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women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part two

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So what damage is Trump doing to the US political system? He sets an example of deceit, disrespect, adversarialism and other negative qualities. He highlights these sorts of qualities as a route to worldly success. He undermines all the essential institutions of western democracy, especially an independent press and judiciary. His belligerence and lack of co-operation with judicial authorities may lead to further damage, including serious civil unrest, of a kind not seen in the USA for decades, or longer. We’ll see what happens.

So that is the problem of Trump, as all reasonable people see it. Having said that, I have some optimistic and some pessimistic comments to add.

I should start with the pessimistic stuff, so that I can end on a positive note.

Trump is the proverbial bull in a china shop. What do we do when we find a bull in a china shop, blundering about, smashing up everything, just being a bull? We take steps to get him out of there, pronto. And being enlightened souls, we don’t want to punish him for being what he can’t help being. A tranquilising dart might be the best answer, though this may make him thrash about all the more, at least for a time. We try to protect the shop as best we can, knowing that some damage will be inevitable.

However, Trump is a bull with friends and enablers, some of whom see him as a mighty stallion trampling over the spoils of the undeserving, while others see him as, for various reasons, a most useful bull. Still others see him as pure entertainment. They’re prepared to fight to prevent this bull from being removed from this china shop…

That’s roughly the present situation. As I’ve stated before, Trump is no Nixon, he won’t go quietly. He would rather barricade himself in the White House than resign. He would argue that a sitting President can’t be charged, he would refuse to co-operate with impeachment proceedings, and this would create a situation far worse than a constitutional crisis.

That’s the problem, the pessimistic stuff, and frankly I’ve no idea how this will be resolved. The worst case scenario is serious civil strife, of a kind not seen on American soil since the civil war, and Trump being Trump, I honestly can’t see a best case scenario that doesn’t involve violence of some kind, hopefully only to Trump himself, so as to prise him out of office. Given that scenario, tranquilising mightn’t be such a bad idea.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the optimistic stuff, the silver lining, the lessons learned. Clearly, post-Trump, the American political system needs some restructuring, just as a town might do after being severely damaged by an unanticipated storm, one that could always strike again.

Trump has revealed serious failings in political and judicial structures. In fact he’s been revealing them for decades, from what I’ve gathered, as he has emerged largely unscathed from a lifetime of extortion, standover tactics, unpaid debts and dishonest deals and enterprises. He has surrounded himself with similarly shady characters; fixers, mobsters, goons and corruption merchants of all stripes. His success mirrors the failures of law and order in ways that I’m not equipped to deconstruct, but it’s surely true that these are failures.

Trump’s list of dodgy deals and litigations should have excluded him from candidature for high office, but there seems to be very little vetting for the position of President, something which seems to be a matter of pride in some circles. You don’t want just anyone to become your head of state, and democracy, to give away a nasty but surely open secret, doesn’t guarantee the best leadership. That is why the separation of powers is so important.

So these are two areas that need some work, post-Trump; tighter rules and vetting for Presidential and other political candidature, and a tightening and bolstering of the separation of powers. I would also like to see white-collar crime pursued far more vigorously, but again I’m not equipped to go into detail on this. Another area of concern in the light of Trump’s assaults is the media and its protection. It would be hard to quantify the damage Trump has done in this area with his ‘fake news’ meme. Lying is, of course, not a crime, or we would all be criminals, but the massively irresponsible behaviour of a head of state who lies about virtually everything, and who regularly denigrates and abuses those who speak obvious truths to power – a major media role – shouldn’t go unpunished. The media should be given greater legal means to fight back against this denigration. Getting more into the detail – producing tax returns should be absolutely mandatory for all political candidates, with no exceptions and strictly enforced, and the ’emoluments clause’ in the constitution, an out-dated piece of verbiage describing gifts from members of the nobility, should be upgraded and strengthened to prohibit those in high office to profit directly from their position.

On the separation of powers, so regularly attacked by Trump out of wilful, self-serving interest: many are unaware that this separation serves the important purpose of limiting democracy. Limiting demagoguery in this case. Among the checks and balances which seek to defuse the danger of a directly elected President, beholden to no party or principle, are an independent judiciary, an independent fourth estate, and a system of independent or bipartisan vetting of those nominated by the President for such Level One positions as Secretary of State. This separation of powers needs to be strictly adhered to and supported by law to the extent that regular attempts to undermine this separation, as is practiced by this President, should be seen as obstructing the rule of law and dealt with severely.

There need to be other checks and balances of course – checks on the media itself and on such organisations as the Department of Justice, which according to Alan Dershowitz and others beside the President, is pursuing Trump beyond the scope of its mandate. I’m not sufficiently au fait with these checks, which should of course include defamation laws to protect public personae, to make effective comment, but the scope of the Mueller enquiry is a matter of public record. There is no doubt that the Mueller enquiry has been given wide powers, but there is also no doubt that Russian interference in the 2016 election was considerable, and the indictments of many Russian citizens and entities as a result of the probe have supported this. There is also no doubt that Trump’s businesses in recent years have been linked to Russian oligarchs, as freely admitted by Donald Trump Jr, and that Trump has been extremely reluctant to make accusations against Russia and its dictator in light of clear evidence of interference which benefitted his Presidential bid. It’s highly likely that the probe has found clear evidence of conspiracy with a foreign power during the 2016 elections, to say nothing of obstruction of justice in the ousting of James Cohen and possibly also Andrew McCabe. The constant denigration of the Department of Justice and the FBI by the current President is of course unprecedented, and will require, I think, unprecedented responses in order to preserve and reinforce the separation of powers and to ensure that lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers can do their jobs without having to face the kind of treatment meted out to them by the likes of Trump and his enablers.

So, finally, no more from me about Trump, I hope. There are threats and opportunities here. The immediate threat to civil society comes from a bull who won’t go quietly, who will be supported by some powerful allies in defying authority, with possibly disastrous immediate consequences. The opportunity, as always with disasters of this sort, is to improve the political system to ensure that this is the first and last rogue President to disgrace the White House. Good luck with all that.

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2018 at 11:57 am