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22 – sex, reproduction, science, bonobos

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the act, depicted by Leonardo, along with his intriguing mirror writing

Thinking on dolphins again, I remember reading claims about sophisticated dolphin language, at a vocal range beyond human hearing, and I’ve also read scientific dismissals of such claims. I’m thinking again about these questions (the communications of some birds also comes to mind) because the communicative complexity of language would have enabled human apes to, among other things, be species-aware of the connection between sex and reproduction – though unfortunately failures in that communication still result in unwanted teenage pregnancies. 

But I don’t seriously imagine that any other species – on this planet at least – knows that the joys of rump-pumpy lead to the much-later popping out of wee human replicants. For one thing, Matthew Cobb’s book The egg & sperm race provides an account of how confused we humans were, even at the time of Leonardo, about ‘the exact relationship between male, female and offspring’. They were particularly confused with regard to non-human generation. Ideas about barnacle geese being hatched from barnacles, mice being generated from wheat and vipers from dust were entertained at the highest level, even at the Royal Society in the 17th century. The spontaneous generation of the tiniest creatures was essentially a given for millennia. But human generation was also much of a mystery until relatively recently. Here’s a little summary from Cobb:

Although the real situation now appears obvious, discovering exactly what goes on was a long, complicated process. Even what might seem to be the most obvious step in generation – the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy in humans – is really quite difficult to demonstrate. Part of the problem is that the clear signs of pregnancy do not immediately follow the sexual act. Even menstruation does not necessarily appear to be directly linked to pregnancy: although women stop menstruating when they are pregnant, some women always have irregular periods, while teenage girls can get pregnant without ever having menstruated. The link between sex and generation is so unobvious that in the 20th-century the Trobriand Islanders in the Pacific Ocean were said to be very surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two. All around the world, folktales of conception taking place in the most astonishing ways, such as by eating fruit (mango, lemon, apple, orange, peach ..), accidentally swallowing crane dung, or, more politically, being touched by the rays of a dragon.

The late 17th century, however, was the period in Europe when most of this confusion was cleared up, at least in the so-called developed world, thanks mainly to the work of four gifteded individuals, Francesco Redi (1626-97), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Nicolas Steno (1638-86) and Reinier de Graaf (1641-1673). Much of this work took place in the Netherlands, a major progressive and scientific nation in this period, backed by massive profits from the spice and slave trades. Of course another power of the period was England, and one of the most important figures in researching ‘generation’, as the problem of sorting out the reproductive process was then called, was William Harvey, famous mostly for working out the role of the heart in circulating the blood. Harvey was a pioneering experimentalist, and his approach to the issues was essentially correct, and quite revolutionary, but he lacked the necessary to work out the detail of generation. In particular, he lacked a microscope. His late work, de generatione animalium (1651), though mostly a restatement of Aristotelian doctrine, was inspirational in that he emphasised, through experiment, the importance of the egg in generation, regardless of species. Without a microscope, however, this claim couldn’t be fully verified. Microscopes, or magnifiers of various kinds, had been used since antiquity, but their full development came only after the invention of the telescope. Galileo built his own compound microscope in the 1620s but they remained largely a novelty until later in the 17th century, with the founding of scientific societies and academies, and the sharing of scientific experiments and tools. 

The four above-mentioned intellectuals (the word scientist didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century) – one Italian and three Dutch – were friends, colleagues, and sometimes frenemies at a time when being first with scientific breakthroughs was even more important than during the covid19 era. There were no professional researchers of course, so you had to publish to get recognition and encourage patronage (and you often needed patronage to get published).

Francesco Redi, who combined a more rigorous experimentalism than was common at the time with the wit and urbanity that made him a mainstay at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, to whom he acted as physician among other things, carried out careful research on insects which proved that they weren’t generated spontaneously in rotting foodstuff or anything else. His interest in the subject was inspired by Steno who had come to Tuscany from his studies in Leiden, via Paris, with a reputation as an expert in dissection and cutting-edge experimentation. Steno was in turn influenced by the greater mathematical rigour of the intellectuals at Ferdinando’s court. The two worked together on fossils and geology as well as animal anatomy. Steno was interested in the difference between viviparous and oviparous reproduction – that’s to say, between creatures who produce live young and those who lay eggs – and stumbled on a new, decisive insight, that female ‘testicles’, at the time believed to be internalised versions of male testicles, were in fact ovaries, a housing for the female’s eggs. This was an insight from observation, rather than experiment, but it was of course correct, and revolutionary.

Steno, Swammerdam and de Graaf had all met in Leiden where they engaged in their first adult studies (Leiden University in the mid 17th century had more student enrolments than Cambridge and was one of the most progressive learning institutes in Europe), and Steno and Swammerdam, being in the same year, became firm friends and collaborators there. After their Leiden studies, all three went to to France, a common destination for young Dutch intellectuals. Swammerdam and Steno were attracted there by an extraordinary French polymath, Melchisédech Thévenot, who had visited Leiden during their studies there, and who was head of a private academy in Paris, which eventually morphed into the Académie Royale des Sciences. 

But I’m getting bogged down in fascinating detail. Read Cobb’s The egg & sperm race for the story of how these individuals, and others, sorted out the story of ovaries, testes, semen and the equal contribution of males and females to offspring production. It’s a story of collaboration, rivalry and the struggle for both knowledge and recognition that captures much of scientific activity, then and now. 

The point of all this is to recognise how difficult it was for even the most complex species on the planet to work out the relationship between the pleasures of sex and the rather more mixed experience of childbirth – deadly for many, including my own grandmother. 

And yet, bonobos do it for pleasure and relief, openly, and manage to avoid having endless pregnancies, unlike  Anne Stuart, queen of Great Britain (18 pregnancies, none surviving to adulthood) and Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, and many other regions (16 pregnancies, only 3 of whom died in infancy), not to mention a horde of less ’eminent’ catholic martyrs to the world’s peopling. Bonobos have between five and seven infants, on average, in a lifetime, which is certainly more than enough. I’m not sure of the survival rate of offspring, but it would probably be higher if not for human depradations. 

References

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race 

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

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm

23 – bonobo morality superior to Christianity

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the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to 539 BCE

In his strange but interesting book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari reveals an obsessive interest in religion. While recognising that the traditional religions such as Christianity, which dominated Europe and its colonies and offshoots for a millennium and a half, no longer provide a template for our political and social organisation, he’s happy to label the isms that he claims are traditional religion’s successors, namely humanism, liberalism, progressivism and scientism, as religions too. And the final section of his book bears the title ‘the data religion’, and is all about our new-found worship of algorithms. 

Personally I much prefer a tighter definition of religion, being a belief in gods and god-like entities, or spiritual, or spirit-ish, beings such as sprites, fairies or mischief-making bunyips and such – thingummies that have an effect on our world but are too superior to ever be caught by hand or on camera. Or they belong to another world or dimension or something. Harari dismisses the non-believers’ dismissal of these beings as supernatural, but he offers no better alternative. He seems to have caught the Nietschean affliction of trying to stand outside of everything so he can be disdainful of it. 

Traditional religions, however, suffer from the hearsay problem. I first heard about the Judeo-Christian god from a Sunday School teacher who no doubt heard about him from either his parents or rellies, or some other churchy elder, and so on down the generations, with mostly increasing conviction as we go back in time. Another way to describe him, or gods and religions in general, is as memes, thought-bubbles, differing in detail and import as they pass between people, but always presented with a sort of prestigious vagueness. God, for example, is divine, but what does this word mean? How do we collect evidence for divinity? Much easier to collect evidence for the processes involved in the Earth’s origin. Humans are lazy that way. 

I don’t want to enter into a philosophical or theological discussion here – god forbid – but I’m concerned about the baleful effect that certain religions, those that still influence large numbers of human apes today, have on morality. Religion, as we know, tends to congeal morality in the time-frame of that religion’s founding, or its high-water mark. And even then it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Take the story of ‘the woman taken in adultery’, in the soi-disant gospel of John, about which there’s much argy-bargy as to authenticity (it may have been a later interpolation), as if any of these writings are particularly authentic. The issue here, for me at least, is about whether the ‘sin’ is really a sin, or more generally what is a sin, though in the religious context of the time, the point of the story is that, since everyone sins, this woman’s sin deserves forgiveness, like everyone else’s sins, as long as she sins ‘no more’. Of course, it’s a pretty piss-poor argument, even if you equate sinning with wrong-doing according to the legalities of the day. Context is everything, and no context is given in the story. Adultery isn’t even clearly defined. It’s well-known, and other biblical texts bear witness to the fact, that women were treated as chattels in this era and region, and very often married off as children to men twice or thrice their age, with no fellow-feeling about it. Bonobos wouldn’t have stood for it. So my advice to this youngster would’ve been ‘go for it lassie, and pay no attention to those arseholes’. Depending on the context, that is.

And yet this sort of context-free drivel is still taken seriously by those who aren’t religious and should know better. I’ve heard a professional philosopher, much younger than myself and by no means religious, argue, or simply claim, that our legal system is based on Christian teaching. That’s total bullshit. Some years ago I did a deep dive on Christian morality as expressed in the five ‘gospels’, including Thomas, and found no clear moral message – again because context is everything, so that general remarks like ‘blessed are the peace-makers’, or indeed the cheese-makers, are essentially meaningless. Bonobos are pretty peaceful, but they’ll fight when they have to, to keep the greater peace. It’s a pretty good general rule, but the particular action and its extent depends on context. 

Another example of context-free ethics that I’ve heard being extolled is the Ten Commandments, or at least those that still make sense in the modern world – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet (note the negativity), don’t commit adultery (makes no sense to bonobos, and why and when did human apes start marrying?), and honour your parents (hmmm, shouldn’t parents, and any others, be given the respect they deserve? Not based on titles or positions, but on observed behaviour and effects? Automatic honouring, or respect, strikes me as a bad, even dangerous idea. Political leaders often benefit from this automatic, fawning respect, especially in non-democratic countries, where those leaders are allowed to hang around for a long time, like an ever more fetid odour). 

None of these commandments should be considered as absolutes, which is why the nuance of laws based on the complexity of civil society is far superior, and that nuance is displayed in rather more earthly laws of the time, such as those of Solon in Athens. And another near contemporary, Cyrus of Persia, renowned for having emancipated the Jews of Babylon, had rather more humane laws (or really just policies, and possibly short-term) written on a cylinder uncovered more than 2000 years later, and celebrated by some (mostly Persian nationals) as the first versions of human rights. 

Laws change, as they should, as we learn more about human flourishing, and that such flourishing depends on a broader, more vital flourishing of that narrow band of life that covers the surface, and a tiny sub-surface, of our planet. From whence we emerged. Only recently, rather shockingly, has the so-called developed world caught up with bonobos in their understanding and acceptance of homosexual behaviour – and that acceptance is very far from universal. Perhaps such intolerance has sprung from the old idea that ‘the world must be peopled’, but these days we’re well aware that it has been peopled enough. Nowadays we don’t want so much to have children to carry on for us, but to carry on ourselves, hale and hearty for 200 years or so. But that’s another story. 

References

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solons-laws

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 15, 2021 at 7:52 pm

21 – dolphins, bonobos, sex and pleasure

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bonobos at Jacksonville zoo

I enjoyed a little boat trip off the north-east coast of Kangaroo Island recently. The owner, our guide, bounced us up and down the shoreline east of Christmas Cove to view caves in the limestone cliffs, seabirds such as wedge-tailed eagles on the cliff-tops, and above all to search for a pod of dolphins known to be using the area as a daytime resting-place.

After a few bouts of bouncing eastward and westward we were becoming skeptical, though by no means annoyed. A year before, the island, Australia’s third largest after Tasmania and Melville Island, had been ravaged by bushfires, devastating vegetation and wildlife, and seriously damaging the island’s fragile economy, not to say ecology, and we were happy to make our tiny contribution without great expectations of sighting fabulous beasties. 

So we were delighted, on heading eastward again, to spot a few fins bobbing and dipping in the water ahead. Slowing toward them, we were told there were about 25 dolphins in this pod (the term was first used by whalers in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown). I soon gave up trying to count them as identical-looking fins appeared and disappeared and vaguely discerned bodies twisted and turned just below the surface. They seemed to form pairs now and then, breaking the surface sleekly and synchronously in elegant arcs. Dolphins, I learned, spend their days lolling about near the shore in these pods after a night of hunting out at sea. They seemed aware but unconcerned about our presence, and at one time the whole group disappeared then reappeared on the other side of our boat, bobbing and slow-twirling as before. 

I was struck by a remark by our guide that dolphins are one of the few mammals that mate for fun or pleasure. Of course I made an immediate connection with bonobos, but then I wondered, what does the verb, to mate, exactly mean? We humans never describe ourselves as mating, that’s for the birds, etc. We fuck, screw, bonk, shag, hump and bone, we more coyly sleep together, and more romantically make love (not allowed for other species), but we’re way above mating.

‘Mating’ brings up two internet definitions, the action of animals coming together to breed, and copulation. So dolphins, and bonobos and humans, often come together to breed – but actually not to breed. As for copulation, that’s rarely used for humans, just as fornication is rarely used for non-humans. The latter is, of course, a term of mostly religious disapproval, and non-humans are too lowly to be worthy of moral judgment. 

Of course we do apply mating to humans with a pinch of irony, as in the mating game, and this blurs the line between humans and others, but not enough for me. The point is that dolphins and bonobos use sex, which may not be the full rumpy-pumpy (dolphins don’t even have rumps to speak of), to bond with each other, to ease tension, to have fun, as our guide said. But then, don’t all species have sex purely for pleasure, or at least because driven to do so, by sensation? Do cats, dogs, birds and flies have sex with the intention of reproducing? I don’t think so. 

Human sex is pleasurable, so I’ve heard, and I expect bonobo sex is too. Fly sex probably not, or so I thought, but I’m probably wrong. Researchers have found that male fruit flies enjoy ejaculating, and tend to consume alcohol when denied sex. I know exactly how they feel. Anyway, fruit flies have long been favourites for biological research, and more recently they’ve found that ‘a protein present in the ejaculate of male fruit flies activates long-term memory formation in the brains of their female partners’. It rather makes me wonder what effect this kind of research has on the researchers themselves, but I’m sure it’s all for the best. 

One thing is certain, cats and dogs, and I’ve had a few, feel pleasure. Cats are appallingly sensual, and I’ve probably had more sexual advances from dogs than from humans, though whether they involved pleasure I can’t be sure. Generally our understanding of non-human sex has expanded in recent decades, as our sense of our specialness in everything has receded. It’s also true that we’ve tended to look at other species with a scientific instrumentalism, that’s to say from the viewpoint of evolution, breeding, genetics and other forms of categorisation, rather from an emotional or sensory viewpoint.

When I was very young I read a book by Ernest Thompson Seton called The biography of a grizzly. This story of Wahb, a male grizzly whose family was wiped out by hunters, and who survived to become the most powerful bear in the region, before inevitable decline and death, had an unforgettable emotional impact. I’m glad I read it though, as, sentimentalised though it might’ve been, it inoculated me against the scientific tendency, now changing, to see any animal as an it, rather than he or she or dad or mum or brother or sister. So this idea of putting oneself in the paws of a grizzly or the feet of a bonobo has long been perfectly legitimate to me. 

In 2014 Jason Goldman wrote an article entitled Do animals have sex for pleasure?, in which he cited many instances of other species – bonobos of course heading the list – engaging in oral and penetrative sex ‘out of season’, when pregnancy is precluded. They include capuchin monkeys, macaques, spotted hyenas, bears, lions and fruit bats. It stands to reason that the physiological, whole-of body pleasure we derive from sex is shared by other species, and is indulged by them, and this includes what we call homosex, and masturbation. Australia’s premier science magazine, Cosmos, claimed a few years ago that some 6000 species (or was it 600?) have been observed engaging in homosexual activity, which does sound funny when talking about what we would habitually call lower life forms. 

All of these findings have had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of loosening our uptight attitudes toward sex, as well as upending our notions of human specialness. But the behaviour of bonobos, who at times look strikingly like us, is more immediately impactful than anything fruit flies or fruit bats might do. Just the other day I watched a video of bonobos in Jacksonville zoo, Florida. Two of them were lying on the ground close together, and kissing each other, on the lips, again and again. Were they male? female? one of each? Who knows, it was so beautiful to watch.  

References

Ernest Thompson Seton, The biography of a grizzly, 1900. 

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/male-fruit-flies-take-pleasure-in-having-sex-30867

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/sex-promotes-lasting-memories-in-female-flies-66763

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

20: bonobo and human families, early childhood and free will

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ye olde nuclear family, and its enclosures

The bonobo reproduction rate is low, as is ours these days, though for different reasons. Bonobos don’t tend to go all the way, while humans have contraception even for naughty catholics. Muslim scholars seem a little confused about the issue, but are generally more accepting than their catholic counterparts. As to children, humans are rather more possessive about them than bonobos. Bonobo females are largely in charges of the kids, collectively, and paternity is unknown and undisputed. Think about how that would play out in human society, which for millennia has been largely patriarchal, patrilineal and even primogenitive. 

This doesn’t mean male bonobos are hostile to kids, as it’s generally a caring and sharing society, and besides, humouring the kids is a good way of winning favours from their mothers and others. Think of how that would be as a kid – you wouldn’t just be able to run to dad when mum’s mad at you, you’d have any number of adults to run to. You’d also have a range of adults to learn from, to identify with, to consider as role models, as well as to play off against each other. 

Modern, supposedly advanced human society is very different. We live in separate, securitised houses, in nuclear families – ideally mum, dad and 2⅓ kids – with a garden surrounded by a high fence, if we’re ‘lucky’. The grandparents live across town, or in another country, or a nursing home. Visitors are vetted by smartphone. Of course often it’s a single-parent situation, usually mum, and the odd long- or short-lived boyfriend. She works, so the kids spend a lot of time in day-care, meeting other kids and sharing with them one or two adults, who don’t get too close, wary of being accused of funny business. Rarely are these adults male. Still it’s pretty good, lots of toys and games and things to make and do, all in primary colours, but it’s not every day because it’s too expensive, you (the kid) sometimes get shipped around to aunties or friends or assorted baby-sitters, or you get switched to a new centre, with a whole bunch of strangers, or a kid you really like just disappears. But mostly you’re at home with your stupid brother, until school days arrive and you have to wear a uniform, and mum fusses over you and makes you feel nervous and watchful about whether you look different from the other kids, in a good or bad way. And you learn stuff and you like or hate the teacher and you start competing with the other kids and start thinking about how smart or dumb you are. 

Modern human life is pretty regimented. At a certain tender age you go to school where you learn first of all the basics of numeracy and literacy as the first steps toward being civilised. You also learn about rules and regulations, time management and the difference between work and play. Thrown into the school pool of humanity, you’re driven to contemplate and come to terms with variety: fat and skinny, pretty and ugly, noisy and quiet, smart and dumb, friend and enemy and all in between. You learn to make judgments, who to trust, who to avoid, and what to pay attention to. The prefrontal cortex, that amazing human asset, is continuing on its great connective journey, as you negotiate yourself between the formal and the free, between regimentation and independence. 

Yet all the research tells us that most of those judgments you make at school, and which you vaguely remember having made, are actually the product of that growth period before the laying down of memories, distorted or otherwise. And that includes your ability to make effective judgments. 

In the first few years of life, we form more than a million new neural connections every second. In fact, so many that after this surge of connections comes a period of pruning for order and efficiency. But this early period of development requires stimulation, which comes in infinite varieties of ways, including, of course, the bonobo way (and I don’t mean tree-climbing and chomping on insects), the chimp way (watching adult males battling it out), the Tiwi Islander way or the Netherlands royal family way or whatever. And much of this guided stimulation forms our behaviour for the rest of our lives. And the lack of it can reduce our capacities for a lifetime, in spite of subsequent kindness and care, as the notorious case of the Romanian orphans kept in horrendous states of neglect under the Ceauşescu regime has shown, though interestingly, some 20% of those adopted orphans have grown up showing little or no damage. Stimulation can come from within as well as without, and neglect has many variables. 

It stands to reason that we as individuals have little or no control over our development in this crucial period. Which brings me to the issue of free will. Philosophers have traditionally argued for free will on the ‘could have done otherwise’ basis. I could have drunk tea rather than coffee with brekky this morning (though I invariably drink coffee). I could’ve chosen x from the restaurant menu instead of y. So often these trivial examples are given, when it’s screamingly obvious that you don’t get to choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your early childhood environment, the country or period you were born into, or even the species you were born as (I could’ve snuffed out your brief candle by treading on you in this morning’s walk). Given these restraints on your freedom, restaurant choices surely pale into insignificance. 

But let’s stick with humanity. I won’t go into the neurological underpinnings of the argument against free will (as if I could), but if we treat no free will as a given, then the consequences for humanity, vis-à-vis our handling of crime and punishment, are stark, as  the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in the penultimate chapter of his book Behave, entitled ‘Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will’. This is a vital issue for me, in terms of a more caring and sharing bonoboesque society, so I’ll reserve it for another essay, or two, or more.  

References

InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development

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

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. 2017

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2021 at 12:43 pm

19: the USA – an anti-bonobo state?

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Of course it would be ridiculous to compare the complex, diverse collection of human apes – some 330 million of them – who call the USA home, to the few thousand bonobos who make their home in the forests of the Congo. So call me ridiculous.

Bonobos appear to be an egalitarian lot. They have fun together, sexually and otherwise, they share responsibilities, they look after each other’s kids, and they generally nip disagreements, which do occur, in the bud, either with sexual healing or with female group force. Unfortunately they don’t read, write or do much in the way of science, but you can’t have everything.

They don’t kill each other, which their close rellies the chimps occasionally do. And it’s the male chimps who tend to do this, just like male human apes. 

Now, Americans. They like to think they’re exceptional, many of them, but to an outsider like me they seem exceptional in only two respects – their religiosity and their jingoism, neither of which I have much time for. The nation’s foundational religiosity has been well dealt with by Sam Harris and many others, and the backlash to their writings, as well the more recent kowtowing by so-called evangelical Christians to the mendacious messianic misanthrope whose presidency has effectively destroyed the nation’s reputation for the foreseeable, indicates that they still have a lot of growing up to do. Their jingoism seems another form of infantilism, and I suspect they get it drummed into them from kindergarten on up. That’s why even their best cable news pundits and politicians carried on a ‘how has the mighty fallen’ narrative over the four years of the misanthrope’s reign, without seeming to realise that the problem wasn’t Trump but their massively flawed federal political (and legal) system. It’s also why they’ll never engage in the root and branch reform of that system, the failings of which Trump has done them the great favour of exposing.

However, in comparing Americans unfavourably to bonobos, it’s not their lack of modesty and self-awareness that I want to focus on, but their violence. The violence of the state, and states, towards individuals, the violence, or violent feelings, of individuals towards the state, the violence of partisanship, and ordinary violence between individuals. And of course the gun culture. 

Incarceration is a form of violence, let’s be blunt. The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has some 22% of the world’s prisoners, making the nation’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. It was up at nearly 25% twelve years ago, and declined slightly during the Obama administration, but no doubt has been rising again under Trump. State authorities have also played a role in rising or declining rates of course.

The nation tries to delude itself by calling their prisons correctional institutions, but very little in the way of formal correction is attempted. The tragedy is exacerbated by prison privatisation, which first occurred under Reagan in the eighties. A for-profit prison system, fairly obviously, benefits from a high prison population, and from skimping on counselling, training, facilities, and even basic needs, covering all of Maslow’s hierarchy. 

 As is well known, US prisons are top-heavy with those people designated as black (I’ve always been uncomfortable with black-white terminology). So much so that a 2004 study reported that ‘almost one-third of black men in their twenties are either on parole, on probation, or in prison’. So it would surely be correct to say that every person ‘of colour’ is touched by the prison system, either personally or via friends and family. I won’t go into the reasons why here, except to mention the obvious issues of poverty, disadvantage and endemic despair, exacerbated by the imbecilic war on drugs, but clearly imprisonment is itself violently punitive and rarely leads to human betterment. It appears to be a ‘sweeping under the carpet’ response to all these issues. People are free to do whatever they like, but if they make a nuisance of themselves in the street, and make the place look bad, best to put them out of the way for a while, until such time as they clean themselves up. But the sad fact is that very few if any of those incarcerated blacks have done anywhere near as much damage to the nation as has their outgoing President. 

As to a sense of violence towards the state, this is evidenced by paramilitary anti-government groups and the strange sense amongst a huge swathe of the population that if governments try to do anything interventional or ameliorative that in any way affects their lives they’re engaging in socialism, thus leaving the path open for white-collar crime (especially the gleefully celebrated crime of tax evasion), bank banditry and the like, and for real minimum wages to fall well below those of comparable countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Japan etc. And so, while their fellow-citizens are struggling in poorly paid jobs with inadequate conditions, people placard the streets screaming about their constitutional right to be protected from their Great Enemy, government in all its despicable forms. Ronald Reagan, who seems to have become a doyen of the moderate right, is now celebrated for saying that government is the problem, not the solution, surely one of the most imbecilic utterances of the pre-Trump era. 

So with this eschewing of government oversight and guidance, the USA has devolved into a war of all against all, with rights eclipsing responsibilities, and with parts of the country resembling the worst of so-called third world countries in terms of entrapment, suffering and despair. But of course it’s different for the rich, who protect their own. 

Finally I want to explore another form of violence, which relates to the US military. It’s amusing to note that there are arguments raging online about whether or not the US military is a socialist organisation, since it’s run and massively funded by by the federal government, with congress never delaying and rarely debating such unaudited funding. This is all fun to read since so many Americans become apoplectic when the word socialism comes up, but the fact remains that the Pentagon is, to most outsiders, something like a supermassive black hole sucking in funds that are never to be seen again. 

US military spending is estimated to be close to one trillion dollars over the 2020-21 year, with something like 85% described as discretionary spending, which means essentially that they can spend it any way they choose. Three attempts have been made in the past three years to audit the Pentagon, and they have all ended in failure, but it’s unclear whether the auditor or the Pentagon is the responsible party. Needless, to say, conducting such as audit would be a largely thankless task. Of course defenders of all this expenditure claim that vast sums of money are required to keep safe this exceptional beacon of liberty to the world. Yet much of US military personnel and materiel are deployed outside of the country, and the USA has never been under serious attack from any other nation since its foundation. The fact is that the US uses its military as has every other powerful military state in history, dating back to the Egyptians and before, and including the Romans, the Brits, the Germans and the Japanese, that’s to say, to enhance its power and influence in the world. And the US certainly is exceptional in its military. Its defence budget is ‘more….than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined’. 

Every powerful nation in history has fallen for the same fallacy, that their economic and military superiority somehow infers moral superiority. Might is right, essentially, and this translates to non-human ape societies too, as they all have their power hierarchies. Bonobos, however, less so than any of the others. In bonobo society, it seems, group power is used to stifle individual power-mongering, so that the group can get back as quickly as it can to the main purpose of their lives, surviving and thriving, exploring and foraging, looking out for each other and having fun. If we could have all this, in our more mind-expanded, scientific, with-knowledge-comes-responsibility sort of way, what a wonderful world this would be. 

References

https://ussromantics.com/category/identity-politics/

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

https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=RMW#

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

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2021 at 5:08 pm

A bonobo world, etc, 18: gender and aggression in life and sport

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bonobos play-fighting

 

human apes play-fighting?

If anyone, like me, says or thinks that they’d like to be a bonobo, it’s to be presumed they don’t mean they’d like to live in trees, be covered in hair, have a shortened life-span, a brain reduced to a third of its current size, and to never concern themselves with why the sky is blue, how the Earth spins, and whether the universe is finite or infinite. What we’re really interested in is how they deal with particular matters that have bedevilled human societies in their infinite variety – namely sex, violence, effective community and the role of women, vis-a-vis these matters.

While making a broad generalisation about human society, in all its billions, might leave me open to ridicule, we seem to have followed the chimpanzee and gorilla path of male domination, infighting as regards pecking order, and group v group aggression, rising to warfare and nuclear carnage as human apes became more populous and technologically sophisticated. One interesting question is this: had we followed the bonobo path of female group bonding and controlling the larger males by means of those bonds, and of group raising of children causing reduced jealousies and infanticides, would we have reached the heights of civilisation, if that’s the word, and world domination that we have reached today?

I realise this is an impossible question to answer, and yet… Human apes, especially in post-religious societies, are recognising the power and abilities of their women more and more. Social evolution has speeded up this process, bringing about changes in single lifetimes. In 1793 Olympe de Gouges, playwright, abolitionist, political activist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was guillotined by Robespierre’s disastrous Montagnard faction, as much for being a moderate as for being a woman. Clearly a progressivist, de Gouges opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and capital punishment generally, and favoured a constitutional monarchy, a system which still operates more or less effectively in a number of European nations (it seems better than the US system, though I’m no monarchist). Today, capital punishment generally thrives only in the most brutally governed nations, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though there are unfortunate outliers such as Japan, Singapore and arguably the USA (none of those last three countries have ever had female leaders – just saying). One hundred years after de Gouges died for promoting female equality and moderation, women were still being denied a university education in every country in the world. However in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, we’ve seen dramatic changes, both in the educational and scientific fields, and in political leadership. The labours of to the Harvard computers, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and many others, working for a fraction of male pay, opened up the field of photometric astronomy and proved beyond doubt that women were a valuable and largely untapped intellectual resource. Marie Curie became the most famous female scientist of her day, and inspired women around the world to enter the scientific fray. Today, women such as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of CRISPR-Cas9 fame, and Michelle Simmons, Australia’s quantum computing wizard, are becoming more and more commonplace in their uncommon intellect and skills. And in the political arena, we’ve had female leaders in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia (okay, in the eighteenth century), China (nineteenth century), South Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Sri Lanka (the world’s first female PM), Israel, Ethiopia and Liberia, and I may have missed some. This may seem an incredible transformation, but many of these women were brief or stop-gap leaders, and were all massively outnumbered by their male counterparts and generally had to deal with male advisers and business and military heavyweights. 

So it’s a matter of rapid change but never rapid enough for our abysmally short life spans. But then, taking a leaf from the bonobo tree, we should look at the power of female co-operation, not just individual achievement. Think of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s (the term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail male to belittle the movement’s filletes), which, like the Coalition of Women for Peace (in Israel/Palestine) a century later, was a grassroots movement. They couldn’t be otherwise, as women were then, and to a large extent still are, shut out of the political process. They’re forced into other channels to effect change, which helps explain why approximately 70% of NGO positions are held by women, though the top positions are still dominated by men. 

When I think of teams, and women, and success, two more or less completely unrelated fields come to mind – science and sport. In both fields cooperation and collaboration are essential to success, and more or less friendly competition against others in the field is essential to improve quality. Womens’ team sport is as competitive as that of men but without quite the same bullish, or chimp, aggressiveness, it seems to me, and the research backs this up. Sport, clearly, is a constructed form of play, in which the stakes are sometimes very high in terms of trophies, reputations and bragging rights, but in which the aggression is generally brought to an end by the final whistle. However, those high stakes sometimes result in foul play and overly aggressive attempts to win at all costs – and the same thing can happen in science. Sporting aggression, though, is easier to assess because it’s more physical, and more publicly displayed (and more likely to be caught on camera). To take my favourite sport, soccer, the whole object for each team is to fight to get and maintain possession of the ball for the purpose of scoring goals. This battle mostly involves finesse and teamwork, but when the ball is in open play it often involves a lot of positional jostling and other forms of physicality. Personally, I’ve witnessed many an altercation in the male game, when one player gets pissed off with another’s shirt-tugging and bumping, and confronts him chest-to-chest, nature documentary-style. The female players, when faced with this and other foul play, invariably turn to the referee with a word or a gesture. Why might this be? 

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

The most striking differences in instinctive equipment consists in the strength of the fighting instinct in the male and of the nursing instinct in the female…. The out-and-out physical fighting for the sake of combat is pre-eminently a male instinct, and the resentment at mastery, the zeal to surpass, and the general joy at activity in mental as well as physical matters seem to be closely correlated with it.
Of course, much has changed since those observations. Women in OECD countries aren’t quite so into nursing, with birth rates plummeting and female work-place participation rising, but boys still like to tote guns by and large, and girls still like to dress as fairies and play with dolls. The difference is largely in degree. But my observations of soccer matches tell me that women are far less inclined to fight their own battles regardless of the rules than men, and have an ‘instinctive’ (but it’s all cultural) sense of referring to the referee, the parental figure, when aggression is wrongly applied. The thought comes to mind of a girl running to mum or dad when nasty big brother is tormenting her. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Boys, though, are still half-expected to fight their own battles.
 
References
 
https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/GougesRightsofWomen.pdf
 
 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229698542_Aggression_Gender_and_Sport_Reflections_on_Sport_as_a_Means_of_Moral_Education
 
 

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm

a bonobo world, etc 17 – good and bad hierarchies, human superiority and extinction threats

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Robert Sapolsky on hierarchies – always worth listening to

One might say that bonobo society isn’t democratic, it’s hierarchical. But of course being hierarchical isn’t the opposite of being democratic. Every human society has been and is hierarchical. The hierarchy in earliest human times was probably based on raw prowess in providing resources and maintaining effective order in the group, the tribe, the village. Whoever managed to do so obtained prestige for himself, his family or breeding partners and his heirs, until such time as it all fell apart and competitors proved more effective. History, some former toff wrote, is a graveyard of aristocracies, but as human society became more formalised, those aristocracies often survived beyond their utility (to everyone but the aristocratic clique), as witness various hereditary power systems. Arguably the most unequal and rigid hierarchies were based on land ownership and control, when societies were largely agricultural, in feudal Europe and no doubt elsewhere. The more one family was able to concentrate power in its hands, as in medieval Britain and Czarist Russia, the more steps there would be in the ladder to the bottom, where the majority slaved away. 

Nowadays, of course, we’re more slaves to our devices than to any human overlords. Most of us have never seen a harvest, but our homes are full of fruits and wines, basics and treats. Where our ancestors were treated as little more than effluent, we now feel ourselves to be relatively affluent, even with part-time work in service or tech industries. Where our forebears worried about the breadline, we’re more concerned about our waistline, and where we’ll put all our stuff. In his indispensable book The origin of feces (I had to buy it), David Waltner-Toews points out that, with some 7.5 billion human apes on the planet, we’re producing over 400 million tonnes of shit per year. Add to that our ever-increasing loads of sheepshit, bullshit, horseshit and chickenshit, and the figures for these are as mucky as the topic, and you might start to worry whether it’s the effluent of affluence that will finally bury us. 

However, the prospect of spaceship Earth gradually filling up with the brown-and-yellow, or any other stuff, shouldn’t concern us, not because it’s all more or less biodegradable, but because spaceship Earth is just a bad metaphor, according to David Deutsch in The beginning of infinity. For Deutsch, the problem with the metaphor is its emphasis on finite resources, finite space, finite everything, and the idea that we humans are abusing the spaceship’s finite ‘design’. Deutsch is a boundless admirer of Jacob Bronowski and his 70s series ‘The ascent of man’, by which he means we human apes. Basically, Deutsch and Bronowski share the vision of a Danish prince written about some centuries ago: 

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.

There seems to have been a bit of sarcasm at play there, but Deutsch is very much an optimist about human capacities, as his book’s title implies. The ascent of human apes isn’t like an ascent to the mountain’s summit, even less up the stairway to heaven, it’s the rise and expansion into a human-created infinity of invention and creation – a forever bubble blown out of human ingenuity, as progress accelerates and earth-boundness becomes hide-boundness and shit turns to sugar through the magic of science that is not magic.

And yet there are still human hierarchies, on an individual and even a national level. There are the OECD nations, for example, and those who don’t make the grade. There are the G8 or G7 nations and the not-so G7 nations. And there are the stateless and the non-nationalists, who might sometimes wish they were bonobos. Or would if they only knew… 

Meanwhile, bonobos, hierarchical but also inclusive. Huddled together lovingly, mostly, and besieged, perhaps without knowing it. Did the last Neanderthals, perhaps huddled together in Gibraltar’s caves, know, or have any inkling, that they were the last? The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) describes bonobos as Africa’s forgotten ape. Many people I know hadn’t even heard of them. It might well be their remoteness, compared to chimps. The southern bank of the Congo bears little resemblance to la rive gauche of Paris, and long may it remain so, but for years the region has been threatened by human warfare, slash and burn agriculture, and bushmeat hunting. The current wild population is hard to assess, but it is at least larger than perhaps the smallest ethnic group of humans, the Samaritans, who number less than a thousand. The Samaritans, however differ from bonobos in that their numbers are very gradually rising, without the need for them to be protected in zoos. Bonobos also manage to be charitable without religion. 

Truly the threats to the bonobo community are no laughing matter, and I hope in my way to provide them with a pinch more of publicity. There’s competition of course. The solitary orang-utans of Sumatra and Borneo are under severe threat from deforestation and palm oil production, and Madagascar’s unique biodiversity is being devastated, again by slash and burn agriculture, as well as mining, climate change, invasive species, overharvesting and habitat fragmentation. Andy Isaacson writes about it in Cosmos magazine: 

Madagascar’s endemic lemurs are now the most threatened group of primates on Earth, and nearly all of its species (94%) are at risk of extinction because of habitat loss and unsustainable hunting. 

As always, there are human heroes, local and international, struggling to protect and improve the lives of these cousins of ours. Bonobos are facing an upsurge of hunting, according to AWF’s Jacqueline Conciatore:

For a long time, local taboos against hunting bonobos, who are so human-like, protected the peaceable apes. But those mores are dropping off under the influence of cultural outsiders and with tradition’s weakening hold on the young. Today, commercial bushmeat hunting, supported by ever more trade routes, joins habitat loss as a top threat to bonobos. Some researchers estimate that tons of bushmeat are extracted daily in bonobo range areas. The number of bonobos killed for bushmeat is limited compared to other species, but because bonobos reproduce slowly, bushmeat hunting poses a dire threat.

Spaceship Earth may seem ever-expandable for the all-conquering, infinitely capable human ape, and of course I accept that we aren’t under threat here in the way that the Ehrlichs’ book The Population Bomb notoriously predicted, but it’s notable that David Deutsch makes no mention of the plight of other species, let alone other apes, in his book about the future. Perhaps we can do without them?

References

https://www.awf.org/blog/endangered-bonobo-africas-forgotten-ape#:~:text=Bonobos%20battle%20bush%20meat%20hunting%20and%20shrinking%20habitats&text=Throughout%20their%20range%2C%20bonobos%20are,15%2C000%2D20%2C000%20wild%20bonobos%20remaining.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthals_in_Gibraltar#:~:text=Gibraltar’s%20Neanderthals%20may%20have%20been,Neanderthal%20populations%20elsewhere%20in%20Europe.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritans#Demographics

Andy Isaacson, ‘Food to save Madagascar’s future’, in Cosmos, issue 88

David Waltner-Toews, The origin of feces, 2013

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2020 at 8:15 pm

A bonobo world, etc 16 – bonobo countries and leaders, nationalism and internationalism

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newspaper cover picture September 2015

If it’s reasonable to reduce the bonobo world to a few clichés  – caring and sharing, making love not war, sexual healing – then maybe it’s reasonable to describe the USA, with its overblown military capacity which empowers it to intervene in other nations unilaterally, and its puritanical religious heritage which seeks to narrow the very concept of love, as the anti-bonobo world. Of course the country has its doves and communitarians, but it’s surely become famous, or notorious in recent times for its anti-government individualism, its aggressive jingoism, its extraordinary incarceration rate, its rich-poor divide, its gun culture, and other such charms.

Of course we’re observing the country at a very low ebb, with its criminal President sulking and predictably refusing to concede that he has been soundly beaten in the recent election, and the worst is likely yet to come. Courts are being inundated, death threats are flying, and no doubt private arsenals are  being brought to a pitch of readiness. The Trumpets, or the Retrumplicans as some have called them, are preparing for their Alamo, but historians will look a lot less kindly on this one.

Certainly it’s a very diverse country, and many observers feel it would be better off if divided into two, or three, or more. This might encourage healthier competition and interaction between the Divided Nations. One nation might learn from its neighbour that being less punitive, say, in its drug or petty crime policies is ultimately more productive. Another might recognise that public-private partnerships in business are the key to revitalising its economy, and so provide a template for others to follow. Yet another might note that its severe anti-abortion policies are causing health and welfare problems not shared by its neighbours. 

Then again, there’s already division into states, which each have a fair degree of autonomy, and that doesn’t seem to have reduced the national mess. And the USA seems to pay little attention to Canada, a far less obnoxious country overall.

So is there any serious possibility that the USA can become more bonoboesque? Or should we simply abandon it and look to Europe, or New Zealand perhaps? Or, shock horror, one of the Asian countries, such as Japan, or Taiwan if it still exists as an independent country by the time this writing is done? What signs of bonoboism should we look out for? Of course we don’t want to become more like bonobos in any precise way – hanging out in treetops isn’t really a human thing these days. But curbing our aggression, mainly though female power and the power of numbers or group support, and becoming more genuinely community oriented, sharing resources and tasks (including children and child-minding), and generally being more touchy-feely, these are real possibilities, and some might argue necessities, for a successful human future on a successful planet, that’s to say a planet we share with, and want to keep on sharing with, as many other forms of life as possible. If we look at nations, those rather artificial entities, for examples of the turn towards bonoboism, we find pluses and minuses everywhere. Japan is a more community-oriented nation than most, but its history of international violence and failure to come to terms with that history pose a serious problem, and overall its record on protecting and supporting other life forms, especially in the oceans, is pretty abysmal. It also has a problem with a dearth of women in leadership roles, in business and politics, which is particularly disappointing considering the country’s low birth rate. Women are staying in work longer, putting off or abandoning the idea of having children, so you might expect their leadership opportunities would be greater. This needs to be explored further in future posts.

The USA, though rather late in giving women the vote, no doubt considers itself a bastion of modern feminism, and as I write, President-elect Biden is seeking or being pressured to make his administration the most female in the country’s history. Yet the rugged individualism that the country still espouses has always had a male cast, with its gun ownership obsession and its dark, thuggish sub-cultures. The Me-Too movement also appears to have its typically American puritanical side, which I also intend to explore, with fearful delicacy, in future posts. 

So my search for bonobo-world promise should take
me to places where female leadership has already been achieved, though more often than not by more or less solitary women in a largely male ocean. The most long-lasting female leader in recent times, in undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential countries, is Angela Merkel, who has been Germany’s Chancellor for over 15 years. She appears to be a centrist – a liberal leading a conservative government – and clearly a survivor, though that’s probably understating her effectiveness. Merkel landed herself in trouble of sorts during the 2015 European migrant or refugee crisis, when over a million refugees flooded Europe, fleeing from war-torn or highly destabilised countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems her own uncertainty as to how to handle the crisis reflected to a fair degree that of the German people. The country accepted a large number of refugees, and within a couple of years the flood had subsided, as had the crisis over Merkel’s leadership. One way in which she mollified the concerns of nationalists was to insist on Germany’s unity under Christianity. No doubt she is a sincere Christian, but as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in Homo Deus, religion is very far from being the force it one was in Europe, and appealing to the best human values of tolerance, compromise and acceptance of diversity should suffice.

All this raises the question of whether there really are German or Australian or British values. As a teacher of international English who has taught students from scores of countries, I’ve found that it isn’t difficult to develop relations based on entirely human elements, such as trust, curiosity, humour and pride. Leaders for some reason like to speak of national characteristics, one hears this all the time. But are that nation’s neighbours really so very different? And is it better to emphasise our differences, or our similarities?

References

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

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

https://theday.co.uk/stories/europe-engulfed-by-migration-crisis

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2020 at 7:49 pm

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 14

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graph showing the rising number of PhDs in neuroscience compared to other sciences

is it all about sex? a few thoughts on sex and behaviour

When I was young there were always a lot of books around, fortunately. My mother was a psych nurse who went on to be a teacher of nursing, so psychology textbooks were plentiful, and I learned with some fascination early on about the id, the ego and the superego. But my greatest excitement was reserved for two other Freudian terms, sublimation and polymorphous perversity. They allowed me to think of sex in a kind of superior way. 

Sublimation refers to the process of transformation from a solid to a gas, without the intermediate step of melting into a liquid. You can observe it simply by opening your freezer door, especially if you have an old-style freezer caked with ice. But Freud’s use of the word was much hotter, to my teenage self. To Freud, there were two driving instincts, eros, the sex drive, and thanatos, the death drive. That’s enough about thanatos. Freud proposed these two opposing drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other essays, but I probably got them from pamphlets floating around the house, summarising Freud’s ideas in a few paragraphs. As I understood it, eros was life-affirmative, but it needed to be harnessed, reigned in, sublimated to a more general, civilising and creative (rather than procreative) force. So it was all just sex diverted to science, technology, empire-building and the like. Sounded perfectly cromulent to me, even before that word was invented. So everything was polymorphously perverse; church spires, slippery-dips, kindergartens and business schools, they all manifested the perversity of our drive, in an infinitude of stop-thinking-about-sex-but-do-this-instead ways. Having discovered the secret of civilisation thanks to Meister Sigmund, I took great secret pleasure in upending said civilisation by masturbating like there was no tomorrow. 

I realise now of course that sublimation isn’t always about channelling out the sexual impulse, it’s about any equally unacceptable impulse, such as murderous rage. But being me I wanted to keep the sex, and stuff all the civilisation. Or couldn’t we somehow keep both sex and civilisation, and dispense with the murderous rage? 

Many anthropologists would agree that bonobos have a culture, but none would say they have a civilisation. So what exactly is the difference, and does civilisation require the degree of sexual repression that we generally suffer from? Though there are the odd erotomanic subcultures, in no established nation is it acceptable, or legal, to walk about naked, let alone have sex, in public. It’s generally called indecent exposure. A loincloth, and some extra bits of cloth for females, might protect you legally if not socially, but what precisely is so upsetting, currently, about those parts we’re obliged to hide, and will we ever socially evolve out of this condition?

Freud believed we were born polymorphously perverse, little libido capsules, and some of his observations – such that we’re all born bisexual, seemed obvious to me from the get-go. However, Freud knew nothing about bonobos, who were barely known to humanity at the time of his death. His theories of masculinity might have benefitted from such knowledge, and in fact the incredibly rapid pace of our neurological knowledge from the beginning of the 21st century – as the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in his monumental book Behave – has wrought havoc with psychoanalytic and other theories that seek to understand human behaviour without attending to their detailed neurological underpinnings. The shaping of masculinity and femininity by culture has been a problem that psychologists, feminists and all other interested parties have long wrestled with. Which culture, after all? And are there differences beyond culture? Can culture be separated from biology?

I don’t think so. Our brains function the way they do because of the environment in which they were nurtured since conception – every environment different of course. And there’s also evolution – what might be called pre-conceptual, or historical, or prehistorical influences. Researchers have often tried to pinpoint essential differences between the male and female brain in humans. They’re far less concerned to pinpoint such differences between male and female cats, dogs or mice, presumably because their overall catty, doggy and mousey natures tend to overwhelm minor gender differences. Recent research has found statistical differences only, rather than categorical differences between male and female brains. In other words, female brains don’t have a vagina and male ones don’t have a penis. Even if you’ve devoted a lifetime to neurological research, studying the brain in all its white-and grey detail, you wouldn’t be able to state categorically that the warm, disembodied human brain placed in your hands to somehow keep alive and probe its electrochemical circuitry and its hormonal flow, belonged to a male or a female. Researchers who want to find key differences between Venus and Mars will find them, but the differences among female brains are greater than those that separate them from male brains. 

And yet, statistics are important. Statistically speaking, males are more violent than females, regardless of nation, culture or time period (going back to the first days of statistical data). It seems to have to do with hormones, and group behavior. Young males often join gangs – bikie gangs, street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, white supremacist gangs, nogoodnik gangs, whatever. Females, not so much. The largest cause of violent death and injury in long-peaceful countries such as Australia is a young male aged 15-24 or so behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This is about risky and show-offy behaviour – they kill and injure themselves as much as others. Such behaviour is seen too in male chimps, in young bull elephants during musth, and in male dolphins – all very smart and social animals. Does all this relate to sex? Apparently, in more or less roundabout ways. For chimps it’s not so roundabout. It’s called the sexual coercion hypothesis, for which much evidence has been collected from various East African field sites:

Males who directed aggression at certain females mated more often with those females than did other males. Moreover, these aggressive males were actively solicited for mating by those females at the time of peak fertility. Critically, aggression over the long term had a greater effect than violence in the immediate context of mating. 

This aggressive disposition apparently leads directly to reproductive success. So male domestic violence isn’t all bad?

Elephants in musth – which literally means ‘drunk’ – have very highly elevated testosterone levels, but how this links to aggression is unclear. Sapolsky has much to say about cause-correlation between testosterone -and androgens generally – and aggression in humans, which is relevant here. Social learning appears to play an important role in male aggression, which raises testosterone levels, and so we have a chcken-and-egg issue. As to elephants, the aggression they display during musth makes close scientific analysis a bit problematic, but it’s known that the secretion of temporin from the temporal glands in this period, and the accompanying swelling of those glands, causes irritation, which can be acute in some cases. This extreme irritation may cause aggressive behaviour, as when Dad kicks the cat after Mum has berated him for the previous two hours. Interestingly, aggressiveness, sometimes murderous, in young bull elephants, most often happens in the absence of older males. Their presence has a tempering effect. In any case, the violence displayed during musth, which is the male reproductive period, seems more of a side-effect than a ‘turn-on’ for females. Older males learn to use this period effectively, becoming more energetic in moving around and increasing territory in search of females, and preserving their energy during the warmer, non-musth months. 

Dolphins are not generally the fun-loving joyful creatures of contemporary myth, and male dolphins often gang up on females and rape them, to use a term humans like to reserve for themselves. I could go on, but the general point is that we, as humans, might want to learn how not to behave as well as how to behave from other species, especially those most like us – not just in their closeness genetically, but in their smarts, and in their negative or positive treatment of others, of their own and other species. 

References

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head 2017

https://asunow.asu.edu/content/aggression-male-chimpanzees-leads-mating-success

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

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2656.13035

https://slate.com/human-interest/2009/05/the-dark-secrets-that-dolphins-don-t-want-you-to-know.html

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160204-cute-and-cuddly-dolphins-are-secretly-murderers

Written by stewart henderson

November 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 13

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macho macho clan

Chinese culture – not so bonobo

I heard recently that the all-controlling Chinese government provides no sex education for its young citizens, and that the abortion rate is astronomically high there. The government as we know had a one-child policy, starting in the late seventies, and firming into law in 1980. It was abandoned in October 2015. Unsurprisingly, this involved forced abortions, even though abortion was made illegal there in the early 1950s. Anti-abortion law was gradually watered down in ensuing decades. The government in its wisdom, especially under Mao, saw population growth as the key to economic success. Deng Xiaoping, who became China’s numero uno in 1978, saw things differently as China’s population soared.  

Journalist Mei Fong, who wrote a book about the one-child policy, points out that, among many other negative effects, the policy led to widespread abortions of female infants, since in China as in most other countries, male offspring are more highly valued. Not the case, of course, for bonobos. 

Humans are the only apes who are capable of aborting the not-yet-born. They have also, throughout their history, engaged in infanticide, as have other animals. But of course another, rather recent development has had a powerful influence on our reproductive behaviour, that of contraception. Religious organisations, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, frown upon the practice, though their holy scriptures are of course mute on the matter, and practising Catholics worldwide have largely ignored church teachings, preferring pleasure to abstinence. Other Christian denominations, and Islamic and Hindu religious leaders tend to be more accepting, though there are no doubt conservative naysayers. 

Bonobos are highly sexual, though of course not as much as many humans, but they eschew contraception, and yet their birth rate is low, and infanticide has never been observed among them, unlike among chimps. Of course their genito-genital frottage is most often used to relieve tension, and generally among females – and more power to that – but more importantly, bonobos present themselves in estrus even when they can’t conceive. Their all-round availability to males – when they’re in the mood (males have occasionally had the tips of their penises bitten off by disgruntled females – and more power to that) means there’s less competition between male bonobos than there is between male chimps. The low birth rate is presumably explained by the fact that full-blown in-out-in-out is no more common among bonobos than it is among chimps. It’s also likely that year-round availability means that total rumpy-pumpy is spread out over the year and isn’t concentrated only in the fertile period. With bonobos, not every sperm is sacred.

Getting back to China and abortions, obviously if you have no way of discovering, through normal educational channels, the biological facts of pregnancy, and your family and local community, wedded to Confucian or other traditions of sexual modesty and general avoidance of discussing this all-too-basic animal instinct, that instinct might just get the better of you before you become aware of the consequences. So the Chinese authorities appear to have used abortion as an easy solution to the problem. With their peculiar top-down administration (peculiar to we in liberal democratic countries, but China’s communist party has essentially taken over the role of the all-powerful Manchu administration of previous centuries, so they’re used to it), the Chinese seem to have been persuaded in toto that abortion isn’t a moral issue. But of course there’s an exception – whereas in previous decades it was a duty to limit your offspring, now it’s becoming a duty to refuse sexually selected abortion, in favour of boys. This male-female imbalance has become a serious issue, brought about by a patriarchal administration blind to the problems created by the patriarchy that it continues to uphold. The Chinese Communist Party is of course no more communist than the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are democratic. It is a complex, multi-faceted, circumlocutory organisation, but its most important decision-making office is the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which consists of a handful of the most powerful political figures in the country, including the General Secretary (currently Xi Jinping). Since its full establishment in the 1950s, the PSC has had 57 members, of which 57 have been male. The CCP has in recent decades promoted capitalism, which it now calls, inter alia, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Whatever that means, it definitely does not allow for bourgeois liberalisation, a term deliberately singled out. Long story short, no sex education in schools – or very little, often too late. Homosexuality, in particular, is a touchy matter – and more power to that – which neither the government nor parents are particularly willing to confront.  However, it’s probably fair to assume that, as far as attitudes can change, they will do so in the right direction – towards a bonobo world, rather than away from it. 

Meanwhile, the impact of all this conservatism weighs more heavily on girls and young women, of course. And it’s not just in the matter of sex and pregnancy that Chinese females are getting a raw deal. Women in China have recently demonstrated, in small numbers, about such matters as the dearth of female public toilet facilities, and the very high rate of domestic violence in the country. And they’ve been punished for it, imprisoned, harassed, and belittled by government thugs, who also harass their families and workplaces into keeping them in line. Some of these women have become heroes of the international feminist movement, but are unknown in their own country due to the CCP’s stranglehold on the social media network. And yet, reform will gradually come. The mighty male Chinese government hates to be humiliated by protesting ‘little girls’, so it silences them and then, knowing full well the justice of the women’s cause, makes a few changes in the right direction. And maybe if they, the women, are lucky, the next General Secretary, though surely another male, will be a little more of a bonobo, and there will be just a little more free love and a little less domestic warfare in the land. 

References

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/04/one-child-story-china-most-radical-experiment-mei-fong-review

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-Communist-Party

https://ussromantics.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=8955&action=edit

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2020 at 12:05 am