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a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 13

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macho macho clan

Chinese culture – not so bonobo

I heard recently that the all-controlling Chinese government provides no sex education for its young citizens, and that the abortion rate is astronomically high there. The government as we know had a one-child policy, starting in the late seventies, and firming into law in 1980. It was abandoned in October 2015. Unsurprisingly, this involved forced abortions, even though abortion was made illegal there in the early 1950s. Anti-abortion law was gradually watered down in ensuing decades. The government in its wisdom, especially under Mao, saw population growth as the key to economic success. Deng Xiaoping, who became China’s numero uno in 1978, saw things differently as China’s population soared.  

Journalist Mei Fong, who wrote a book about the one-child policy, points out that, among many other negative effects, the policy led to widespread abortions of female infants, since in China as in most other countries, male offspring are more highly valued. Not the case, of course, for bonobos. 

Humans are the only apes who are capable of aborting the not-yet-born. They have also, throughout their history, engaged in infanticide, as have other animals. But of course another, rather recent development has had a powerful influence on our reproductive behaviour, that of contraception. Religious organisations, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, frown upon the practice, though their holy scriptures are of course mute on the matter, and practising Catholics worldwide have largely ignored church teachings, preferring pleasure to abstinence. Other Christian denominations, and Islamic and Hindu religious leaders tend to be more accepting, though there are no doubt conservative naysayers. 

Bonobos are highly sexual, though of course not as much as many humans, but they eschew contraception, and yet their birth rate is low, and infanticide has never been observed among them, unlike among chimps. Of course their genito-genital frottage is most often used to relieve tension, and generally among females – and more power to that – but more importantly, bonobos present themselves in estrus even when they can’t conceive. Their all-round availability to males – when they’re in the mood (males have occasionally had the tips of their penises bitten off by disgruntled females – and more power to that) means there’s less competition between male bonobos than there is between male chimps. The low birth rate is presumably explained by the fact that full-blown in-out-in-out is no more common among bonobos than it is among chimps. It’s also likely that year-round availability means that total rumpy-pumpy is spread out over the year and isn’t concentrated only in the fertile period. With bonobos, not every sperm is sacred.

Getting back to China and abortions, obviously if you have no way of discovering, through normal educational channels, the biological facts of pregnancy, and your family and local community, wedded to Confucian or other traditions of sexual modesty and general avoidance of discussing this all-too-basic animal instinct, that instinct might just get the better of you before you become aware of the consequences. So the Chinese authorities appear to have used abortion as an easy solution to the problem. With their peculiar top-down administration (peculiar to we in liberal democratic countries, but China’s communist party has essentially taken over the role of the all-powerful Manchu administration of previous centuries, so they’re used to it), the Chinese seem to have been persuaded in toto that abortion isn’t a moral issue. But of course there’s an exception – whereas in previous decades it was a duty to limit your offspring, now it’s becoming a duty to refuse sexually selected abortion, in favour of boys. This male-female imbalance has become a serious issue, brought about by a patriarchal administration blind to the problems created by the patriarchy that it continues to uphold. The Chinese Communist Party is of course no more communist than the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are democratic. It is a complex, multi-faceted, circumlocutory organisation, but its most important decision-making office is the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which consists of a handful of the most powerful political figures in the country, including the General Secretary (currently Xi Jinping). Since its full establishment in the 1950s, the PSC has had 57 members, of which 57 have been male. The CCP has in recent decades promoted capitalism, which it now calls, inter alia, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Whatever that means, it definitely does not allow for bourgeois liberalisation, a term deliberately singled out. Long story short, no sex education in schools – or very little, often too late. Homosexuality, in particular, is a touchy matter – and more power to that – which neither the government nor parents are particularly willing to confront.  However, it’s probably fair to assume that, as far as attitudes can change, they will do so in the right direction – towards a bonobo world, rather than away from it. 

Meanwhile, the impact of all this conservatism weighs more heavily on girls and young women, of course. And it’s not just in the matter of sex and pregnancy that Chinese females are getting a raw deal. Women in China have recently demonstrated, in small numbers, about such matters as the dearth of female public toilet facilities, and the very high rate of domestic violence in the country. And they’ve been punished for it, imprisoned, harassed, and belittled by government thugs, who also harass their families and workplaces into keeping them in line. Some of these women have become heroes of the international feminist movement, but are unknown in their own country due to the CCP’s stranglehold on the social media network. And yet, reform will gradually come. The mighty male Chinese government hates to be humiliated by protesting ‘little girls’, so it silences them and then, knowing full well the justice of the women’s cause, makes a few changes in the right direction. And maybe if they, the women, are lucky, the next General Secretary, though surely another male, will be a little more of a bonobo, and there will be just a little more free love and a little less domestic warfare in the land. 



Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2020 at 12:05 am

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… 


 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? 10 – the clothed ape

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Michel de Montaigne, aka Monty, endlessly honest, curious, humane and inspiring – to whom I dedicate my work, such as it is

I’ve observed that some humans don’t like being reminded that they are apes. They become scornful and dismissive, even while admitting that this might be so. I presume they consider it irrelevant. We’ve fallen far from the monkey puzzle tree after all. 

Of course we’ve built universities and particle accelerators and space stations, and ribbonworks of roads and rails connecting city to blazing city, but on sports fields we inflate ourselves and bump chests and chew cud and suck on straws and huddle together like a few other primates I know. So I often like to undress people, so to speak, in pubs and restaurants and classrooms and city streets, picturing them naked and never-shaven, with wobbly and dangly bits, flabby or skeletal, greying or balding, or pre-pubescently hairless, exposed, vulnerable, yet still humanly savvy. 

Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay, On the custom of wearing clothes, which I was keen to read in my twenties, both as a fanboy of Monty and as someone who’d long wondered about this custom myself. As children we come at some stage to the liberating realisation that we can question everything in the great sanctuary of our heads, where nobody else can trespass. At least, this happened to me. So I enjoyed this question – why do we wear clothes? And of course, I rehearsed the typical adult answer. We wear them for warmth, comfort and protection. But on a warm day, on the front lawn where we always run barefoot anyway? Or indoors, where there were no thistles, three corner jacks or rusty nails? And I knew that these were mostly bogus reasons, that there was a tabu about exposing ourselves – ‘Quick, we’re having visitors, go to your room and make yourself decent’. To be naked, or even half-naked, was indecent. Why? Of course as I grew older I realised it had much, perhaps everything, to do with sex. Sex was naughty, diabolically naughty, I knew that even before I knew what it was. It certainly involved the private parts, for decency was all about hiding those parts. Wearing a swimsuit was fine, at the beach and other appropriate places, and girls could wear bikinis, even though they actually accentuated the parts that we weren’t supposed to think about, but revealing or displaying those parts in public was verboten as verboten could be. 

And so I learned that sex was private, and perhaps rare.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people walked around naked in public, and had sex in public too? Presumably, that would be the end of civilisation. We would become like animals. But then, we are animals.

I really felt that I’d hit upon something profound, if perhaps a bit too obvious to be really profound. Could it be that the whole of civilisation depended on us wearing clothes, or at least covering up our supposedly naughty bits? And yet it was about more than just the naughty bits. Teachers didn’t teach us in their underwear after all. But could it be that adults wore full, formal outfits to teach classes or to work in offices or department stores, to disguise the fact that they were really just hiding their naughty bits? I mean, were those bits really so dangerously naughty? Bonobos seem not to think so.

Montaigne’s clothes essay, though as fascinating as any other of his other essays, is more titillating in its title than its contents (I’m easily titillated), which are mostly about weather conditions, class, and the best kits for warfare. A lot of modern essays on the topic, however, fare no better in addressing the clothing-and-sex issue. Of course it’s true that clothing would’ve been protective against bugs as well as animal bites – attacking and scavenging animals tend to go for the dangly bits – and that over time clothing would have had important decorative purposes, associated with in-group hierarchy as well as raising humans in their own eyes above their ape and animal nature. We’ve been doing this for at least 100,000 years. 

So human clothing has become habitual and near-universal over time. It’s embarrassing to be different, not only in going naked – which is also illegal, and the term indecent exposure is more revealing than anything that’s exposed – but in wearing the wrong outfit. Clothing has become extremely complex in that regard. I’ve lived long enough to observe my slight elders from the early seventies, with fabulous flowing locks and dazzlingly vibrant embroidered shirts, scarves and flares, gradually transforming into besuited computer techies and company directors, with children kitted out in Edwardian beards and long-suits, which somehow lack the sparkle of sexual spontaneity. 

And yet, we did undergo a sexual revolution, allegedly, which coincided with second-wave feminism, if I’m not mistaken. Widely available contraception helped, presumably, to allow women as much or little philandering as males. All-female sex parties have become fashionable, as have orgy-style sex parties with male strippers and female perps, victims and happy-clapping onlookers. But these are very much niche scenes, somewhat ritualised and behind closed doors, nothing like the bonobo world of spontaneous, open, all-community based sexual healing that is but one characteristic of a caring and sharing environment. The closest I’ve seen to this bonobo world is observing young women out on the town in supportive gangs, arms linked, laughing and chatting, rosy and cuddling. Males form their own groups, loving or at least appreciating each other in their own noli me tangere way. Not quite so inspiring. 

The problem of returning to our naked original state is, of course, the problem of returning the omelette back to the state of the uncracked egg. It ain’t gonna happen, and it’s arguable that this is a good thing. But that won’t stop me dreaming about a bonobo world, unclothed or otherwise, and finding and encouraging instances of bonobo behaviour among humans anywhere. And also trying to identify and critique trends that militate (good word) against the bonobo lifestyle, such as extreme libertariansm, macho-thug political leaders, zero-sum nationalism and divisive religious zealotry. Altogether, with of course many notable exceptions, there are encouraging signs. We are family, after all.   


Written by stewart henderson

November 12, 2020 at 4:51 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. 


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

reading matters 13: the glass universe

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Canto: So The glass universe, published in 2016, has a cute title, referring as it does to the ‘glass ceiling’, another clever term for that invisible barrier up there that appears to prevent women from rising in politics, business and science, but also to the glass photographic plates upon which were recorded the spectrographic signatures of a vast arrays of stars, clusters and the like, in the decades of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, by a somewhat less vast array of human computers – the name given to the largely underpaid female stargazers and recorders of Harvard College observatory and elsewhere.

Jacinta: Yes, Dava Sobel, author of the fascinating little book Longitude, as well as Galileo’s Daughter, which is in a stack of books here waiting to be read, has brought to life a group of dedicated women and their male supporters over a period when the higher education of women was just starting to be addressed. 

Canto: Yes, it all started with the Drapers, a wealthy and well-connected couple in the 1870s. Henry was a leading astronomer of the day, and ‘Mrs Henry’, aka Anna, a socialite and heiress. Their social evenings were mostly science-focused, with guests including the inventor Thomas Edison, the zoologist Alexander Agassiz, and Prof. Edward Pickering, of Harvard. Henry Draper was working on the chemical make-up of stars, using ‘a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colours’, for which he’d won great acclaim, when he died suddenly of a flu-like illness in his mid-forties. His devoted and rich widow, keen to continue his legacy, helped finance, along with Pickering, a continuation of his ground-breaking research.  

Jacinta: And so the computers of Harvard College Observatory were born. We need to explain – or try to – the science of spectrographic analysis, but I’d like to first briefly describe some of the women who did this work. They include Williamina (Mina) Fleming, a canny Scotswoman frae Dundee (our birthplace), whose first American job was as the Pickering’s maid but who soon proved her worth as a star spotter and tracker, classifier, and organiser, leading the team of computers in the early decades. In 1899 she was given the title of ‘curator of astronomical photographs’, becoming the first titled female in the university’s history. As such she presided over 12 women ‘engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer’. 

Canto: Far from just bureaucratic work – this would’ve involved a lot of learning and conjecture, noting patterns and anomalies and trying to account for them.

Jacinta: Absolutely. Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Leavitt and the tragically short-lived Adelaide Ames were among the most noteworthy of these computers, and I should stop using the term, because they weren’t machines and they all made lasting contributions to the field…

Canto: And they all have their own Wikipedia pages. What more evidence do we need?

Jacinta: They contributed to academic papers, often without attribution, especially in the early years, and had their findings read out in academic institutions to which they were barred. Over time they became established teachers and lecturers, in the women’s colleges which started to become a thing in the twenties. But let’s get onto the daunting stuff of science. How were these glass plates created and what did they reveal?

Canto: So spectroscopy became a thing in the 1860s. Spectroscopes were attached to telescopes, and they separated starlight into ‘a pale strip of coloured light ranging from reddish at one end through orange, yellow, green, and blue to violet at the other’. I quote from the book. But what these changing colours meant exactly, as well as the ‘many black vertical lines interspersed at intervals along the coloured strip’, this was all something of a mystery, a code that needed to be cracked. Henry Draper had captured these spectral lines and intervals on photographic plates, which were bequeathed to Harvard by his widow. They formed the beginning of the collection. 

Jacinta: The term spectrum was first used by Isaac Newton two centuries earlier, and he correctly claimed that this coloration wasn’t due to flaws in glass and crystals but was a property of light itself. The dark lines within the stellar spectra on Draper’s plates are called Fraunhofer lines, after a Bavarian lens-maker, Joseph von Fraunhofer, who built the first spectroscope. He at first thought the dark lines between the rainbow of colours his instrument produced were somehow artificial, but continued work convinced him that they were a natural effect. He gave them alphabetical labels according to their thickness, including the letter D for a double line in the pale orange region. He mapped hundreds of them, though today we’ve detected many thousands of them in sunlight. He didn’t understand what they were, though he realised they were something significant. Later in the 19th century Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchov conducted experiments with various chemical elements and found that they burned in colours around those black lines, which we now know as absorption lines. 

Canto: Yes, it was Kirchov who connected the colours created by burning elements to the spectral lines that the sun’s light could be separated into, concluding that this great fireball of gases producing white light in the sky was actually a mixture of burning elements, or elements being transformed into other elements. As to the absorption lines, Sobel puts it this way:

As light radiated through the sun’s outer layers, the bright emission lines from the solar conflagration were absorbed in the cooler surrounding atmosphere, leaving dark telltale gaps in the solar spectrum.

These absorption lines, which together with emission lines, are spectral lines in the visible spectrum which ‘can be used to identify the atoms, elements or molecules present in a star, galaxy or cloud of interstellar gas’, to quote from this Swinburne University site

Jacinta: So we’ll try to keep within the confines of the book, and the scientific developments of the period which these women, in particular, contributed to. So, rather, surprisingly to us modern wiseacres, these revelations about the sun as a super-hot fireball and a producer of elements was a bit hard for 19th century folk to take in, but scientists were excited. Henry Draper described spectral analysis as having ‘made the chemist’s arms millions of miles long’, and in 1872 he began photographing the spectra of other stars. It was long known that they had different colours and brightnesses – called ‘apparent luminosities’ – but spectral analysis provided more detailed data for categorisation, and sets of photographs revealed changes in luminosity and colour over time. Williamina Fleming, Harvard’s principal computer, took charge of Draper’s thousands of plates, which provided the most detailed spectral data of stars up to that time, and was able to analyse them into classes, via their absorption lines, in new and complex ways. It was cutting edge science.

Canto: There was also an interest in throwing more light, so to speak, on variable stars. They were so numerous and complex in their variability that Pickering needed more computers to track them. Lacking funds, he advertised for volunteers, emphasising the role of women in particular, whose effectiveness he’d seen plenty of evidence for. 

Jacinta: Not to mention their willingness to work for less, or effectively nothing. These were often siblings or partners of astronomers or other scientists, with unfulfilled scientific ambitions. Later, though, came from the newly created ‘Ladies’ Colleges, such as Radcliffe and Wellesley.

Canto: The Orion Nebula was a particularly rich source of these variable stars, and Pickering found an ideal computer, Henrietta Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, to explore them. Within six months, she’d confirmed previous identifications of variables in the nebula and added more than 50 others, afterwards confirmed by Fleming. Then, using a combination of negative and positive glass plates, she found hundreds more, in the Orion Nebula and the Small Magellanic Cloud. As Pickering pointed out, due to the lack of resolution in the plates, this number was likely the tip of the iceberg. In writing up a report of her findings, Leavitt described a pattern she’d found: ‘It is worthy of notice… that the brighter variables [aka cepheid variables] have the longer periods’. This brightness (or luminosity) and its relationship to periodicity (the time taken to go through a full cycle of change) is now known as the Leavitt Law, though of course it took decades for Henrietta Leavitt to receive full recognition for discovering it. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth noting that these women worked painstakingly on data analysis, developing new and more rigorous classification systems, studying and theorising about anomalies, and communicating their findings to leading astronomers and researchers around the world. And it’s also worth noting that they were supported and highly appreciated at Harvard by Edward Pickering and his successor as Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley – though of course there were plenty of naysayers. 

Canto: Okay so we’ve spoken of two or three of the computer stars’, and there were many more, but let’s finish with the work of Antonia Maury. 

Jacinta: Well we must also mention Annie Jump Cannon (great name), star classifier and photographer extraordinaire, suffragist and generally formidable persona, in spite of being almost completely deaf. She classified around 350,000 stars and contributed greatly to the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first international star classification system. Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Maury (I’m not kidding), a graduate of Vassar College, was a niece of Henry Draper. 

Canto: Not what you know but who you know? 

Jacinta: It is partly that – and that cliché is worth a whole book to itself – but Maury was no slouch, she was a keen and observant star observer and systemiser. One important discovery she shared with Pickering was one of the first known binary star systems, in the handle of the Big Dipper. This required months of careful observation from 1887 through 1889, as they noted one spectral line separating into two then the lines merging again, then separating, with one line shifting slightly to the red end of the spectrum and the other to the blue. Once they recognised that they were dealing with binary star systems, others were soon found. And once these systems were confirmed, Maury carefully calculated their orbital periods and speeds.

Canto: There were many other important breakthroughs. Spectral colours, as we’ve pointed out, were connected to particular chemical elements, and Cecilia Payne, whose major focus was the measurement of stellar temperatures, found a superabundance in the elements hydrogen and helium, which confounded other experts and soon made her doubt her own calculations. Payne wrote up her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1925, ‘admitting’ that the percentages of hydrogen and helium were ‘improbably high’ and ‘almost certainly not real’. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s well worth noting that the knowledge we have of stars today, which seems almost eternal to us, is in fact very recent. The book also covers the dispute between Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble – with many on either side of course – as to whether other galaxies existed. That dispute was only resolved in the thirties, and now we count other galaxies in the trillions. So the period covered in Sobel’s book was a truly transformative period in our understanding of the universe, as well as transformative in terms of women’s education and women’s participation in the most heavenly of all the sciences. 

Canto: Whateva.


The glass universe, by Dava Sobel, 2016

Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm

three things: IQ and longevity, the Taliban and Americans, the real World Cup

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Nerissa: …. superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer

The Merchant of Venice, Act 1 , scene 2

smart Alec the turtle

Thing one

I don’t know what my IQ is, having never knowingly sat a test, but I assume it’s a number just short of infinity. So it was interesting to read, in Carl Zimmer’s book on genetics, She has her mother’s laugh, that IQ is highly correlated to longevity. Not that there’s a genetic link, at least not directly, but it stands to reason. The higher your IQ, the quicker it takes for you to ‘get’ things. This was more or less confirmed by a simple, ingenious brain processing test. Subjects were shown simple shapes flashing very briefly on a computer screen – two vertical lines spaced apart with a horizontal line sitting on top. The participants had to guess which of the two vertical lines was the longest each time. Researchers had worked out that if the images were flashed too briefly, the participants just resorted to guesswork. It required approximately 0.1 seconds for people, on average, to perceive the shape correctly. The key, though, lay in the variation of that perception. It ranged from 0.02 seconds to 0.136 seconds, and researchers found a pretty reliable correlation between accurate perception time and intelligence (presumably measured by IQ – Zimmer doesn’t say). Unfortunately it’s not quite reliable enough, apparently, for us to do away with those pesky, long-winded IQ tests and replace them snappy shape tests, but as mentioned, it does seem to confirm the intuition that intelligence has to do with sharpness and quick-wittedness. Which brings me back to longevity. Some work done in Scotland, which has turned out to be accidentally longitudinal, provides interesting evidence. In 1932 the Scottish government conducted a massive testing program of nearly 90,000 eleven-year-old students – just about the whole of the country’s kids of that age. They were all given a 71-question exam involving decoding, analogising and arithmetic among other things. Over time this ‘experiment’, or what you will, was forgotten, but the records were unearthed in 1997, and then researchers tried to get in touch, some 65 years later, with the ‘kids’ who’d been tested. They managed to gather together 101 elderly citizens in an Aberdeen hall to resit the gruelling test. They found that the score on the original test was a pretty good indicator – 73% – of the score second time around. But there was another interesting finding – the percentage of the test-takers who had scored well and were still alive in 1997 was considerably higher than those who’d scored poorly. Some 70% of the women in the top quarter of scores were still alive, compared to 45% in the bottom quarter:

Children who scored higher, in other words, tended to live longer. Each extra 15 IQ points, researchers have since found, translates into a 24% drop in the risk of death.

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p296

Why is this so? Smarter people generally know what to do, and are quicker to learn what to do, to live longer, to make more, financially and otherwise, of the circumstances they find themselves in, to be safer, healthier and the like. Stands to reason.

‘all westerners are much the same to us…’

Thing two

A huge fuss is being made of allegations, probably true, of Putin offering and paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. My first reaction to this news was – surely the fervently anti-American and anti-western Taliban were already hell-bent on killing infidel foreigners, and many of the purest ideologues among them would be insulted by the offer of bribes to do so? Then again, many of them would’ve been laughing up their ample sleeves at the thought of being paid by the Russkies, whom they likely consider only slightly less odious and infidelious than the Yanks, to do what they were already heaven-bent on doing. For this reason, it would surely be impossible to prove that any deaths of Americans, or their coalition partners – including Australians – at the hands of the Taliban, could be sheeted home to Putin and his fellow thugs. Even if money traced to Russia appeared in Taliban bank accounts after some atrocity or other, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the atrocity would’ve occurred in any case. Win-win for the Taliban.

Thing 3

The announcement that the real World Cup will take place in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 makes life a little more bearable, though it’s three years away and I’m not getting any younger. This competition combines two of the most life-affirming enities in life, for me at least – women and soccer. Hopefully we’ll have learned many lessons from Covid-19 by then haha, and at least some of today’s thuggish political leaders will have been placed where they can do no more harm, and we can get on with the more exciting stuff of life, like having fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2020 at 1:25 pm

Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

the male violence thing: why deny it?

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I’ve written a few pieces on women, power and such things, from a position of frustration that there haven’t been enough women in power, and that women, and men, have suffered too much from male abuses of power – and that of course includes violence. At the beginning of last year I attended a vigil of sorts on the steps of our state parliament, which involved a solemn roll call of all the women who died violently in Australia (not including those who died in vehicle accidents, of which more later), and the sad circumstances of their passing. I noted that not all the women were victims of male violence – only 90-95% from memory – but clearly male violence was the principal problem. I was also aware, from research, that most victims of male violence are other males.

Around 95% of all victims of violence, whether women or men, experience that violence from a male perpetrator.

White Ribbon Australia, citing the Australian Bureau of Statistics

So I was a bit disconcerted when, some time ago, I brought up the obvious issue of male violence, in the context of sport (as opposed to the relative lack of violence, on and off the field, or court etc, in female sports) and I received pushback, as the Yanks say, from someone who more less completely denied that there was any imbalance. In fact he appeared to argue that women were just as violent as men, in every way.

So, to be clear, this is a question of fact, not of opinion, and in order to be factual we need to define violence precisely. I’m defining it as an act which results in death or physical injury, to the self and/or others. This isn’t to deny that psychological or emotional violence exists, of course it does, but it’s virtually impossible to measure. Any conversation between two people could be seen as profoundly coercive by one, totally benign by the other, or anything between these extremes by observers. It’s very subjective. Nor am I denying that psychological violence can be totally life-destroying. It just isn’t measurable in any clear way, unlike physical violence. And it was physical violence that our conversation was about.

Reliable statistical data on this topic is available everywhere on the internet. It tells us a sad, but fairly obvious truth. Men are more violent than women in every country and in every culture on the planet, without exception. And men have been more violent than women in every age of which we have record, since the appearance of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.

Looking at the matter historically, there’s a certain amount of controversy, due to the patchy evidence as to whether hunter-gatherers were more ‘prone to violence’ than humans in a more ‘civilised’ state. Certainly it’s true that after the establishment of expansionist states, war was more often than not a central component of politics, and war was carried out by men, generally young men from their late teens into their late twenties. This state of affairs was the norm for centuries, and one could reasonably argue that warfare as policy was only abandoned when weaponry became so devastating that it was too costly for each state to engage in it, though I think Enlightenment values, a more scientific understanding of universal human nature and the subsequent development of trans-national treaties and organisations have all played a role.

But even in hunter-gathering societies the pattern of male violence was set. The hunters were of course more or less exclusively male, and, with rewards going to the best hunters, fierce competition was bound to arise within hunter-gathering tribes. It’s quite likely that the most successful competitors would have high status, even chieftain status, within the group. And with the division into groups, or tribes, with their more or less self-appointed hunting territories, rivalry and competition between groups would have arisen, the precursors of later, more destructive forms of aggression. We see exactly this pattern, of course, in our closest living relatives, chimps – battles between males of different groups over territory and resources, and battles between males within groups over hierarchy and access to females.

It might be argued that the modern world is quite different. But there’s a pattern in modern society that needs to be accounted for, though it’s not exactly a modern pattern, even if it’s given a modern spin. Men – and boys -tend to join gangs. Of course, not all young men do this, but a substantial proportion do. Women tend not to do so, or not nearly to the same extent. I’m talking about street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, ‘football hooligan’ gangs, bikie gangs, neo-nazi gangs, white supremacist gangs etc. I even joined one myself as a teenager, and we roamed the streets looking for trouble but rarely managing to find it.

not my gang

What drives this behaviour amongst this section of the male population (from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties, roughly speaking)? Hormones appear to play a primary role, and it’s no coincidence that exactly the same aggressive, show-offy group behaviour is to be found in the young males of other complex, highly social mammals, including chimps, dolphins and elephants. I have mixed feelings for those who scoff at all comparisons between homo sapiens and other mammals, because of course science has taught us about our profoundly mammalian nature, while our development of scientific explanations and understandings is precisely what marks us off from other mammals, and provides us with the potential to transcend our mammalian nature. Biology doesn’t have to be destiny.

The preponderance of male violence in our society is a problem for which we need to find solutions. But first we need to admit that there’s a problem. Let me give one compelling statistic as proof. The major cause of violent death and injury in peaceful countries – those not engaged in internal or external warfare – are males between the ages of approximately 17 and 25 behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. On a per capita basis, males cause 1.5 to 2 times more vehicle accidents than females, regardless of country, and it’s entirely that 17-25 age group that causes the disparity. It’s of course no coincidence that this is the same age that young males join gangs or the military. It’s the hormonal age.

In presenting this brief account of male risk-taking, aggression and violence, I’m not pretending that females are passive victims of all this. Of course the picture is enormously complex (in humans and in other mammals). In the cyber-age, female teenage bullying has become a serious problem – and of course it was a problem in the schoolyard before that. People in general can be brutal and malicious to their neighbours in times of stress, but we’ve emerged from, or are trying to emerge from, a highly patriarchal culture in which being a physically tough male is still a source of respect – in my own schoolyard, everyone knew who the toughest kid was, the ‘best fighter’, not the ‘brainiest’.

So, to return to my conversation, which was about sport and violence, and the claim that men are no more violent on and around sporting arenas than women. It amazes me that, given all the evidence about male violence, someone would think that sporting arenas would be an exception to the well-attested facts about male violence, in comparison to that of women. The sport I follow most by far is soccer, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the rise in women’s soccer in the last few years. It’s of course fiercely competitive, full of rough and tumble, with plenty of pushing and shoving at corners and free kicks, but having watched a lot of female matches over the years, I’ve rarely seen an example of the face-to-face, ‘I’m tougher than you’ behaviour shown at the top of this post, which is very common in the male game. The image prompts more or less amusing comparisons with wildlife programs, with rival males competing to be the pack leader. Men are too often like that, but of course not all men, and with the broad societal changes that have occurred in recent decades and centuries, there’s no need for men to think and act like this today – though the profound inequality that persists still sanctions and rewards this behaviour in poorly resourced, embattled parts of the world.

Where I see most progress and feel most hopeful is, again, the enterprise of science. In reading, for example, Venki Ramakrishnan’s book The gene machine and Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race, I find the mix of competition and collaboration in fields of research to be favourable to both genders (or should I say all genders these days), and its success will hopefully flow on to politics, sports and other aspects of life.

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2020 at 2:03 pm

women of note 1: Mary Anning, palaeontologist

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She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells. 

Terry Sullivan, 1908 – said to be inspired by Mary Anning’s fossickings

Unfortunately, I want to write about everything.

So now I begin an occasional series about women to be celebrated and never forgotten.

Mary Anning was born in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Devon, in 1799 and died there, too young, of breast cancer in 1847. According to Brian Ford, author of Too big to walk: the new science of dinosaurs, she was ‘the first full-time professional palaeontologist anywhere in the world’. It’s a fair statement; those before her were generalists, given the name ‘naturalists’, and made their livings as pastors or physicians, or were independently wealthy. The term ‘palaeontology’ was just starting to gain traction in the early nineteenth century, replacing the intriguing but probably short-lived ‘oryctology’, though fossil-finding and speculations thereon (mostly infused with religious or mystic beliefs) date back to civilisation’s dawn.

Fossil-hunting had become quite trendy from the late eighteenth century, and Mary’s dad, a cabinet-maker by trade, supplemented his income by selling fossil bits and pieces, discovered himself on the nearby cliffs, to locals and tourists (the region had become something of a haven for those escaping the Napoleonic wars). The cliffs around Lyme Regis on England’s south coast form part of the Blue Lias, alternating sediments of shale and limestone, very rich in fossils from the early Jurassic, around 200 mya.

Richard and Molly, Mary’s parents, had ten children, but only two, Joseph and Mary, survived infancy. Childhood diseases such as measles were often killers, especially among the poor – a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in an economically developed country in the 21st century. The Anning family was never well-off, and Richard died when Mary was just 11 years old. Mary herself just managed to escape death by lightning strike when she was a baby. The strike killed three women, one of whom was tending her at the time. But the family suffered many hardships besides infant mortality. Food shortages and rising prices led to riots in the neighbourhood, and Richard himself was involved in organising protests.

As kids, Joseph and Mary sometimes accompanied their father on fossil-hunting trips on the dangerous cliffs, which were subject to landslides. They would sell their finds, which were mostly of invertebrate fossils such as ammonite and belemnite shells, in front of their home, but clearly life would’ve been a real struggle in the years following Richard’s death, during which time they relied partly on charity. It wasn’t long, though, before Mary’s expertise in finding and identifying fossils and her anatomical know-how came to the attention of well-heeled fossickers in the region. In the early 1820s a professional collector, Thomas Birch, who’d come to know the family and to admire Mary’s skills in particular, decided to auction off his own collection to help support them. This further enhanced their reputation, and Mary became something of a local celebrity, reported on in the local papers:

This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half-suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of ichthyosauri of the great collections.

Bristol Mirror, 1823 – quoted in Too big to walk, by Brian Ford, p61

As this article mentions, Mary Anning’s name is often associated with ichthyosaur fossils, but she also discovered the first plesiosaur, the identity of which was confirmed by Georges Cuvier – though he at first accused her of fraud. Amongst other contributions, she was the first to recognise that the conical ‘bezoar stones’ found around the cliffs of Lyme were in fact fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

plesiosaur skeleton, beautifully sketched by Mary Anning

For my information, ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles dated from the early Triassic to the late Cretaceous periods (250-90 mya), though most abundant in the early period, after which they were superseded as the top marine predators by the plesiosaurs (approx 204-66 mya).

Anning’s exact contribution to palaeontology is impossible to determine, because so many of her finds were snapped up by professional collectors, in an era when attributions weren’t preserved with much care, and this would have been compounded by her status as an ‘uneducated’ amateur, and a woman. Contemporary commentary about her expertise was often infused with a subtle condescension. There’s little doubt that, had she been male, her admirers would have seen to it that her talents were sufficiently recompensed with scholarships, senior university posts, and membership of the prominent scientific societies. Instead, she remained a fixture at Lyme Regis – there’s no indication that she ever travelled, apart from at least one trip to London, though her expertise was recognised throughout Europe and America. It’s also likely that, coming from a family of Dissenters – a reformist Protestant group – she was regarded with suspicion by the Anglican-dominated scientific hierarchy of the time. Let’s take a look, for comparison, at some of the males she associated with, and who associated with her, and how their professional lives went:

Sir Henry de La Beche – KCB, FRS. That first TLA means ‘Knight Commander of the Bath’ or something similar. I seem to recall bestowing a similar title upon myself while commanding battleships in the bathtub at age six or so. Never received a stipend for it though. FRS means Fellow of the Royal Society of course. Son of a slave-owner who died young, Beche was brought up in Lyme Regis where he became a friend of Anning, sharing her interest in geological strata and what they contained. It’s not unlikely that she was an inspiration for him. He was able to join the male-only London Geological Society at age 21, and later became its President. He became a FRS in 1819 at the still tender age of 24. He was appointed director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain in the 1830s and later the first director of the Museum of Practical Geology in London (now part of the Natural History Museum). He was knighted for his genuine contributions to geology in 1848. Beche was in fact an excellent practical and skeptical scientist who gave support to Anning both financially and in his published work.

William Conybeare – FRS. Born into a family of ‘divines’ (at least on the male side) Conybeare became a vicar himself, and a typical clergyman-naturalist, with particular interests in palaeontology and geology. Educated at the elite (and all-male) Westminster School and at all-male Oxford University, after which he travelled widely through the country and on the Continent (all paid for by ‘a generous inheritance’) in pursuit of geological and palaeontological nourishment. He became an early member of the Geological Society, where he met and advised other notables such as Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, and contributed papers, including one with Beche which summarised findings about ichthyosaurs and the possibility of another species among them, the plesiosaur. This was confirmed by Anning’s discovery and detailed description of a plesiosaur, which Conybeare later reported to the Geological Society, delighted to be proved correct. He failed to mention Anning’s name. In 1839 Conybeare, together with two other naturalist heavyweights, William Buckland and Richard Owen, joined Mary Anning for a fossil-hunting excursion. Unfortunately we have no smartphone recordings of that intriguing event.

William Buckland, DD [Doctor of Divinity], FRS. Born and raised in Devon, Buckland accompanied his clergyman dad on walks in the region where he collected fossil ammonite shells. He was educated at another elite institution, Winchester College, where he won a scholarship to Oxford. In 1813 he was appointed reader in minerology there, and gave popular lectures with emphasis on geology and palaeontology. He seemed to cultivate eccentricities, including doing field-work in his academic gown and attempting to eat his way though the animal kingdom. His most important association with Mary Anning was his coining of the term ‘coprolite’ based on Anning’s observation that these conical deposits, found in the abdomens of ichthyosaurs, were full of small skeletons. Clearly, Anning knew exactly what they were, but had no real opportunity to expatiate on them in a public forum. Women were often barred from attending meetings of these proliferating scientific societies even as guests, let alone presenting papers at them.

Gideon Mantell, MRCS [Member of the Royal College of Surgeons], FRS. Mantell was himself a rather tragic figure, whose association with Anning was less personal, though he did visit her once at her Lyme Regis shop. He was inspired more by news of her ichthyosaur discoveries, which reinforced an obsession with fossil hunting in his own region of Sussex, where many fossils of the lower Cretaceous were uncovered. Born in Lewes in Sussex, the fifth child of a shoemaker, he was barred from the local schools due to his family’s Methodism. He underwent a period of rather eccentric but obviously effective private tuition before becoming apprenticed to a local surgeon. Though worked very hard, he taught himself anatomy in his free time, and wrote a book on anatomy and the circulation of the blood. He travelled to London for more formal education and obtained a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1811. Returning to Lewes, he partnered with his former employer in treating victims of cholera, smallpox and typhoid epidemics, and delivering large quantities of babies, building up a thriving practice, but also somehow finding time for fossil-hunting, corresponding with others on fossils and geology, and writing his first paper on the fossils of the region. He started finding large and unusual bones and teeth, which turned out to be those of an Iguanadon, though it took a long time for this to be recognised, and he was mocked for his claims by experts such as William Buckland and Richard Owen. Although he was becoming recognised for his many writings and discoveries, he always remained something of an outsider to the establishment. He later fell on hard times and suffered a serious spinal injury from a horse-and-carriage accident, from which he never really recovered. He apparently died from an overdose of laudanum, used regularly as a pain-killer in those days.

Returning to Mary Anning, we see that class as well as sex was a barrier to intellectual acceptance in early nineteenth century Britain – but sex especially. Mary struggled on in Lyme Regis, recognised and sought out by other experts, but never given her full due. In the 1840s she was occasionally seen to be staggering about, as if drunk. In fact, she too was dosing herself on laudanum, due to the pain of advancing breast cancer. She died in 1847, aged 47.

I should point out that, though Mary Anning’s name is largely unknown to the general public, so are the male names mentioned in this article. We generally don’t fête our scientists very much, though they’re the ones that really change our world, and help us to understand it. Mary was helped out by luminaries such as Beche and Buckland in her later years, and received a small annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Upon her death, Beche wrote a modest eulogy, which he presented at a Geological Society meeting, which, had she been alive, Anning wouldn’t have been allowed to attend. It was later published in the transactions of the Society. Here’s how it begins:

 I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians [now known as Euryapsida], and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis ..

Mary Anning by her beloved cliffs, tool in hand, pointing to her not yet dead dog Tray, killed in the line of scientific duty…


Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2019 at 11:14 am

women and power: China

with one comment

Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.

Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am