an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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a bonobo world: the ascent and fall of man

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                                  devil woman, with evil on her mind

Bonobos obviously evolved from some earlier type, along with chimps, but we’re not as interested in their evolution as we are in ours, understandably enough. What wouldn’t we give to fill in the gaps in our rise – the where and when of the first use of fire, the first spoken language, the beginnings of religious practice and so on? And of course none of us will live long enough to find out if bonobos, left alone (which they won’t be), become more gynocratic or less in the distant future, let alone whether we humans will eventually manage to live for as long as some tortoises I’ve heard about.

We human apes, of course, have socially evolved, especially over the past few thousand years, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out regularly in the series so admired by Deutsch. Yet interestingly, there was a kind of evolution that Bronowski himself, and the producers of The Ascent of Man, seemed not to have arrived at by 1971. I haven’t watched the entire series, only the two episodes and other bits and pieces I’ve found on YouTube, because I’m too poor to pay for the entire series, but having watched the first episode more than once, I felt bugged by all this ‘man’ stuff. So I did a count. Bronowski utters the word ‘man’ 70 times, together with the pronouns ‘he’ (29 times), ‘his’ (23) and ‘him’ (12). The words ‘woman’ ‘she’ and ‘her’ are uttered zero times in toto by my count. In terms of imagery, only two human figures are focussed on apart from Bronowski, a male child learning to stand on two feet, and a male athlete running and pole vaulting. But of course, by ‘man’ he means ‘human’, right? And, hey, this was the beginning of the seventies, right? Which was almost the sixties, really quite close to the fifties…

I’m not even a woman but I felt like I was having my female irrelevance bashed into my face in listening to all this – a bit like a sleeping woman who only realises she’s being clouted when she wakes up. And all this man stuff didn’t suddenly end with the seventies – I’m reminded of a book, God, actually, which I read at the tail end of the New Atheism flare-up a few years ago. It was a dreadful piece of drivel seeking to prove the existence of the Judaeo-Christian god and to debunk evolution, which, against the advice of my betters, I managed to read to the end. Yet nothing in the male author’s specious arguments irritated me more than his deliberate use of ‘man’ as a generic term (though I was more irritated at the publisher, ABC books of all people). At one point, after reading the ‘man’ word about fifteen times in a couple of pages, I threw the book across the room in disgust. It seemed far more of an attack on women than on atheists.

But perhaps the title ‘The Ascent of Man’ was meant as a clever science-and-human development counterpoint to the religious ‘Fall of Man’ trope? Or at least, let’s pretend. The fall of man really was male, of course, and it was caused by woman. Or, if you like, by god, who should’ve left that spare rib alone. Not that this little fable was necessary to create a viciously misogynistic society, as witness the ancient Greeks (with apologies to the Spartans). Still it did a fine job of making life hot for women, long before the witch-burning frenzy of the fifteenth,  sixteenth, seventeenth  and eighteenth centuries (to be precise, the last woman known to have been burnt to death as a witch was Barbara Zdunk in Poland in 1811, and the first known execution of a witch, recorded by Demosthenes, was of Theoris of Lemnos, and her family, some time before 323 BCE, though it’s likely that witch-hunting, torture and execution predates this). Since all the early Christian writers and power-wielders were men with natural sexual desires, and since they’d gotten into their collective heads a fear and hatred of sexual desire as a straying from the endless and more or less brainless contemplation of the divine, women, the ‘daughters of Eve’ (though women were generally supposed, at least by the elites who pretended to understand such things, to be the carriers of the human seed without contributing to it) became the collective scapegoat. Basically, women were encouraged to be the objects of men’s desires, and exploited as such, and then blamed for it. Here’s the early Christian writer Tertullian, as memorably quoted by Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?

As many feminist writers have pointed out, the exploitation of, and the ill-treatment, murder and general public opprobrium of sex workers of all varieties has never really abated, despite the so-called sexual liberation that began decades ago. What these religious and conservative types would think of bonobo shenanigans is an interesting question, but not particularly relevant for the future of humanity, whether it’s headed upwards or down. For the future lies with those who are open and attentive to the behaviour of our relatives. Bonobos’ use of sex isn’t obsessive, or particularly excessive. What is excessive and obsessive is our fear of sex, and our need to control it, to hide it, to wrap it in bonds of ownership, to weaponise it. We’re so  absurdly uptight about it, so incapable of normalising it as a need, a feeling, an appetite, a social bond, a pleasure.

The fall, indeed. We’ve fallen for so many myths about sex. When will be able to rise above all that, and be kinder to each other? Not until women are on top, I’m pretty sure.


The Ascent of Man, Ep. 01 “Lower Than the Angels” (YouTube video)

Roy Williams, God, actually, 2010, ABC Books & HarperCollins

Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2021 at 9:32 pm