an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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a bonobo world 34: bonobo and human families

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bonobos – family into community

In her brief, largely autobiographical book The heartache of motherhood, Joyce Nicholson captures many of the problems of married life and motherhood in the fifties and sixties, just before second-wave feminism became a thing. A mother of four, she sums up her experience:

In my case I wanted my first two children and managed well with them. Three I found difficult. Four were a disaster.

I’ve met at least one young woman recently who plans to have four children, but they’re few and far between. Women are choosing to ‘settle down’ into some sort of monogamous relationship, with children, rather later these days, and the current average number of children in today’s Australian family is between 1.8 and 1.9, so even having two is a bit too many for Australia’s human apes.

Other primates fare better – if that’s the word – in terms of birth, but keeping them alive is another matter. It’s a jungle out there. Bonobos average 5 or 6 births in a lifetime, about five years apart, and starting at about 13 years of age. Pregnancies last about eight months. Mothers have principal care of infants for the first six years or so, but of course bonobos are highly social beasts, unseparated by walls, so others are always there to help out. Bonobo females are sexually receptive all year round, and engage in face-to-face copulation (aka fucking, etc) regularly, whereas this attitude is very rare in chimps. In both bonobos and chimps several hundred copulations are required – if that’s the word – for each conception, whereas for human apes many zillions of copulations may be undertaken, and often are, with no intention to conceive. Nice work if you can get it.

Ah, but I was writing about families. Bonobos don’t separate into nuclear families of the modern human type (the provenance of this family type is a subject of intense debate, which I’ll explore later). That’s to say, they’re not monogamous like many species of birds and most humans. Both male and female bonobos tend to partner up indiscriminately and often briefly, regardless of sex or age. 

These days, in more affluent societies, we’re pretty demanding about what we want. Not too many kids, if any, and all of them as perfect as money can buy and science can create. As well as a long, very long, and fulfilling work-life balanced life, for all sexes. 

But this is really about what individuals want. Or what they require from and of their families, and from the wider society that is expected to support those families, with jobs and services. I suspect people are failing to realise that creating a successful family life – and I prefer the broadest possible definition of family – requires work. Not particularly hard work, but work nonetheless. Or maybe work is too strong a word, maybe a better word is focus. Bonobos seem to manage it quite well. 

Having said that, there’s an awful lot of pressure on the modern human family – pressure rarely felt by other primates and social species. For anyone who doubts this, I’d advise them to read Andrew Solomon’s monumental, essential work Far from the tree, which recounts the stories of families who have to deal with deafness, dwarfism, schizophrenia, autism, Down Syndrome, prodigies, homosexuality and severe intellectual and physical disability within their ranks. And it seems there are very few extended families these days that are untouched by such complications. Modern medicine, for example, has created viable human life forms which would never have survived more than a few weeks or months before the twentieth century. Other species, living in the wild – that’s to say, their natural environment – would, after giving birth to a litter of offspring, focus on the most viable, which might be all of them, but if one shows definite signs of what we would call disability, they’d be left behind. In modern human society – at least in the more affluent regions – this would be unthinkable, and probably criminal. And we’re approaching 8 billion human apes. Just how successful do we want to be? And then there’s religion and the supposed sacredness of human, and only human, life. Best not to get started on that one. 

But in spite of all the pressures, families continue, for better or worse. We seem to want the species to expand and to thrive, which means making sure that virtually every human ever conceived has a long, rich and fulfilling life, while maintaining biosphere diversity, reducing toxic waste, solving the global warming problem, increasing productivity, and of course reducing stress. There does seem to be a sense that we’re the victims of our own ambition. 

Bonobos are nowhere near so ambitious, and they don’t carry the caretaker responsibilities of the planet on their shoulders. Having a smaller brain, and an inability to see the forest for the trees, has distinct advantages. Their inward focus is on providing food and security for themselves and their offspring, and the wider group enveloping them. 

For us, that providing involves work, something that we’ve hived off from the rest of our lives. We do it in a different location, which might be just a different room if we’re working from home, but more often somewhere remote from the family we’re providing for – if we have one. And more often than not our work involves us in a hierarchy, of supervisors and less visible managers and unreachable CEOs. The work itself may or may not be fulfilling, but the hierarchical web is always something of a vague threat – ‘will you still pay me tomorrow?’

So there’s always this pressure – to survive, for some, to thrive, for others. Some version of a universal basic income could provide a solution to the survival problem – the currently ludicrous wealth disparities wouldn’t be noticeably reduced by such a dispensation. It’s the thriving problem that’s more intractable, as this is about systemic disadvantage, lack of opportunity, and problems of isolation, community, self-esteem and the like. In Jess Scully’s valuable book, Glimpses of Utopia, she writes of Aboriginal and other indigenous workers and what they value in their environmental work – work which they organise in their own way, the way of their culture. They tend to agree, wholeheartedly, that it is pride in what they are doing. Pride isn’t, of course, a monetary value. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative. It is one of the major factors missing from most hierarchical work situations, and of course it can’t be divvied out to people like the UBI. Scully writes about what might be seen as both supplementary and an alternative to a universal basic income, a form of work or activity that can provide those qualitative values, as well as bringing people together – universal basic services. More on that later.

It is this kind of activity, the kind which actually produces community, which is an extension of family and which blends family into community, that is often its own reward. It may be hierarchical – and we can no more escape hierarchy than bonobos can – but the hierarchy is less rigid and can shift with particular tasks and expertise. We need more of it, and we shouldn’t consider it in opposition to individualism. Individuals have no value without a community to evaluate them. And we humans – more than bonobos or any other apes – are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet.  

References

Joyce Nicholson, The heartache of motherhood , 1983

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

April 12, 2021 at 3:27 pm

Posted in bonobos, community, family, work

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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

the autodidact story 1: family and authority

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When I was young I was somewhat troubled about myself. I was unhappy at home, I hated school, I felt I had no-one to talk to, and my only solace was the ‘rich inner life’ that, much later, I read about in an essay by the philosopher Hilary Putnam. That’s to say, he wrote an essay in which he happened to mention that some outwardly nondescript people might have cultivated a rich inner life, or words to that effect, and this fairly mundane observation was the only thing I took from Putnam’s essay.

I had a difficult time with friendship, and still do. On my birthday – I was probably fourteen – I received a card from another boy I knew well. It read ‘to my best friend ever’. I read it with shock. It made me feel somehow ashamed and miserable. I felt that this friend of mine was deluded, and I’d been the cause of his delusion. Perhaps there was some arrogance in this – I felt that my ‘rich inner life’ was almost completely hidden from him, and everyone else, so how could he think he knew me well enough to consider me his BFF? However, when he left for England with his family a few months later I felt more alone than ever. 

I’ve never felt seriously suicidal, but I do recall a particular moment, when I thought, ‘this is who I am – a loner. I have to learn to live with it’. I cried myself to sleep, and went on. 

Of course, all autobiographies, whether short or long, are mostly lies, beautiful or otherwise, so don’t take any of this too seriously. My parents didn’t get on too well, to put it mildly, and my siblings were – rivals. We lived in one of the most thoroughly working-class regions of Australia, in the newly created town of Elizabeth, built around the manufactory of holden cars, now deceased. My father worked there for a brief time, but he didn’t like working in factories, and I don’t blame him, having worked in quite a few myself. Unfortunately he couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he didn’t do anything much, and my mother was the nagging, harried breadwinner. My relationship with both of them during my teen years could fairly be described as toxic.

We did have books however. Encyclopedias, classics, and surprisingly modern fare, especially in the new feminist line, such as The female eunuch, Patriarchal attitudes, The feminine mystiquue and The second sex. I don’t know where all these books came from, they just always seemed to be there. My mother insisted on getting us to the library regularly, for which I’ll always be grateful, but I rarely saw her reading anything. She had a higher-up job in the nursing profession and when she got home she’d always flip the TV from the ABC to her favourite sit-coms, I love Lucy or The Dick Van Dike show. As for my father, I often wondered if he knew how to read. But these people bestowed upon me their genes, more or less equally, and that was a source of wonder. Was I smart?

We had come to Australia as ten pound migrants, and I had flickering memories of the boat trip – a camel train on the banks of the Suez, being saved from drowning in the ship’s pool, sitting with a group of kids while my mother, seconded as an educator, taught us spelling or something.  

Education. I became a teenager in 1969. It was a fantastic time for music, and the culture that came with it. I looked out the window at my brother and his friends and they were all wearing levis and it looked so cool. My older siblings were buying records – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones, and some now-embarrassing singles like ‘Little Arrows’ by Leapy Lee. Not long afterwards came Dylan and Cohen and I loved all that cool verbiage. Was I smart? I didn’t like school. I couldn’t talk to the teachers like other kids. I didn’t like the inequality, that they might know more than me. I didn’t like being told what to do. I liked to read, to learn stuff in my own way. I didn’t have an imaginary friend exactly, but I was always talking and arguing in my head, and felt the lack of the real thing.  

One day I was somehow invited to some kid’s house whose older sister was visiting from university. Did she live in the university? There was a crowd of kids and I could just see glimpses of the girl-woman through arms and legs. She was sitting on a stool as on a pedestal and she was slim and pretty with neat blonde hair and lipstick and a neat plaid skirt and heels, and I was shocked at this first ever sight of a university student. They were supposed to wear jeans and sandals and tie-dyed t-shirts and be beautifully scruffy and hairy. Disappointing.

Anyway, I left school because I was always in trouble for not doing my homework, inter alia, and I had horrible fights with my mother when she wasn’t having horrible fights with my father, and my father had fist fights with me, which wasn’t much fun as he’d been a boxer in his past and I could see him eyeing me for maximum damage with his dukes up. I would stay at friends’ houses here and there, and I got my first job on an assembly line making Wilkins Servis washing machines. The one shown is of course a much earlier model than the ones I tended to stuff up when I worked there.     

And so my first experience of formal education was botched, and maybe I should blame myself, I don’t know. I continued to read of course, and to argue with myself. A rich inner life.

I read novels, mostly, in those days. I developed an obsession with Thomas Hardy. This was in my fifteenth year, I think. The Return of the Native was my first, and I think I read every single novel except A Laodicean, which critics said was his worst. I wanted to read it, for completeness, like Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I did read. I also wanted to know why it was considered so bad. I loved Thomas Hardy, he was so kind, it seemed to me, and so sad somehow.

(to be continued)

Written by stewart henderson

February 28, 2020 at 7:30 pm