an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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bonobos and capitalism?

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Jacinta: The theme of capitalism has been playing in the back of my mind lately…

Canto: Really? Can you hum a few bars?

Jacinta: Well it’s a theme with many variations, so it’s hard to know where to start….

Canto: With bonobos? Are they capitalists?

Jacinta: Well, that’s the point, capitalism can be defined very broadly and inclusively, which would leave the anti-capitalists – people who define themselves as socialists or communists – with not much ground to stand on.

Canto: You mean like capitalising is what we all do to survive and thrive, like capitalising on balmy weather to spend a day at the beach?

Jacinta: Yes, but even the negative aspects of it might be inescapable, like capitalising on other living things for our food, by, uhh, eating them. Even vegetarians can’t avoid that.

Canto: But by eating the fruit of the tree, you’re not killing the tree. You’re even helping the tree to multiply, so long as you spit the seeds out, on fertile ground.

Jacinta: Yeah vegetarians always do that. But that’s sort of a good example of how hard it is to be ethical capitalists. Trees, like every other living thing, have evolved to multiply, so, in the most amazingly complex but non-sentient way, they cover their seeds, carrying their offspring, in tasty wrappings for insects and birds to peck or consume so that the seeds fall down or are blown away or shat out, and one in a few thousand ends up in the right spot to grow into another tree, just as one of a gazillion spermatozoa ends up in the right spot to grow another mammal. We humans, though, have taken capitalism to another level. Earlier states or civilisations, developments out of agricultural society, depended very much on the labour of slaves, or serfs, or villeins, in a system that more or less fossilised landed aristocracies. But it was a thoroughly capitalist system that worked, to the extent that it grew the human population, establishing us more than ever at the top of the food chain.

Canto: But surely most modern anti-capitalist thinkers have a much narrower view of capitalism. Does Marx have anything still to offer? Neo-Marxism?

Jacinta: I don’t know – but whenever I encounter a self-professed socialist or communist, and I occasionally do, I always want to ask them if they believe in democracy.

Canto: Well there are people, and parties, that call themselves social democrats. I assume that’s a kind of ‘soft socialism’, with the aim of convincing, or ‘educating’ the populace into viewing socialism, or at least a less hierarchical employer/employee system, a more distributed ownership of the means of production, a taxation system that favours the more disadvantaged, a quality education and healthcare system that favours the same, should get their vote every time, or more times than most.

Jacinta: Yes and there are political organisations like the Chinese Communist Party, which isn’t really a party at all, which give communism a bad name, if it ever had a good one. And there are thinkers who seem to define themselves as anti-capitalists, who seem to take the view that if we can only change the system, as so many young people are keen to do, and become less rapacious and more keen to care and share, the human world will be so much better.

Canto: And yet they never mention bonobos. That’s a shame. We get caught up with these ‘isms’, including conservatism and liberalism, and they box us in and make enemies of others. Bonobos have a society, but it would be silly to call it leftist or rightist, capitalist or socialist. Yes they capitalise on available resources, and they socialise with each other for fun and comfort and sex, which is also a form of capitalism, broadly speaking, but again labelling it this way seems a bit dumb.

Jacinta: Yes, to me, the key is to develop a sort of humanism which is more like bonoboism with all the big-brained human stuff thrown in. Modern science seems like that to me, I mean the practice. That community has its spats, as do bonobos, but mostly its collaborative and supportive. They need more sex perhaps, but, you know, sublimation and all that.

Canto: Yes, that’s interesting. There’s some hierarchical elements in the scientific community, with team leaders and stuff, but the focus isn’t so much on power, as it so often is in politics, the focus is on improvement – better data, better tools, better theories, better results, better connections.

Jacinta: Yes it’s generally a relief to turn to science, especially as an antidote to US-style politics, which is so absurdly divided. I think the social media world has very much exacerbated that situation. People have gotten stuck in their bubbles, and there’s so much hate talk, it’s exhausting.

Canto: So getting back to capitalism, I agree that it’s inescapable, and the key is what we call ‘mixed’ capitalism, and the disagreements are or should be about the degree of regulation, the degree of taxation, the degree of exploitation (of people, resources, land and so forth). That means coming together on boring things such as wage indexation, healthcare, education, housing, environmental protection, interest rates, crime and punishment and the like. Imagining that we can change the system in some holistic way by implementing a particular ideology just ignores ye olde crooked timber of humanity….

Jacinta: Our current federal government, cautiously centre left, seeking to be collaborative and so getting hit from both sides (but not too hard), seeking to mend fences with our neighbours, with some success, and looking to tackle a number of difficult issues re housing, global warming, our overdeveloped service economy and neglected and dying manufacturing sector – this new government has many challenges, as all governments do, but it has more women in it than any previous government, and many smart independent members. Collaboration across the political spectrum has never been more of a possibility, it seems to me, than ever. This is something that a diverse, active population needs, and will hopefully support, for a while. An opportunity worth capitalising on.




Written by stewart henderson

May 9, 2023 at 12:16 am

a bonobo world? 8 – hunter-gatherers, the agricultural revolution, capitalism and science

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We can see that human society, various though it is, has much in common with chimp society. Throughout human history, males have dominated females to an overwhelming degree, and large groups of males have fought to the death over territory, or over which dominant male should vanquish and control the territory of the other. Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of 500 years of political intrigue, betrayal and murder in a system where succession was never based on inheritance but only on political power and skill, with the military always prominent. 

It’s generally accepted that the ancestors of modern human apes engaged in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle from at least 2 million years ago. This very successful lifestyle was dominant until the development of agriculture a mere 12,000 years ago. While there’s much debate on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, the dominant view is that they were more egalitarian than post-agricultural societies, and also chimp societies. Recent research also suggests that the success of the hunter-gatherer system, with its sexual division of labour, enabled Homo sapiens to outcompete Homo neanderthalensis as they spread across the globe. However, it’s unlikely that this lifestyle and social system was invariant across regions or time, and evidence found about one group will not stand for all. Technologies varied, as did diet and climatic conditions. In some of these societies, women joined the hunt, or hunted with other women, depending on the type of quarry being hunted and how the hunt was carried out. Kinship relationships in these early societies tended to be matrilineal, that is, descent through the female line is generally acknowledged, though this had little effect on inheritance among hunter-gatherers, as there is virtually nothing to inherit, except, perhaps, reputation. However, the gradual transition to a settled, agricultural lifestyle created a more routinised existence of digging, sowing, reaping, building and defending territory. Research has found that, in women as well as men, bones became bigger and harder during the early agricultural period. It could in many ways be described as a disastrous change in the short term, as workloads increased and diets became less varied. It certainly spelt long-term danger to other species, with deforestation, land degradation and the diversion of natural water-courses becoming increasingly widespread. The reliability of seasonal rains and sunshine became a focus, which led to the growth of religious rites and ceremonies, and to a class of religious intermediaries. As to gender roles, with the development of fixed dwellings, the males tended to do more of the field-work and the women became more home-bound, engaged in child-rearing, cereal processing and other food preparation. And naturally, with land itself becoming increasingly central, territorial conflicts and ownership hierarchies developed. The domestication of animals, together with the cultivation of fields, made these hierarchies more visible. If you laid claim to more land, you could produce more food, making others in the village more dependent upon you. We think today of wealthy people with more capital to invest or otherwise utilise, and interestingly, the word capital comes from the same Indo-European root as cattle, the first animals to be domesticated in large numbers. You might make this increase in your capital more tangible with a bigger dwelling and perhaps more ‘wives’ and dependents under your keeping. 

It certainly seems likely that the development of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle created a more patriarchal, and unequal, human society. Women spent more time ‘at home’ than they did in hunter-gathering times, and had more children. Recent research has also found that the regions which have had the longest history of an agricultural lifestyle have the most deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. 

In modern capitalist counties, inequality is obviously increasing, especially if you judge by that most capitalist of nations, the USA, which currently has the greatest income inequality in its history, and the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The gap between the super-rich and the merely rich in the USA has widened spectacularly over the past twenty-five years, and If we examine US wealth from a gender perspective we find that women own 32c for every dollar owned by men. Whether or not the gap between women and men’s wealth increases, I cannot envisage anything but an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US, as it is far more wedded to libertarian mythology than any other nation. 

It’s my belief, though, or maybe it’s a mere hope, that less atomistic societies, such as we find in Asia, may ultimately lead us to the way of the bonobo – a society with less internal strife, less rigid hierarchies and inequalities, a greater sense of togetherness and mutual concern, and even more relaxation and play. 


Some years ago the philosopher A C Grayling gave a talk in Australia, which I heard on Radio National. He spoke of two visits he made in the region of Geneva, to the headquarters of the United Nations, and to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was stuck by the contrast between the genial, collaborative atmosphere at CERN, featuring scientists from over 100 nations, and the testy, zero-sum nature of negotiations at the UN. 

Science has become more collaborative over time, and far less patriarchal over the last century, though there’s still some way to go. Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to decoding the structure of the ribosome, made many interesting points about the famous prize in his book Gene Machine. He notes the increasingly collaborative nature of science, and doesn’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Many people and groups in recent years have been given the prize – which is always life-transforming because it brings their name to the generally non-scientific public in one fell swoop – for simply being the first to solve a puzzle or make a discovery that many groups or persons were on the verge of making, within an atmosphere of generally collegial competition. It’s also noteworthy that, while the early Nobel Prizes in the sciences were awarded to individuals, this has become increasingly rare. I rather enjoy the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, and on into the twenty-first, both the collective nature of science and the female contribution to it have become increasingly recognised. I would like to think that the connection between collectivity and female participation is not coincidental. 

Of course, many early breakthroughs in science and technology are anonymous, and as such, seen as collective. Who invented the plow? The Sumerians maybe, or some other Mesopotamian or Indus Valley culture. Writing? Mesopotamia again, or maybe the Indus Valley or China, or separately by different cultures, possibly even in Rapa Nui. But nowadays, we’re keen to give individual recognition for any technological or scientific developments. 



Written by stewart henderson

November 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm