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a bonobo world 30: touching on science, and adversarial systems

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I love this quote from Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand ‘provincial’ who became one of the most brilliant experimental physicists of the turn-of-the century physics revolution:

… experiment, directed by the disciplined imagination either of an individual, or, still better, of a group of individuals of varied mental outlook, is able to achieve results which far transcend the imagination alone of the greatest philosopher.

from Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, p225

We’ve far transcended the bonobos in our experimental and tool-making skills, and in our varied mental outlooks, but it seems to me the teamwork is lacking, or at least it’s often outdone by over-competitiveness and mutual suspicion. Science, the bid to find the best explanations for our own workings and the working of the universe around us, and the best way forward for our species and all that connects with us, has long struck me as the best activity to unite us as Homo sapiens. Of course, the scientific community, being human, is driven by competition and personal glory to a large degree, but the smiles I see on the faces of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose images are all over the internet at present, would hardly strike anyone as smug or self-congratulatory, and they’re clearly happy to share the glory and to educate anyone prepared to listen about the meaning of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing breakthrough, and to give all credit where credit is due to their collaborators and precursors. 

I’m not being naive here, methinks. Having read Venki Ramakrishnan’s Gene Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, and knowing of the battles over atomic theory which may have led to Ludwig Botzman’s suicide, I’m well aware that scientific competition can be pretty fierce. However, I don’t believe it’s anywhere near as ideological as politics or law. Generally the goal of science is something all scientists have in common – that best explanation. That is not the case with many other fields of activity. Here is what I wrote in 2011 about what I call ‘macho’ adversarial systems that continue to blight human society. 

1. Politics.

Some thirty years or so ago I read a book which had as profound a political influence on me as anything I’ve ever read. It was written by the Roman historian Livy and it bore the the title The history of the Roman Republic or something like that [in fact Livy’s monumental history, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Chapters from the Foundation of the City’ covered the whole ground from the myths of Rome’s founders to the early empire under Augustus, in Livy’s own time, and the book I read was presumably a translation of the first half or so]. What astonished me about the book, much of which was made up of speeches from political leaders [a trick he clearly learned from Thucydides] was, to me, its modern relevance. It told the story of two political factions or sides, or perhaps parties, the Patricians and the Plebeians, and of how political power swung from one side to another on a regular basis. However, as is the case in modern politics, this regularity wasn’t particularly regular. Depending on the persuasiveness and charisma of particular leaders, and on external pressures [and corruption of course also had a role], one side might hold sway for an extended period. Many of the issues discussed – taxation, wealth and land ownership and/or redistribution, security and military expenditure, had a familiar ring, and some approaches struck me as profoundly socialist, some two thousand years avant la lettre. Naturally all this made me consider the modern left and the modern right from a more interesting ‘longitudinal’ perspective. But another thing that struck me was the quite viciously adversarial world Livy described. When the political pendulum inevitably swung against them, those who were ousted from power were, equally inevitably, accused of treason, corruption, and/or both, and driven into exile or, probably more often, summarily executed or forced into suicide. Yet quite often their policies were followed by their successors, in spite of much rhetoric about ‘winding things back’. It all left me wondering why anybody in their right mind would pursue a public, political career under such circumstances. It may well have been that civic virtue, or the kudos gained from serving the public in the role of consul or quaestor, was regarded so highly that the inherent dangers were swept aside, or even seen as a worthy feature of the job [think of a career in the armed forces – heroism always has its appeal].

Domestic politics isn’t quite as threatening as it once was, but it still seems sometimes pointlessly adversarial. Notably, in many of the areas where a sensible person might expect a bipartisan approach, such as immigration and climate change, the parties are most determined to be at loggerheads. Maybe it’s because they’re so close together on these issues that they can see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, and this drives them into a frenzy of acrimony. It’s true that Tony Abbott appears to be a climate change ignoramus, but he’s also a pragmatist, and he knows that, if he finally gets in, he’ll have to come up with some sort of scheme to tackle climate change, and it won’t be heaps different from Labor’s. The rest is just spoiling, and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. As for the asylum seeker issue, it should be a minor one considering the numbers involved, but the opposition has whipped and frothed it up for all it’s worth, not caring about the fact that one day they’re complaining about the government’s softness, and the next day they’re decrying government inhumanity. As long as they get to hurl abuse. I know I’m not the only one who finds all this childish and patently dishonest, but most people seem to just consider it a political game that has to be played. I wonder why? Is it so that we can feel superior to all those dishonest pollies? Or is it that this really is the best way to forge policy and to make reforms, in the teeth of vehement opposition. Maybe being collaborative makes for worse policy, I don’t know. There just seems so much expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

2. Law

Again, I’m never sure if I’m missing something, but the adversarial legal system has always struck me as weird. I felt the same way about debating clubs as a kid – I had no interest in finding clever arguments for a position I didn’t believe in, I wanted to argue for what I believed, and to listen to others and gladly concede to them if their argument went deeper and uncovered things I hadn’t thought of. Getting to the truth, or to the most convincing and evidence-backed account, that was the thing. But of course there are other serious considerations with this approach to law. Some lawyers are more skillful, experienced and convincing than others, and lawyers can be bought. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand how a lawyer can do all in his power to defend or prosecute someone whose guilt or innocence he isn’t sure of, out of a ‘professionalism’ from which all moral qualms are removed, if that’s possible. This is probably naive of me, and I know that in these matters almost everyone is compromised by vested interest – the police want to see their arrests vindicated, the victims and their families want revenge, the lawyers want to improve their win/loss ratios, the accused want to get off, etc. Only the judge [and/or jury] is expected to uphold some sort of claim to objectivity, thus becoming the target of all the persuasive powers of the defence and prosecution teams, who seek to take advantage of every quirk and tendency they might perceive in the judge or the jurors. All of which makes me feel not quite right.

I know that in some countries a non-adversarial judicial system has been adopted, but I’m completely vague on the details. I do know that it’s a system heavily criticised by the proponents of the adversarial system, on what grounds and with what legitimacy I’m not sure. I’ve also heard that it hasn’t necessarily produced better or fairer outcomes. I’m also at a loss as to how such a non-adversarial system is financed, without accused persons being able to pay top dollar for the best lawyers. However, I can’t help but intuitively feel that a non-adversarial, collaborative system, in which everybody has the same aim, to uncover the truth surrounding a particular crime or alleged crime, would in principle be a better approach.

3. Work

I presume that ever since we began to divide labour – that is, from the beginning of civilisation – work and power have been intimately related. In fact, it’s only in recent times, with the growth of the idea of universal human rights and the notion of inherent, individual human dignity, that we’ve come to see that people shouldn’t necessarily be devalued according to the type of work they do. The otherwise brilliant Aristotle notoriously wondered whether slaves were capable of consciousness, and this, I would guess, was not due to their inherent status [he knew well enough, surely, that today’s battalion commander could become tomorrow’s slave to forces victorious over him], but to the menial work he or she was forced to do. Similarly when the novelist V S Naipaul [whose work and character I’ve always loathed] recently declared himself to be a superior writer to every female who has ever taken up a pen, he based this ‘knowledge’ on female work, as he saw it. Women, or women writers, had never been estate managers or big bosses or whatever, and so could never see things from a superior male perspective.This idea that employers were inherently superior to ‘underlings’ has only gradually faded with the advent of the union movement and its ability to articulate the rights and grievances of such underlings. Mostly this has involved clashes, demonstrations and strikes, with the formation of employer groups to combat the rise of workers’ associations.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the world of work we’ve seen more positive moves towards a collaborative approach than in other areas. Work, in the west, has become more multifaceted and less rigidly specified, with a blurring of distinctions between types of work and the prestige attached to work, from parental roles and household tasks to management and other high-flying positions, and this has broken down the old us-and-them tradition to some extent. Not that there isn’t a place for good old-fashioned confrontation. Sometimes, as with the demonstration I participated in recently, the problem is that there is no clear ‘enemy’. Workers in the community welfare sector [where the percentage of women is high] are very poorly paid. Generally they’re paid by the government, which means their work is very insecure as governments and their pet projects come and go. Funding is ever a problem and it’s hardly surprising that turnover is very high. Targeting government becomes a problem when governments get turfed out and the next government hasn’t made the same commitment. The problem may well be in public relations – but I’m moving too far from my focus. The point is that, again in this area, a collaborative approach, recognising the mutual dependency of coalface workers and management [and often their inter-changeability] strikes me as inherently more productive. But maybe we’ve had to go through a certain period of mutual hostility, misunderstanding and misrepresentation to get to that stage.

 

So the above is ten years old, and the world of work – the growing gig economy, and increasing deregulation – is getting tougher for those without the right connections. A basic income provision, which might alleviate the problems caused by an increasing concentration of wealth, doesn’t seem to be supported fully by the left or the right, never mind the kind of bipartisan support required for success. But bipartisanship and collaboration is essential to face and overcome the problems we’re creating for ourselves. The thirty percent target for female involvement at all levels in these key fields is critical in creating this collaborative environment – though thirty percent isn’t enough. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2021 at 12:43 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? an outlier, but also a possibility: 1

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bonobo togetherness – who are the girls and who are the boys?

 

I’ve decided to focus on this very broad topic, and to write a book. Here’s my first (and in parts my second) draught

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

In these few introductory pages, I’ll be writing a little about myself, after which I’ll (try to) leave me behind. At least as a topic. Of course, I’m on every page, as is Max Tegmark in Our Mathematical Universe, or David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, or Johann Noah Harari in Homo Deus, or any writer of any other book of ideas, but in this opening I want to admit the lifelong passion I have for the set of ideas, or really feelings, I wish to explore here. They’re vital feelings, and big ideas, though they may come out as inchoate, or incoherent, in the telling. I probably feel most passionate about them because they seem so knocked about and pushed aside by the world I find myself in – though that world is always in flux and there are moments of inspiration.

 

It was in the mid 1980s that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I would have been in my late twenties, just beginning an arts degree as a ‘mature-age student’ at Adelaide University. I was living in a chaotic share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. Due to difficult family circumstances I’d left school at fifteen, and I’d fantasised for a while about being a complete auto-didact, the smartest fellow without a tertiary degree on the planet, or at least on the street, but I was frankly embarrassed at my poverty and my string of unpleasant and failed jobs in factories, offices, restaurants, and briefly, a hospital. My great solace, my way of maintaining pride in myself, was writing. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the books I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, reflections on the women I came into contact with – admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 13 years or so before I could buy my first computer.

 

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all despised or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

 

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy in these matters. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic airways condition – bronchiectasis – that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterest. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you perfectly,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

 

In fact I was obsessed to what I considered an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to pre-adolescence, when I imagined doing it, whatever it might be, with every attractive girl, and boy, within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly with my classmates, looking up and down the class line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

 

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and yes I did have one or two) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way. And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, and  a great motivator. But what if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

 

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the lifestyle and virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

 

So the following is an exploration of a world that seems worthy of study both for itself and for ourselves. We’re now the overwelmingly dominant species on the planet, and this is having strange contrasting effects, of hubris and despair. It’s also the case that we’re not one thing – our species is composed of cultures that seem to have little connection with each other, and multiculturalism is seen as having enriching as well as disastrous consequences. In such complex and dynamic circumstances, what do bonobos really have to teach us? The following is an attempt to answer that question in the most positive light.

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 pm