition from one scientific paper:

Synergistic effects are nonlinear cumulative effects of two active ingredients with similar or related outcomes of their different activities, or active ingredients with sequential or supplemental activities.

You need to learn that – it’ll be in the test.

Canto: The idea being that female leadership and good governance result in more than the sum of the two parts.

Jacinta: Well, when I wrote about the democracy index, I found that the countries near the top of that index, the best democracies, were top-heavy with female leadership, by which I meant Prime Ministers and Presidents, but I didn’t look more closely at the social make-up of those countries – the predominance of female business leaders, scientific team leaders, the percentage of women in other political or governmental posts and so forth. I made the perhaps reasonable assumption that those countries are also leading the world in every kind of leadership position for women.

Canto: To be fair, researching all those things for each country would be quite a job. We don’t get paid for this shit. I think we can at least assume that those Nordic gals are pretty formidable. Northern European countries feature heavily in the top twenty. Even the UK gets in there.

Jacinta: Australia squeezes into the top ten. And will only improve with the new diversity in government after the recent election. And the most women in our parliamentary history.

Canto: So, as this female empowerment continues apace, at least in the WEIRD world, what will this human world look like, in the 22nd century?

Jacinta: Well, it could be – and this wouldn’t surprise me – that the macho world, run by Mr Pudding, Mr Pingpong and their enablers, and possibly their successors, will do catastrophic things before the turn for the better, because out of catastrophes – the two world wars of the twentieth century, the holocausts in Europe and Africa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – come rude awakenings and changes for the better – the United Nations and a whole host of NGOs such as Amnesty International (1961), Médecins Sans Frontières (1971) and Human Rights Watch (1978), as well as various international defence and common interest groupings.

Canto: Yes, China and Russia – that’s to say their governments – are the scary ones, simply because they can do the most damage globally, though dog knows many African, Middle Eastern and Asian thugocracies are doing terrible things today.

Jacinta: Getting more female leadership into those countries that everybody pays most attention to – such as those with the greatest destructive ability (the USA, Russia and China) – that would be absolutely key.

Canto: The three countries most fond of interfering with other countries. Funny that.

Jacinta: What’s the point of having all that power if you can’t use it to push others around? Old Drivelmouth in the USA is a perfect example. Not to mention the Taliban, etc etc etc.

Canto: So you want female empowerment so you can push blokes around?

Jacinta: Ah, touché. Yes, there’s some truth to that – after all, we’ve had millennia of being pushed around by blokes. But I don’t want to resurrect the Society for Cutting Up Men, though I must say I’m glad that manifesto was written.

Canto: We need extremists so we can feel superior to them?

Jacinta: Haha well we can just about get rid of men, once we’ve drained them of sperm. Think of black widow spiders and such. There’s a strong argument that the basis of all life is female – turning Aristotle’s views upside-down. Anyway, we’re a long way from taking over the world, unfortunately.

Canto: And such a possible world makes me think of bonobos again, where the male life isn’t too bad at all. If you accept your place.

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

Canto: Well, no I wouldn’t be happy to be a bonobo after my life as a human, I’d want to do all the human things – sex of course, but also exploring where we came from, what makes us tick, how the self-animating came from inanimate matter, how the universe came to be, how we can solve all the problems we create for ourselves, and enjoying all the beautiful and amazing things, like birds and bushes, music, the sea breeze, the tastes of various cheeses, a good whisky, laughs with friends and so on. As long as my female overlords allow me these joys – and I know they would – I’d be happy as a bonobo with a perpetual hard-on.

Jacinta: Haha, I’m not sure if that’s the best definition of happiness. The spicy variety is more like it. And of course you’re right, human life is potentially much more varied and complex than bonobo life. The real point is that the potential is more likely to be realised, for more people, with less macho thuggery and more female-led community. And here’s another point: hierarchy isn’t a bad thing, or rather, it’s an unavoidable thing, because we’ll never be equal in skills and knowledge, due to age, experience and upbringing. And there will always be challenges to existing hierarchies, and changes to them. It’s a matter of how we manage those changes, and females are generally better at that. As to why, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s hormonal. In any case, that’s a generalisation, which admits of exceptions.

Canto: But those hierarchies are much harder to shift in those complex communities called nations, where there are entrenched classes, such as the Party in China, or the Military in Burma, or the Theocracy in Iran, or the Billionaire CEOs in the USA. These people tend to live as far from the great unwashed as possible, often in gated communities or their equivalents, even on physically Higher Ground, as Robert Sapolsky and others have noted.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. I was thinking recently of Nixon and his crimes, and of the USA’s ludicrous and shocking Presidential pardoning system, exposed even more in recent times. Nixon was merely ‘persuaded’ to resign, and would have spent his retirement in one of those gated communities, full of backslapping commiserators, and I have few expectations of Trump experiencing anything worse. Anyway, what we need is a society, and a political system, in which this kind of scum doesn’t rise to the top in the first place. I wonder if there have ever been any brutish alpha females in the bonobo world. It’s unlikely, but there may have been the odd one-off.

Canto: You mentioned hormones. You know, I’ve never really understood what they are. I recall Sapolsky warning us against over-simplifying – assuming that testosterone is the male hormone or the aggression hormone, and that serotonin is the relaxing hormone, mostly associated with females…

Jacinta: Serotonin’s a neurotransmitter. You might be thinking of oxytocin, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, apparently. Or, more likely, oestrogen?

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard of them all, but I don’t know what basket to put them in. Is a neurotransmitter a wave or a particle? Are hormones like cells, or molecules of some kind? Amino acid chains, like so much else in the body? We should do a whole self-educating conversation on that topic.

Jacinta; Absolutely. Anyway, we need more of an oxytocin-soaked society – without the downsides of drug induction, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sciencey rationality too much. Here’s something from a typical popular medical website about oxytocin:

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems.

Canto: Hmmm, doesn’t it just immediately make you think of bonobos? I bet they have no problems with their intestines.

Jacinta: Well it does make me fantasise about a touch of biochemical engineering, just to help the feminising process along. Whadya reckon?

Canto: Interesting. That’s for a future conversation.


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

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

bonobos, humans, sex, kids, community and work: an interminable conversation 1

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just being cosy


Canto: We need to face the sex issue, which is such a problematic one for humans, and far less problematic, it seems, for bonobos.

Jacinta:Yes, they don’t need a Me Too movement, coz the males are already scared of them. I mean the boss females.

Canto: Well it’s not just the males hitting on the females. In bonobo societies, it’s males on males, females on females, old on young, kids on kids, but with a minimum of fuss and bother, it seems to me. And it’s not all the time, I don’t want to exaggerate anything. There are no nymphomaniacs, whatever that means.

Jacinta: A pejorative term. The male equivalents are called studs.

Canto: Well, not always. Sometimes called sex addicts. And paedophiles of course. Suitable cases for treatment. And I remember a group calling themselves ‘sluts on bikes’, seeking to retool the term for their own benefit somehow. I think there’s a lot of confusion or uncertainty out there, about whether an overdeveloped interest in sex is good or bad. And of course there’s a big issue about sexual victims, which doesn’t seem a problem for bonobos.

Jacinta: Not a major problem, but the females appear to keep the males in line, if they go too far. After all much of the sexual stuff is just mutual masturbation.

Canto: Yeah, nowadays, human males – and maybe females – get off on porn, or their own fantasies, wanking in the safe confines of their bedrooms, imagining touchy-feelies rather than experiencing them. It’s quite sad. Bonobos don’t have that problem.

Jacinta: It’s certainly true that there are plenty of sexually unsatisfied human apes around. But maybe if they weren’t so aware of sex – especially the hypersexuality of porn – they wouldn’t be so obsessed with what they’re missing out on. Take orangutans. They’re mostly isolated, and I doubt if they spend much time masturbating…

Canto: Ah but they do spend some time on it. If the Gizmodo website is to be trusted, masturbation has been observed in at least 80 types of male primates, and 50 types of female primates, including orangutans. And I don’t quite trust that male-female disparity.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s odd. And the point is that the crotch area is the most erogenous zone for all mammals, surely – and then some. And it doesn’t require fantasising about sexy other members of your species. Think of the first time you masturbated…

Canto: I really can’t recall the first time….

Jacinta: It’s highly likely you found your pubes rubbing against something, and it felt, well, stimulating, so you rubbed some more. Nothing directly to do with sex, for us or for other mammals. When a dog starts humping your leg, it’s not actually humping, or thinking of humping, presumably.

Canto: So it’s all about chemicals, fireworks in the brain, or something? A dog humps your leg because he’s excited, and humping gets him more excited. But it’s the old chicken and egg – does it start with the humping or the excitement?

Jacinta: Well I suppose the main point for us is that masturbation is natural and common for many species, given the evolution of erogenous zones, especially the zone associated with reproduction. But I’m more interested in another phenomenon – reproduction. In spite of their interest in sex, bonobo females are unable, it seems, to produce more than a few offspring in their lives. According to Wikipedia, the most offspring produced by a human female, that we know of, is 44, 43 of whom survived infancy. That’s a woman in Uganda, whose last child was born in 2016. There are recordings of greater numbers in previous centuries, but they’re insufficiently verified. And this woman, Mariam Nabatanzi, wasn’t just showing off, she had a rare condition that caused hyperovulation. Her births included 3 sets of quadruplets, 4 of triplets and 6 of twins, and she might’ve added to the number but a procedure she underwent in 2019, at age 40, put a stop to it all.

Canto: Elon Musk would’ve been proud of her.

Jacinta: Yeah, well, I wonder if he’s helping pay Ms Nabatanzi’s food bills, though hopefully her unwonted fame would help with that. It’s interesting that both Franz de Waal and Jane Goodall mention, in the beautifully photographed Deutsche Welle documentary referenced below, that the ability of humans to reproduce rapidly compared to other primates has been a vital factor in our dominance of the biosphere, with its positive and negative impacts. De Waal suggests that this high reproductive rate is somehow due to the family structure we’ve developed, with the father helping out the mother, not so much directly as indirectly, as material provider and support. But I think this claim needs more support or more fleshing out.

Canto: Yes, it seems to fly in the face of what we know about bonobo culture, where the mother seems to be helped out by other females, and males, in a tight-knit community. Or is this an exaggeration? I recall reading that this community care, or extended family care, occurs in corvids as well. I don’t know how many chicks the average crow gives birth to in a lifetime. Anyway, it seems that the long intervals between births in chimps and bonobos is more psychological, or cultural if you like, than physiological. The mothers do much of the caring and feeding, and it’s exhausting. Humans have bottle-feeding for instance, and anyone can be in charge of that. I did it for my little brother when I was a kid, and even learned to change nappies. Human mothers are sometimes back at work weeks or even days after giving birth.

Jacinta: Which would require other carers. Maybe we’re not so selfish as we think. But then again, in the WEIRD world we’re having fewer children, and as other regions become more well-off they’re having fewer children too.

Canto: Except for Elon Musk.

Jacinta: Crows generally lay a clutch of 2-7 eggs every nesting season – that’s one clutch every year. About 40 percent of all the corvid species are co-operative breeders, a much bigger percentage than other bird species. Crows’ lifespans can vary wildly – some can live for more than twenty years, and of course it’s hard to say how many offspring they produce in a lifetime, never mind how many of their chicks survive to adulthood. But returning to humans and bonobos, both species make a habit of having sex for fun, though with bonobos it’s more of a standard thing – they don’t have killjoy religious figures or ’empowered’ celibates spoiling the party.

Canto: We’re certainly a long way from public sex. Even nudist colonies now seem a distant memory, and they were about as sexy as an old fart’s farts.

Jacinta: Well, that’s a bit rough. We’re just so much more diverse than bonobos, you can’t compare. Everything from lifetime vows of celibacy to sex dungeons, about which I know nothing.

Canto: We’ll explore them, no doubt. But of course bonobos, when they’re not eating and sleeping, have a lot of time for play. They’re not trying to create the next exciting technology or to quantise gravity or to become the richest entrepreneur in the jungle or to take over their neighbours’ territory or whatever. All play, even sexual play, and no work can be a bit mind-numbing perhaps. A bit of your old Freudian sublimation isn’t such a bad thing.

Jacinta: How about getting AI to do all the smart stuff and we just play?

Canto: Ahh, now you’re talking about the future, beyond where we’ll be, unless those longevity diets really kick in…



Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2022 at 8:48 pm

still bitten by the bonobo bug…

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Having written quite a few essays on a future bonoboesque world, I’ve found myself in possession of a whole book on our Pan paniscus relatives for the first time. All that I’ve gleaned about these fellow apes until now has been from the vasty depths of the internet, a gift that will doubtless keep on giving. My benefactor apologised for her gift to me, describing it as a coffee-table book, perhaps more pictorial than informative, but I’ve already learned much that’s new to me from the first few pages. For example, I knew from my basic research that bonobos were first identified as a distinct species in the late 1920s or early 1930s –  I could never get the date straight, perhaps because I’d read conflicting accounts. De Waal presents a more comprehensive and interesting story, which involves, among other things, an ape called Mafuka, the most popular resident, or inmate, of Amsterdam Zoo between 2011 and 2016, later identified as a bonobo. The zoo now features a statue of Mafuka.

More important, though, for me, is that everything I’ve read so far reminds me of the purpose of my bonobo essays, but also makes me wonder if I haven’t focussed enough on one central feature of bonobo society, probably out of timidity. Here’s how De Waal puts it:

It is impossible to understand the social life of this ape without attention to its sex life: the two are inseparable. Whereas in most other species, sexual behaviour is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it has become an integral of social relationships, and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on. The frequency of sexual contact is also higher than among most other primates.

In our own society, definitely still male-dominated but also with a legacy of religious sexual conservatism, this kind of all-in, semi-masturbatory sexual contact is absolutely beyond the pale. I’m reminded of the Freudian concept of sublimation I learned about as a teen – the eros or sex drive is channelled into other passionate, creative activities, and, voila, human civilisation! And yet, we’re still obsessed with sex, which we’re expected to transmute into sexual fulfilment with a lifelong partner. Meanwhile, the popularity of porn, or what I prefer to call the sex video industry, as well as the world’s oldest profession, indicates that there’s much that’s not quite right about our sex lives.

This raises questions about monogamy, the nuclear family, and even the human concept of love. This is ancient, but nevertheless dangerous territory, so for now I’ll stick with bonobos. As with chimps, female bonobos often, though not always, move to other groups at sexual maturity, a practice known as philopatry. Interestingly, this practice has similarities to exogamous marriage practices, for example among some Australian Aboriginal groups. It’s interesting, then, that female-female bonds tend to be the strongest among bonobos, considering that there’s no kinship involved.

Needless to say, bonobos don’t live in nuclear families, and child-care is a more flexible arrangement than amongst humans, though the mother is naturally the principal carer. And it seems that bonobo mothers have a subtly closer relationship with their sons than their daughters:

the bond between mother and son is of particular significance in bonobo society where the son will maintain his connection with his mother for life and depend upon her for his social standing within the group. For example, the son of the society’s dominant female, the strong matriarch who maintains social order, will rise in the ranks of the group, presumably to ensure the establishment and perpetuation of unaggressive, non-competitive, cooperative male characteristics, both learnt and genetic, within the group.

Considering this point, it would be interesting to research mother-son relations among human single-parent families in the WEIRD world, a situation that has become more common in recent decades. Could it be that, given other support networks, rather than the disadvantages often associated with one-parent families in human societies, males from such backgrounds are of the type that command more respect than other males? Particularly, I would suspect, from females. Of course, it’s hard to generalise about human upbringing, but we might be able to derive lessons from bonobo methods. Bonobo mothers rarely behave punitively towards their sons, and those sons remain attached to their mothers throughout their lives. The sons of high-status females also attain high status within the male hierarchy.

Yet we are far from being able to emulate bonobo matriarchy, as we’re still a very patriarchal society. Research indicates that many women are still attracted to high-status, philandering men. That’s to say, they’ve been ‘trained’ to climb the success ladder through marriage or co-habitation than through personal achievement. They’ve also been trained into the idea of high-status males as dominating other males as well as females. It is of course changing, though too slowly, and with too many backward moves for the more impatient among us. Two macho thugocracies, Russia and China, are currently threatening the movement towards collaboration and inclusivity that we see in female-led democracies such as Taiwan, New Zealand and a number of Scandinavian countries. It may well be that in the aftermath of the massive destruction wrought by these thugocracies, there will come a reckoning, as occurred after the two ‘world wars’ with the creation of the UN and the growth of the human rights movement and international aid organisations, but it is frustrating to contemplate the suffering endured in the meantime, by those unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now of course all this might be seen as presenting a romanticised picture of bonobos (not to mention female humans), which De Waal and other experts warn us against. The difference in aggression between bonobos and chimps is more a matter of degree than of type, perhaps, and these differences can vary with habitat and the availability of resources. And yet we know from our studies of human societies that male-dominated societies are more violent. And male domination has nothing to do with simple numbers, it is rather about how a society is structured, and how that structure is reinforced. For example I’ve written recently about how the decidedly male god of the Abrahamic religions, originally written as YWH or Elohim, emerged from a patriarchal, polygamous society in the Sinai region, with its stories of Jacob and Abraham and their many wives, which was reinforced in its structure by origin myths in which woman was created out of a man’s rib and was principally responsible for the banishment from paradise. The WEIRD world is struggling to disentangle itself from these myths and attitudes, and modern science is its best tool for doing so.

One of the most interesting findings, then, from modern neurology, is that while there are no categorical differences between the male and the female brain in humans, there are significant statistical differences – which might make for a difference in human society as a whole. To explain further: no categorical difference means that, if you were a professional neurologist who had been studying the human brain for decades, and were presented with a completely disembodied but still functional human brain to analyse, you wouldn’t be able to assert categorically that this brain belonged to a male or a female. That’s because the differences among female brains, and among male brains, are substantial – a good reason for promoting gender fluidity. However, statistically, there are also substantial differences between male and female brains, with males having more ‘grey’ material (the neurons) and females having more ‘white’ material (the myelinated connections between neurons), and with males having slightly higher brain volume, in accord with general sexual dimorphism. In a 2017 British study involving some 5,000 subjects, researchers found that:

Adjusting for age, on average… women tended to have significantly thicker cortices than men. Thicker cortices have been associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests.

This sounds promising, but it’s doubtful that anything too insightful can be made of it, any more than a study of bonobo neurophysiology would provide us with insights into their culture. But, you never know…


Frans De Waal & Frans Lanting, Bonobo: the forgotten ape, 1997.

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2022 at 2:43 pm

vive les bonobos

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I’ve written a lot about a bonobo future for humans, but what about the future of real bonobos? How long will they have one in the wild?

It’s likely the bonobo population has never been large. Their range has always been limited, presumably because they’ve inhabited a fertile niche south of the Congo River, and have had no reason to stray from it. All wild bonobos happen to inhabit one human country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The geographic range of chimpanzees, of which there are four sub-species, includes nineteen countries throughout west and east-central Africa. Both species are on the endangered list. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated the population at between 10,000 and 50,000 and declining. It’s a large margin for error, due to the difficulties of trying to track numbers in one of the most dangerous locations on the planet. It’s probable that the numbers today are well to the lower end of that spectrum. They have a slow reproduction rate, poaching and habitat loss are a perennial issue, and there’s the common notion in faraway regions such as China and South-East Asia that these ‘exotic’ creatures make for prestigious pets or that their body parts provide miraculous remedies. The live trade is generally in infants, which more often than not involves killing their parents. They’re not all being shipped overseas however – bonobo ‘charms’ (whatever they are) are quite common in the Congo itself, according to WWF and other sources.

Many of the DRC’s humans are fighting for survival themselves, and are competing with bonobos for forest resources, so deforestation is an issue. But the live trade is much more lucrative than that for bushmeat. Most of their habitat is unprotected, and the natives are not necessarily aware that they’re breaking the law, if in fact they are, in capturing these animals. Here’s a grim description of the situation from the wildlife website Mongabay:

Dead apes are chopped up and sold for meat and body parts. Meat is generally consumed by middle- to upper-class urban families, as well as foreigners living there. … On average, a kilo of such meat would cost between $20 to $40 in local markets … prices vary according to species and size. Body parts such as the skin, hands, and head are used as medicine and in spiritual rituals… The head takes the highest price at between $500 and $1,500, and hands between $20 and $50 each.

Trying to save and defend bonobos in the DRC is a dangerous business. The war-torn country is over-supplied with deadly weaponry, and it’s difficult to win people over to conservation when they are so impoverished and the trade is so lucrative. Improving the lives of the native human population is probably more important than education, but little appears to be happening in that regard. The natives have formed gangs to facilitate the trade, and conservationists have received death threats. The general corruption of the government is obviously a problem too, though international exposure may help to turn things around. The first nationally announced arrest of hunters only occurred in 2019.

Still, there are many conservationists working for a brighter future for bonobos. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative has for a long time been promoting indigenous leadership in land management for biodiversity in bonobo habitats, in particular the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. The plan is to extend this reserved area into a Bonobo Peace Forest, ‘a constellation of community-based reserves in the Congo rainforest supported by sustainable development’. Ecotourism is seen as a key to providing a future for both the bonobos and the human communities of the region, but this is a delicate issue, as the natural life-style of our cousins needs to be maintained. The DRC itself needs international support – it has suffered devastation in the past from the worst forms of colonialist exploitation, and it has never been properly compensated. Now, the nation is, hopefully, beginning to realise what a treasure lies within its forests. Vive les bonobos!


Images from a dropped phone reveal the ugly truth behind bonobo trafficking

Click to access projdoc.pdf


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Posted in bonobos, conservation

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more on macho thuggery and a world turned upside-down

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WPL – female political leaders past and present


Jacinta: So here’s the thing – after the horrible cannon-fodder event of 1914-18 that became known as the Great War, and subsequently WW1, the League of Nations came into being, to try to ensure that no futher war of such magnitude, such destruction, would occur. It would be a forum for the negotiation of grievances, a move towards a more civilised behaviour between nations.

Canto: Yes there must’ve been a sense of urgency as the death toll and the suffering came to light. But then it all happened again – so it failed?

Jacinta: Well of course I’m talking about this as the world watches a piece of obvious butchery in Ukraine, over a hundred years after that ‘war to end all wars’. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, these institutions have been, IMHO, vitally important 20th century developments, but they haven’t effectively prevented wars and invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. And war is hell, especially for those who’ve made the mistake of being born in those fought-over lands.

Canto: Yes, the ICC is massively hamstrung by the fact that the most militarily powerful countries, the USA, Russia and China, won’t join it, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to be held accountable. What’s the point of being massively powerful if you don’t get to throw your weight around with impunity?

Jacinta: Yes, and to be bonoboesque about it, none of those countries have come close to having female leadership in recent times. Okay, the USA has at last celebrated it first Vice-President, but it’s not really an elected position. There have been 45 male US Presidents, and zero female Presidents so far. Not bad for a group that represents just under half the population. China hasn’t had a woman on top since the much under-rated Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, a kind of divinely elected inner Cabinet, which has been operational, more or less, since the 1950s, has had fifty-four members, of which zero have been women.

Canto: Wow – not even a female impersonator? But then, during the one child policy, something miraculous happened. Almost all the kids born turned out to be male. You can hardly blame the CCP for that.

Jacinta: And as for Putinland’s mighty ruler, he’s an unabashed misogynist and he plans to rule his namesake for the next 200 years or so, so the chances of any of those countries allowing themselves to be accountable to the rest of humanity are close to zero for the foreseeable.

Canto: Yes, and it’s funny how the nations most likely to be naughty to the tunes of their national anthems are the ones least willing to defend themselves in open court. I’ve found that there are some other interesting countries that aren’t interested in the ICC – Israel, Libya, Iraq – nations with a very spotty recent history.

Jacinta: And nothing much in the way of female leadership. Israel did have Golda Meir, described in Encyclopedia Brittanica as the country’s first female Prime Minister, as if there were others.

Canto: And then there are nations where women are barely allowed to hold down a job never mind boss others around. So what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, all we can do is try to lay down foundations. And there’s a groundswell of interest in women’s empowerment, it’s been happening for decades. When we compare women’s wages with those of men, and grumble about a gap that never seems to narrow, we need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago, in the long arc of human history, that women weren’t considered a part of the paid work-force at all. Now they own businesses, run science labs and occasionally help to govern nations. And I should mention that here in little old South Australia – where we’ve never had a female Premier, our newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas celebrated his victory with a press chit-chat flanked by five new female MPs as well as Deputy Premier Susan Close. A sixth new female Labor candidate looks set to win her seat.

Canto: So how do we promote the empowerment of women in Australia, before taking over the world?

Jacinta: Well the government occasionally brings out policy documents, such as the ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy’, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in early 2016. It recognises that ‘nowhere in the world have women and men achieved equality’, and points out, in its global analysis, that GDPs would rise everywhere if such equality could be realised, or approached. It points out the obvious benefits of female education, for women, their children and the community, and the greater stability and peace that comes with female empowerment (no mention of bonobos however). As was pointed out in the military document I read some months ago, a greater female presence in the military leads to better peace-keeping. This DFAT document repeats the point:

Greater gender equality contributes to stability and peace. Women are often instrumental in brokering ceasefires in conflict situations, and peacekeeping operations involving women as soldiers, police and civilian personnel are more effective. Greater equality can prevent disputes escalating to armed conflict.

Canto: That must be why Putin and his Patriarch aren’t into gender equality so much. And just to change the subject, I’ve heard that, since their invasion isn’t going so well – possibly because the billions spent on the military have been largely siphoned off by the luxury yacht-loving kleptocrats in his inner circle – they’re now trying to pretend that they’ve been largely successful in their main aim, which is to gain complete control of the Donbas and Crimean regions, and this is really all they wanted in the first place, etc etc.

Jacinta: Well, I’ll believe that when I hear something from Putin himself, but that’s highly unlikely. They’re basically fucked, though Putin will never admit it. Hoist by his own macho petard, I’d say. Anyway, this document from six years ago talks the talk convincingly enough, and with a likely change of Federal government in the next few months, the talk will continue. It promotes a three-pronged approach to its aid, trade and foreign relations programs – 1) Enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building. 2) Promoting women’s economic empowerment. 3) Ending violence against women and girls. Which all sounds great, though all this needs to start at home. Also the document argues that ‘at least 80 per cent of investments [presumably by DFAT], regardless of their objectives, should effectively address gender equality issues in their implementation’. What about the other 20 per cent? Where did the 80 per cent come from?

Canto: Well, 80%, 90%, 60%, it’s all just talk, who’s going to be doing the measurements? Surely the important thing is that they’re pushing for a much better situation than pertains at the moment. And meanwhile on the world stage there’s an organisation, probably quite informal, called Women Political Leaders (WPL), consisting of former and some current national Prime Ministers and such, as well as heads of the European Commission, high-ups at the UN and so forth, all promoting the benefits of female leadership, benefits we’ve outlined so many times. They held a major forum last July, which seems to have garnered little attention.

Jacinta: I’m hoping that the machismo antics of Putin, Xi Jinping and others, which of course are garnering plenty of attention, might have more effect on our appreciation of female leadership than these forums, which of course are a pointer to the future. Unfortunately, our attention will always be more drawn to  the thuggery of these types than to the speeches and achievements of intelligent women. Violence, destruction and suffering are riveting because they bring to mind our own vulnerability, and often our own sheer good luck at not finding ourselves in the thick of it. And I sometimes wonder whether, if we ever achieve something like a bonobo world, many lifetimes into the future, our victory over the male hellholes of the world will render us complacent and soft…

Canto: Haha, little likelihood of that – after all, even the bonobos males have to be kept in check by what Bjork calls ‘an army of me’. So I suspect bonobos aren’t as complacent as they might look.

Jacinta: Yes, happy loving relations often need a lot of work. Hostile relations tend to come naturally – at least so it seems from within our patriarchal culture. So, nothing for it but to keep working for a world turned upside-down.


Written by stewart henderson

March 29, 2022 at 4:04 pm

On current thugocrazies and the slow hard road to a bonobo world

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Canto: So how will this Ukraine horror end?

Jacinta: How does any thugocracy end? I recently heard one pundit saying that most – I can’t remember if he said dictators, autocrats or some other euphemism for thugs – die violently, but this is bullshit. Stalin, Mao, Leo Victor (aka Leopold I, ‘Emperor’ of Belgium) and Suharto are just a few such thugs who died peacefully without ever having to account for their crimes. Some are still worshipped today by many.

Canto: Good point, and I was amused to hear that Putin was much exercised by Gadaffi’s ignominious death, watching several times the video of him being roughed up.

Jacinta: He could’ve added the video of the Ceausescus’ shooting, but that was before his time I suppose.

Canto: His time in power, yes, but a cautionary tale all the same. But getting back to my original question, with Putin not backing down and no nation apart from Ukraine willing to fight against his troops, he can’t realistically lose, while at the same time, he can’t realistically create a puppet state there that has any chance of surviving.

Jacinta: Yes, he’s in a bind and he surely knows it. I’m tempted to say ‘it’s clear that he miscalculated’, but that would make me sound smarter than I am. So I’ll just say it looks as if he has miscalculated badly, and surely he must be wondering what to do next, since continued bombing, shelling and slaughter will only lead to a pyrrhic victory at best, but more likely an exhausting and costly campaign for his invading force, and disastrously long-standing sanctions which will cripple the Putinland economy and looks like accelerating the European move from Putinland gas to renewables.

Canto: There are arguments that some of the attempts to isolate Putinland (for example blocking Facebook and other social media) are playing into Putin’s hands, because he doesn’t want his people to have any contact with the WEIRD world – they might get ideas above their station. But look at the companies blocking or getting out of Putinland – Ikea, Adidas, Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Disney, Netflix, Apple, Toyota and many more apparently. This will change middle-class life drastically.

Jacinta: But others, including many Russian dissidents and exiles, believe this is playing into Putin’s hands, as it’s reducing the WEIRD presence in the country, a source of opposition. I suppose this means that Putin and his thugocracy will have to produce effective enough local alternatives – as the CCP thugocracy has largely managed to do. But China has a much healthier economy than Putinland, and with all the economic difficulties Putin’s fellow thugs are facing, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pump much energy into local brands.

Canto: Which raises the question of just how much all this sanctioning is affecting the Putinland economy. Many who know about the situation are trying to leave the country. Sadly, these are the relatively wealthy who have contacts overseas and know how to get their money out of the country. Those who rely on cash must surely be most affected, but I must admit that economics isn’t my strong suit. By the way, can you lend me fifty bucks?

Jacinta: What’s also interesting is that it’s bringing more attention at last to Putin’s behaviour in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya and other places. And to Putin’s putrescence in general. For example, I wasn’t entirely aware of his fear and loathing of powerful women – though of course it doesn’t surprise me. I’d vaguely heard a story of his attempt to intimidate Angela Merkel by means of a dog, because he’d heard of her having a phobia about dogs, but I didn’t connect it at the time to misogyny, and then of his loathing of Hilary Clinton, apparently for no other reason than her womanhood. He was obsessed with ensuring that she wouldn’t become US President – it seems his sabotaging campaign might’ve been more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Of course we’re unlikely to ever know whether his animus or his destructive activity with respect to the 2016 Presidential election was the key to her ‘loss’. In fact she won the popular vote, and I’ll never understand why that doesn’t win a democratic election. How can it be democratic otherwise?

Canto: Good question. So Al Gore won the 2000 US election. Democracy seems less democratic than it seems. Anyway, instituting the bonobo world would ensure little Vlady’s emasculation. Why’s it taking so long?

Jacinta: We’re obviously not getting the message across. And since Merkel’s retirement, there aren’t any women, unfortunately, that are bestriding the world like a colossus. New Zealand, Taiwan, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Kosovo, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Georgia, Ethiopia and Gabon, where women hold Presidential/Prime Ministerial positions (though some of them merely honorary) are all no doubt admirable nations, but in the horrible Realpolitik world we inhabit they’re minnows, easily ignorable by the thugocracies of China, India, Russia and the macho Middle Eastern oil-o-crazies. Why wasn’t I born a bonobo?

Canto: Well, as we speak, Putin’s forces are surrounding Kiev, and the most sickening things are happening. Ukrainians are clearly putting up stiffer resistance than expected, but with little outside support other than money and best wishes, they can’t be expected to hold out against a Svengalian thug with massive cannon-fodder reinforcements at his disposal, not to mention the nuclear option.

Jacinta: So, if he manages to strangulate Kiev, and to kill Zelensky, what then?  That’s his aim, presumably, but given Zelensky’s profile, what good will it do him? He doesn’t want to believe that macho thugs are out of fashion (sort of) in the WEIRD world, but his economy is quite dependent on that world.

Canto; Well, worse things are happening elsewhere in Ukraine. The people of Mariupol, in the south, are trapped and under heavy fire from Putin’s forces. It’s been the most bombarded city in Ukraine, apparently. In the east, Kharkiv is holding out pretty well, even though war crime-type activities have been carried out there by Putin.

Jacinta: Yes Mr Pudding has a lot to answer for, and if we could bring him to justice, what a shock it would be to the Xi Jinpings, the Ramzan Kadyrovs, the Lukashenkos, the Orbáns, the Mohammed bin Scumbags and so on, in a world that will become, I fervently believe, increasingly bonoboesque. And when it does, we will look back on Putinland, the CCP, the Middle Eastern thugocrazies and so on and so forth, and think, ‘how could we have sunk so low? How could we have reached such a level of stupidity as to let these male apes run roughshod over our children and our future, when it’s screamingly obvious that we, women, should be the leaders?’ And history will be written from a bonobo-influenced female prospective, inevitably, a future perspective, pointing out the pointless male thuggeries of the past, remembering the victims, female, male and children yet to decide, yet to have much of a life. I’m sorry, I’m imagining a future almost beyond nations, beyond nationalist brutalism, and beyond maleness. Women are our future – we have to grasp the nettle.

Canto: I think you’re right, but perhaps you’re just before your time. We have to play out the last gasp of male ascendancy – and I’m not suggesting that Putin’s last breath, which hopefully happens soon, will be that last gasp – far from it unfortunately. But we have a long, hard battle to fight against misogyny. Look at the Taliban. Look at Iran. Look at the CCP – their politburo has never had a female member in the seventy years of its existence. Even the USA has never had a female President, and women have a horribly hard road to hoe in the male province of politics even in democratic countries. Australia has had one female Prime Minister, and she was subjected to more vitriol than any male PM in Australian history – I would have no hesitation in claiming that to be a fact.

Jacinta: Slowly but surely wins the race. Sadly for me, it’ll more likely take centuries rather than decades, but think of the progress made in a relatively short time. We couldn’t become university professors a century ago, never mind major political or business identities. Obviously our fantastical leadership qualities are likely to shine within democracies rather than the thugocratic alternatives – which are the only real alternatives to the WEIRD world, and they’re always male. The Chinese people – and I’ve met so many of them – deserve far better than this horrific CCP thugocrazy. Clearly the dictator Xi can’t last forever, and the Chinese people will hopefully not tolerate the country bumbling from thug to thug, and if we keep moving in a bonoboeque direction elsewhere, Chinese women will make themselves heard more and more within the country, before it’s too late for the already-decimated Uyghurs and other proud minorities.

Canto: Yes it amuses me that their oligarchy is called the Chinese Communist Party, an exquisitely meaningless name. They may as well be called the Soggy Bottom Boys Party, but humour has never been their strong suit. That’s thugs for you.

Jacinta: Yes, talking of humour, I’ve not yet heard from Mr Pudding about Elon Musk’s demand for Mano-a-mano combat. He’s such a coward, when it comes down to it….


Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2022 at 7:51 pm

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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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