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

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

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

from Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, p225

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

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

1. Politics.

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

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

2. Law

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

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

3. Work

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

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


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


Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2021 at 12:43 pm

a bonobo world 29: the 30% rule and Myanmar

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Myanmar students finding inspiration in The Hunger Games in their fight against the coup


I mentioned the 30% rule in a previous essay – an idea that’s been bruited about, suggesting that it takes 30% female infiltration to change the culture of an organisation. This is obviously a rule of thumb, but it’s worth applying to those organisations that have power in the land, whatever land that might be.

Such organisations, institutions or sectors include government, law, business, military, health, science, education and welfare. Without doing any research, I would guess that, of those eight sectors, four – law, health, education and welfare – might have significant female infiltration, the other four not so much. Though I might be wrong about science, and of course all these sectors are much more open to women when we take the long view, of centuries. Social evolution is relatively quick, but not always relative to our short, impatient lives. 

Since I first learned of this rule of thumb in an essay about Myanmar’s military, I’ll first look at Myanmar society, currently still in upheaval due to the Min Aung Hlaing coup and its aftermath. Considering that Aung San Suu Kyi recently won a landslide election and is very popular, especially among the Buddhist majority, it might seem surprising to those of us in settled democracies that a military coup could be staged there with such apparent ease, but of course the military – entirely male until recently, and still entirely male in its hierarchy – has been massively interfering in this fledgling democracy from the start. We in Australia have only to think of our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, to be aware of how dangerous a politicised and corrupt military can be. 

There’s much international reporting about how disappointing Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her championing of democracy, has apparently turned out to be. She’s been criticised for cosying up to the military and doing little to stop the Rohingya massacres, but seriously, to expect one woman to transform her fragmented (with at least 14 major ethnic groups), impoverished society into a go-ahead democratic concern is a bit like expecting one or two forceful, charismatic proto-bonobos to transform their world from a hunt-em-down, beat-em-up chimp arena into a paradise of tree-hugging, child-friendly libertine vegos. You don’t need a few, you need a barmy army with sex appeal to spare. Above all, the over-arching power of the military needs to be addressed. 

I’m being a bit unjust to chimps here, and I’m sure the Myanmar military aren’t all bad, especially now that women are joining the (lowest) ranks, but my point is that the country needs more female monks (they can only be thilashin in Myanmar, a lower order than the male bhikkhu), intellectuals and political leaders.

In 2016 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released a paper, Gender equality and women’s rights in Myanmar: a situation analysis. In light of recent events, this positive and hopeful document, dealing with (admittedly limited) advances made and to be made in the future, makes for difficult reading. 

Not that pre-coup Myanmar was anything to be proud of, woman-wise. For example, the nation’s 2008 Constitution, while prohibiting gender discrimination in the appointment to government posts, states that ‘nothing in this section shall prevent appointment of men to positions that are naturally suitable to men only’. It may well be this clause in the Constitution that prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the nation’s President.

What would Simone de Beauvoir say? (My next bumper sticker or customised t-shirt). According to the ADB paper:

Global and regional indices and national data reflect continuing gender inequalities in Myanmar. The 2013 Gender Inequality Index ranked Myanmar 83rd of 187 countries, while the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index placed the country at 44th of 86 countries and 8th of nine countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

The nation’s labour force participation rate for males is almost double that for women – though you can bet that, as always, women are doing the majority of at-home work and ‘informal job sector’ work, with the usual inadequate and unreliable remuneration from their male bosses. Government ministries experienced female staff levels of just over 50% in the 2000s, though this fell away for mid-management staff and higher, and gender wage gaps are greater than in developed countries. 

Literacy rates nationwide are slightly lower for females than males, but this masks major disparities between urban and rural areas and between subcultures. Outside the major urban areas the disparity between male and female literacy is greater. 

Violence against women, human trafficking, and ‘rape in conflict’ were described as under-reported problems in a 2008 report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The report singled out Rakhine province (later the scene of genocidal violence against its Muslim Rohingya population), stating that, ‘in addition to being subject to multiple forms of discrimination by the authorities, [women and girls] were also subject to conservative traditions and a restrictive interpretation of religious norms, which contribute to the suppression of their rights’.

In reading this ADB document, I’ve learned that the 30% rule (actually a target) came from the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995, though I don’t like to credit Beijing, or China, for anything much to do with the advancement of women (I’ll look at the situation in China in an upcoming post). The Beijing Platform for Action emerged from the Fourth World Conference on Women, which happened to be held in that city. 

The ADB report points out that female representation in parliament in Myanmar, though increasing, lags behind neighbours Cambodia and Laos (both of which are profoundly corrupt non-democracies). Remember we’re talking 2016 here. Thein Sein, the moderate President of Myanmar from 2011 to 2016, increased female representation in government towards the end of his period in office. I doubt if Min Aung Hlaing will be considering female representation a major focus as he fights, and doubtless butchers, to maintain power.

So, sadly, few points for bonobohood in Myanmar at present. It’s perhaps ironic, and in a strange way inspiring, that a lot of young women in the country are joining militias to fight for more recognition for their minority cultures. It could well be that the transformation that occurred to create bonobo society involved a bit of group female biffo too. After all, making love not war is something worth fighting for. 


Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2021 at 12:00 pm

a bonobo world 26: boys and girls at work and play

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, brilliant women with great dress sense

In her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote this: 

.. the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.

A whole book could easily be written – some already have – to expand on this apparently mundane observation. Today in the west, or the developed world, or Anglo-American or Euro-American society (I never know quite what to call it), there are no set rules, of course, about how people should dress, or behave, or work or play, gender-wise, but there are conventions and social pressures, and I’ve noted encouraging developments, as well as their opposite.

A close female friend expressed a certain despair/disdain the other day in telling me that Dr Jill Biden, aged 69, wore stilettos for her husband’s confirmation as US President. I share that friend’s conviction that stilettos should only be used as murder weapons. In any case men only wear stilettos when in drag, which is all too rare. 

On clothing and accessories, while today’s variety is inspiring and liberating for both sexes, one still sees frustrating gender-based tendencies everywhere. Frills and furbelows have long been all the go for female formal attire, while tuxes or frock-coats are de rigueur for males, compleat with ties, bowed or straight. These traditions tend to emphasise gender differences you’d never notice in bonobos, though there is a welcome playfulness of gender-swapping attire among the elites, seldom replicated in your local bar or restaurant. 

What has constantly surprised me, as a person who spent his youth in the sixties and seventies, when déclassé jeans and t-shirts, in colourful variety, were common and pleasantly informal, is that those decades didn’t establish a trend of ambisexual dress – just as I’ve been surprised that traditional marriage didn’t get thrown out as seemed to be on the cards in those days. Marriage today appears to represent much of human ambiguity – a commitment to monogamous ideals even while recognising their limitations, even their absurdity. Conservatives argue that loyalty is a much undervalued value, but it’s always been possible to have more than one loyal friend, with benefits. Bonobos manage to have a bunch of them. Bonobos aren’t being rad, they’re just being bonobos. Which raises the question, what is it, to be humans?

David Deutsch, in The beginning of infinity, celebrates and encourages our infinite possibilities, to find solutions, to expand our outlooks, to achieve outrageously amazing things. He writes of the value of optimism over pessimism, and progress over stasis. I’m largely in agreement, but with some reservations. He has nothing to say about community, for example. Community, it seems to me, has become ever more important as change has become more rapid. As Deutsch and others have pointed out, during the many thousands of years when humans lived the hunter-gatherer life, with no doubt many variations, life simply didn’t change from generation to generation. And as long as that life was sustainable, there was little need for new developments, new hunting or grinding implements, new forms of shelter or clothing. So, nobody was out of date or old-fashioned, there were no old fuddy-duddies you wouldn’t be seen dead with. In fact, quite the opposite – the elders would have been more expert at the latest technology, developed in the previous aeon, than the youngsters, who would marvel at how those old guys’ boomerangs always came back (okay, they were never actually intended to). Given this relatively static society, it’s hardly surprising that elders were more respected, for their skills, experience and store of communal lore, than today’s nursing home denizens. And, as always, I’m aware of the multifarious nature of modern human societies, static and otherwise, to which I have little access, beyond book-larnin. Most of these societies or cultures, though, are today forced to interact with others, creating identity confusions and divided loyalties by the brainload.

Anyway, sticking with the White Anglo-Saxon ex-Protestant culture I’m familiar with, I’m a bit shocked that, despite two or more waves of feminism in the last century or so, women are still earning less than men and paying more for what I would deem unnecessary accoutrements, including hairstyles, bling, fancy tattoos, make-up and the aforementioned frills and furbelows. I recently bought a ‘men’s’ stick deodorant, which seemed to me nothing more than an anti-perspirant, and which was identical to that of my female partner, only bigger, and cheaper! These are ‘first-world issues’, of course, but they reflect, in little, an exploitation of the feminine worldwide, which seems a hard nut to crack.  

There’s of course a thing about eternal youth, in regard to women, that should be addressed. Men in their fifties don’t wear make-up, at least not the ones I know. Quite a few women I know, in their fifties, and older, also don’t wear make-up, but let’s face it, most of them do – with all the expense, as well as the time and effort, this involves. They do it, presumably, to hide the effects of gravity, though gravity always wins, as Radiohead informs us. With men, apparently, gravity lends gravitas.

I’ve often – in fact, ever since adolescence  – imagined myself as female. Mostly lesbian female, though I did have an early period of male-male attraction. So, if I did turn out female, how would I behave, appearance-wise, now that I’m in my sixties? Would I wear an op-shop jacket, t-shirt (usually with some thought-bubble printing) and chino-type trousers, as I do now? I hope so. It’s a kind of unisex outfit for academic and sciencey people, the types I’ve always aspired to be. But unfortunately, feminists have recently written of the pink/blue divide in children’s clothing that’s stronger than ever, as well as the divide in toys – fighting, racing and danger versus dancing, cuddling and beauty. This appears to be driven by manufacturers and advertisers, who, like social media moguls, seem to derive a benefit from driving their customers down wormholes of like-mindedness. Not surprisingly, social psychologists find that children benefit from being more unisex in these choices – not a matter of turning them into their opposites, but seeing dolls and trucks as others see them, and generally being more colourful. And slowly, all too slowly, we’re following this advice, and seeing more male nurses and female truck-drivers than previously. Not to mention female white supremacists sporting submachine guns – but that’s only in the US, they do things differently there. And more males working in child-care? That’s another nut to crack.


Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), new translation 2009.


Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

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

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

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

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