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a bonobo world 32: bonobos and us

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female-dominated society (male version)

So let me look at the role of the adult female in the bonobo world. Why do they tend to be the bosses, in spite of being smaller on average than the males, and how did this come to be? If we can trace this, maybe we can find out how to live in a more female-dominated, peaceful, integrated and – yes maybe a more loving, even sexy community. 

Frans de Waal has described bonobo society as a gynecocracy, a pre-feminist term which simply means a society or culture governed by women, without going into detail, for example about matrilineal descent or inheritance. De Waal’s findings, mostly drawn from captive bonobos, have been criticised, but further confirmed by wild studies. 

Bonobos are initially hard to distinguish from chimps, from whom they separated, species-wise, 1.5 to 2 million years ago. They’re officially described as more gracile, meaning a little more slender, less robust, but I can’t easily see it myself. What I do notice is their charming middle-parted hairstyle, a la Marcel Proust or Oscar Wilde, which has earned them the title the gay ape. Or should have. Although omnivorous like clothed apes and chimps, they have a more vegetarian diet in practice than the other two, probably because they tend to be more arboreal and inhabit a more restricted area, south of the Congo River. The name bonobo is of course human-created, possibly deriving obscurely from a misspelling of Bolobo, a Congolese town. We don’t know how they refer to themselves. 

There’s been a lot of contentious but fascinating debate about the dating of the last common ancestor between clothed apes and the chimp-bonobo line. For a time the consensus seemed to be converging around a date of 6-7 million years ago, but the doubtless contentious work of Madelaine Bohme, published in a book, Ancient bones (2019)  pushes the date back by a few million years. 

Bonobos weigh on average between 35 and 40 kgs, and, standing, measure about 110cm. The females have prominent boobs compared to other unclothed apes, but nothing a human ape would want to slobber over. Generally they’re more physically divergent than chimps – so you’ve got your plain Janes and your beauty queens, your Adonises and your ghouls. Their bipedalism – or their use of bipedalism – varies with habitat and habituation. In captivity they use it more, as they spend less time in trees. 

It’s argued that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in a more stable, less threatened environment – the threats to them in the wild are entirely due to clothed, and weaponised, apes, against whom they are, of course, entirely defenceless. Chimps, on the contrary, occupy a wider range, and so, like clothed apes, tend to separate into distinct, competitive communities, who fight over resources and territorial ascendancy. The difficulty here is that, due to the dangerous conditions that have pertained in the Congo for many decades due to long-term clashes and survival struggles among clothed apes, bonobo behaviour has been difficult to analyse outside of zoos. But even under captivity, bonobos clearly behave differently and have a different societal structure than their close cousins the chimps. And this is what should get feminists much more excited than they are, IMHO. 

So, among the higher primates – humans, bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orangutans – bonobos are the only species in which the females have an equal or dominant role in the social organisation. I should perhaps make an exception of orangutans, the most solitary of all the higher primates. For this reason, the question of social hierarchy isn’t so relevant fo this species, though it’s notable that orangutan males are two to three times larger than females. Certainly there’s no question of females being dominant. 

The key, it seems, to the more prominent position of females in bonobo society, is female-female bonding, and female alliances. That’s why, I would argue, nothing is more important to the future of human apes than female alliances. It may take time, but I’m hoping we’ll eventually wake up to the essentiality of this phenomenon, for our continued success. The tight social bonding between bonobo females seems to have had a more general socialising effect, something that human apes, who have become increasingly isolated, competitive, covetous and demoralised by new class divisions, would do well to take note of.

In terms of what we need for a more successful, harmonious future, within and beyond our own species, I’m arguing for female prominence rather than dominance (though I do believe we’d be better off with the latter), and I believe we’re inching – with agonising slowness – in that direction, especially in so-called advanced, more science-based societies. Here’s part of Wikipedia’s most up-to-date account of bonobo social behaviour.

Different bonobo communities vary from being gender-balanced to outright matriarchal. At the top of the hierarchy is a coalition of high-ranking females and males typically headed by an old, experienced matriarch who acts as the decision-maker and leader of the group. Female bonobos typically earn their rank through age, rather than physical intimidation, and top-ranking females will protect immigrant females from male harassment. While bonobos are often called matriarchal, this is a trend rather than an objective fact. It is not unheard of for some communities to have a male who decides where the group travels to, and where they feed. However, these male leaders never harass or coerce the females, and they can choose to ignore his suggestions if they feel like it. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. A male derives his status from the status of his mother. The mother–son bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, and although the son of a high ranking female may outrank a lower female, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Relationships between different communities are often positive and affiliative, and bonobos are not a territorial species. Bonobos will also share food with others, even unrelated strangers. Bonobos exhibit paedomorphism (retaining infantile physical characteristics and behaviours), which greatly inhibits aggression and enables unfamiliar bonobos to freely mingle and cooperate with each other.  

I quote this passage at length because I feel there are various clues here to creating a more effective human society, on a global scale. Let’s be ambitious. Here are some of the clues:

  • respect for our elders, and keeping them within the community, rather than shuffling them off to nursing homes. This includes allowing them the right to die, when or if they feel their time has come
  • respecting knowledge and experience rather than physical strength or military might. Finding strength in unity of purpose, shared goals and experience in achieving those goals
  • recognising over-arching concerns shared by all nations, whether these be nations with officially-drawn (but often artificial) boundaries or nations of cultural identity – the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Cherokees, the Pitjantjatjara, etc – while recognising, respecting and learning from different cultural perspectives and methodologies.
  • respecting experience and knowledge over rank, and so creating a greater communal fluidity, and avoiding the accumulation of resources by a small elite group 
  • encouraging play and playfulness, youthful exuberance (especially among the no-longer-youthful) and free expression
  • being generally more forgiving and less punitive

Are such clues to an improved human society dependent on a more prominent role for females in that society?

Do bears shit in the woods? 

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

References

Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859

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

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 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? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3324566/

 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 6 – cultural dynamism, females, families and inhibitions

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the nuclear family – actually modern, not traditional

Most broadly, culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. No culture is static, though it may seem so when looked at from the viewpoint of a more dynamic culture. But why are some cultures more dynamic than others?

The Bronowski comment on taking ‘the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ echoes in my head when I reflect on this question. But ‘rational knowledge’ strikes a false note, as there isn’t any knowledge that is irrational. And the most essential thing that any animal, human or otherwise, must know is what to do to survive. Every species that has survived for any length of time has obtained that knowledge, and in a dynamic culture, one faced with external threats and challenges, both cultural and environmental, that knowledge must continue to grow. That’s the key to our ever-changing culture – social evolution rather than the kind of physical adaptations described in The Origin of Species. That is why, for example, we have belatedly come to realise that women deserve as much opportunity, to be educated, to be productive, and to be leaders in any field they choose to enter. It is why Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’ series, with its more or less exclusively male examples of strength and aptitude, seems cringeworthy after only a few decades. 

The argument of course goes that man, like the Latin, homo, is simply a generic term for the species, and we (i.e women) should just get over it. The origins of the words woman and female are complex, but surely it’s clear that they are add-ons to the words man and male, afterthoughts like the woman in the Bible created from a man’s rib. In French, the word femme appears to be quite different from homme, but femme means wife as well as woman, the implication being that one’s wife is also one’s woman. No such implication exists for the word homme. The cultural implications of our everyday terminology continue to be impactful, and awareness of these implications is more important, I feel, than artificial changing of the language, helpful though this may be. 

Of course, no environment is static either, and animals need to be quick to adapt to new environmental threats. The paleontological record is full of species that failed in this regard. Arguably, we may do so too, if the threat is too overwhelming, but surely nothing is currently in the offing, in spite of some doomsayers. The global warming we’re currently experiencing, for example, is far less threatening to our superabundant species than was the Toba eruption of 70,000 years ago, during the last ice age (though its effects, too, are disputed). Global warming is an existential threat, however, for many other species, already pushed to the brink by deforestation, overfishing and other human activities. Yet many will say that our ingenious species – by which they generally mean the dominant culture within our species – is even better at finding solutions than creating problems. And there are many good news stories, even in relation to those other species that we keep threatening. This is indeed the ray of hope, for our species and for others. It’s my view that, if we succeed in the future, it will be because we have gradually become more compassionate, more inclusive, more frugal and more collaborative, without losing the adventurous, questing, scientific spirit that has made us so successful. 

In describing this possible future I’ll strive to be realistic and evidence-based, and that’s where the example of bonobos comes in, for this description of a future humanity fits loosely the bonobo society – without quite the scientific spirit of course. I will not be idealising bonobo society, but there are increasing problems in our culture (and note that I’m always talking about those of ‘western’ or westernised nations – western Europe, the USA, Australia and Canada – but also Japan, Korea and Taiwan) – problems relating to family, work, resources and government – that might benefit from our understanding of cultures, and species, we feel we have transcended, and the bonobo way of life is a prime example of this. 

The modern human family is more or less nuclear, indeed like the nucleus inside a cell, though we call it a house, or a home. The walls of the house are like a semi-permeable membrane, with doors and windows through which nutrients and chemicals can be funneled, and of course information about the outside world arrives via books, magazines and, increasingly, electronic devices. Of course, some of these families are more functional and happy than others, and a child’s early fate is a matter of luck in this respect. Extended families – grandparents and cousins who live within walking distance – have become rarer, as have long-term neighbours and lifelong friends, due to the increasing mobility of modern life. In my own case, growing up under a seriously dysfunctional parental situation, and separated by migration from the extended family 15,000 kilometres away, I was grateful for a deeper connection to the outside world resulting from books, of which our home always had an abundance. One book which made a deep impression on me in my early teens was Children of the Dream, by Bruno Bettelheim. Of course, I came to the book with a particular hope that there were better ways of raising children than what I’d experienced, so I was bound to see it in a positive light. Regardless of the reality of the kibbutz experiment, what I found in the book’s descriptions opened up for me other options, including richer, more varied and positive relations with elders as well as peers, and a wider sense of belonging than I was experiencing. Trust, acceptance, and a nurturing of challenge and growth, these were the values that meant most to me, and which I found missing both at home and in the school environment I’d been thrown into. Yet it’s also true, or quite likely, that certain events and experiences in my early life, largely hidden from myself, have made it difficult for me to trust and to connect in positive ways. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal study that has been carried out over 50 years now, provides solid evidence of the overwhelming influence of early childhood on subsequent personal development, noting that personality types are established early on in life. My own self-diagnosed type – and the study describes five – is ‘reserved’, bordering on ‘inhibited’. The latter can be a serious problem, which the Japanese describe as hikikimori, roughly translated as ‘acute social withdrawal’, though the problem is hardly confined to Japanese youth. I think, however, I’ve been saved from this acute state by the world of books and ideas, which I love to discuss, when I can bring myself to get out there and do so. 

References

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

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

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/3052639/where-word-woman-comes-and-how-it-has-evolved

Bruno Bettelheim, Children of the Dream, 1969.

Dunedin Study Findings: The Importance of Identifying Personality Types at a Young Age, by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Written by stewart henderson

November 3, 2020 at 12:04 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world? 4

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a group of Rapa Nui people, photographed in 1895

Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, and was thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through paleobotanical analysis. However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse. According to Deutsch, following Bronowski, the self-destructive behaviour of the natives was a counter-example to the ‘ascent of man’ or ‘the beginning of infinity’ that Deutsch admires in the form of the short-lived but brilliant ancient Athenian culture, and in modern scientific humanity. However, I feel that both Deutsch and Bronowski have over-simplified and thus seriously distorted Rapa Nui culture to make their case, and that these kinds of distortions can be generalised to show that many of us still treat other cultures in a dismissive and hubristic way, when a more open and sympathetic understanding can only improve our own culture, at a time when, arguably, our future isn’t quite as rosy as we would like it to be.   

In his account of the Rapa Nui cultural collapse – which certainly did occur – Jared Diamond is more sympathetic. With the help of scientific associates, he examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that deforestation is more severe on: 1) dry islands than wet islands, 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands, 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands, 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it, 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume, 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it, 7) low islands than high islands, 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed … we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. However, there’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, with some claiming it may have been as much as 15,000 – a large number for such a tiny island, when the inhabitants had to depend entirely on that island’s resources. But these numbers are very rubbery, as is the length of time that these Polynesian adventurers had been inhabiting the island – anywhere from 800 to 2700 years. I am reminded of similar uncertainties and debates about Australia’s first inhabitants; dates range from 45,000 to 80,000 years, and the populations are anybody’s guess, but that doesn’t stop researchers from guessing. Surely there would have been wide fluctuations in the populations over time, as the climate warmed and cooled. In any case, the Rapa Nui population was supposedly reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, though how this figure was arrived at is a mystery. Clearly Roggeveen didn’t take a count, and the Rapa Nui people were not in a position to keep written records. Unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much but certainly not all of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I cannot of course vouch for the truth of this new interpretation of Rapa Nui culture, despite hoping that it’s more accurate. What is definitely true and uncontroversial is that the arrival of Europeans, and the diseases they brought with them, was far more devastating for the Rapa Nui people – as well as Australia’s Aborigines – than anything they ever did to themselves. 

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Indigenous_Australians#:~:text=A%20cumulative%20population%20of%201.6,currently%20the%20most%20heavily%20populated.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-02/bu-eis020620.php

Written by stewart henderson

October 28, 2020 at 11:21 pm

a bonobo world?:3

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Burke and Wills, leaders of a naive and disastrous expedition

 

Introduction: The small world of bonobos, continued

Another example is given In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, where he tells the tale of the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition, an attempt to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. In his generally riveting 1963 book on the expedition, Cooper’s Creek, Alan Moorehead devotes only a few lines to the Yandruhwanda, many of whom died in the 1919 flu pandemic. The last member of this once-thriving group died in 1979. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern Europeans transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

Bonobo society it seems to me, offers some interesting examples of how to improve on human society, in its most dominant ‘western’ form, and these examples can be divided, perhaps arbitrarily, into a handful of interconnected topics, such as violence, compassion, sexuality, resources, family and work. First, though, I should address the general concept of culture, and whether the social organisation of bonobos, and other intelligent highly social animals, really have it.

Chapter one – Culture

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyerdahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

References

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, Picador Books 2018

Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, Hamish Hamilton 1963

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

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking 2005

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, Pelican 2011

Jacob Bronowski, The ascent of man, BBC documentary series, 1973

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island – where giants walked – Fall of Civilizations documentary 

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV documentary

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2020 at 1:49 pm

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 2

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1. the small world of bonobos

Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of their social relationships, and our own. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to follow, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller on average than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them more like living examples of our direct ancestors than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 

 

References 

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

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

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/bonobo#:~:text=Total%20bonobo%20population%20numbers%20are,is%20rapidly%20destroying%20the%20rest.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/why-did-octopuses-become-smart/593155/#:~:text=Cephalopods%20do%20not.,that%20chimps%20or%20dolphins%20do.

Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 pm

the bonobo world 3: other cultures – Rapa Nui

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Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern ‘Europeans’ transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

So I want to look at a topic I’ve stumbled upon often in recent times to see what I, if no-one else, can learn from it. It concerns the success or failure of a culture.

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyardahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, triangular in shape, and thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through . However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse.

Jared Diamond, with the help of scientific associates, examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that:

Deforestation is more severe on:

1) dry islands than wet islands. 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands. 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it 7) low islands than high islands 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed in this book, we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. There’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, though it may have been as much as 15,000. It was reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, or so the story goes – unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I’ll have more to say on this topic, and the fate of the Rapa Nui people, in my next post.

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV, documentary video written and presented by Dr Jago Cooper

 Easter Island – Where Giants Walked: Fall of Civilisations, documentary video presented (and written?) by Paul Cooper

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

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2020 at 8:27 pm