an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

on the history and future of human beans…

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… the oldest skull normally assigned to our species is almost 200,000 years old. It was found at Omo Valley in Ethiopia in the African rift valley. (In June 2017, human remains from Morocco were dated to 300,000 years ago, but their exact relationship to us remains uncertain).

David Christian, Origin Story p169

Canto: Dating the first Homo sapiens will always be difficult (I mean determining her provenance, not going out with her) because, like the first lion (Panthera Leo) or the first red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus) or whatever, she had parents, and great-grandparents, so when does any species actually begin? But apart from that taxonomic issue, the whole issue of dating, and classifying, hominins is obviously complicated by the dearth of fossil finds. In my reading and listening, the 200,000 year number usually crops up, in spite of the finding cited by Christian, which we’ve known about for some time. The Morocco site, specifically the archaeological site known as Jebel Irhoud, has yielded fossil remains since at least the early seventies, but a paper in Nature, published in 2017, relating to new finds at the site, controversially claimed a date of 315,000 years ago for skull, face and jaw bones of H sapiens…

Jacinta: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it seems to me that the claims about early hominins, and especially the first of our species, will always be hotly contested because of that lack of evidence. Both the place, Morocco, and that early date are outside the known parameters for the earliest H sapiens. 

Canto: But Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist of some repute, appears half-convinced, arguing that, with the new finds and better dating methods, ‘the Jebel Irhoud bones stand firmly on the H. sapiens lineage’. However, it’s not easy to find much discussion online about it since 2017. I did find a full copy of the June 2017 Nature article, referenced below, and the Smithsonian appears to be taking the older date as established. I quote from their website:

During a time of dramatic change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.

They don’t cite any evidence though. I mean, 100,000 years is quite a big gap. I presume there’s been a big search on in Morocco in recent years. The Smithsonian site also tells me most palaeontologists reckon H heidelbergensis is our direct ancestor, but the evidence is frustratingly scant.

Jacinta: Also, what does it mean to be human? I’ve often mentioned our hyper-social nature as something that sets humans apart, but were we hyper-social 300,000 years ago, or even 200,000 years ago? We’ve no idea, or not much idea, how we lived in that period – language, fire, tools, art, clothing, shelter… Did we congregate in large groups? How large, or small?

Canto: One site talks about ‘behavioural modernity’, dating from 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. That’s because there’s virtually no evidence – complex weaponry such as bows and spear-throwers, representational art, rough sculptures, bone flutes – of that kind of modern human stuff connected to earlier human remains. But the evidence from skulls suggests that our big brains were what they are now with the earliest versions of H sapiens. Skulls and genes tell us one thing, artefacts tell us another.

Jacinta: Yes, this Smithsonian site also suggests that human cultures, unlike other apes, ‘form long-term pair bonds between men and women to care for children’. They seem not to notice the rise of single-parent families in the modern era! Of course I’m hoping our WEIRD culture’s going the way of the bonobo – the women bonding together to raise the kids, with help from the odd metrosexual male. Is metrosexuality still a thing?

Canto: That’s so naughties…

Jacinta: But I really think that may be the next development – female power with men at last knowing their place as helpmeet. Lots of sex, fewer kids, and lots of collaborative scientific work to enable us to live better in a fragile biosphere, with a growing variety of other species.

Canto: Hmmm. Tell me more about the sex.

Jacinta: Haha well, what’s evolving is a drift away from religion as explanation, as we continue to pursue the history of our species, our planet, our galaxy, our universe, and considering those old religions were mostly born out of patriarchy and the male control of female sexuality, making a virtue of female virginity and prudery, sexuality will be released into the fresh air, so to speak. I mean, there will always be a power aspect to sex, no doubt, but with women on top, the empowerment will undergo an enormous, enlightening shift. I wish I could be there, in the vasty future, to witness it.

Canto: Dog knows we need more than a bit of female leadership right now, what with Putin, Xi Jinping, Orban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-un, Trump (still President apparently), Lukashenko, Bashar al-Ashad, Duterte, MBS, Raisi, some Burmese fucker, etc etc. We really need more ball-cutters.

Jacinta: Well, obviously, I agree. Back in little old Australia…

Canto: Quite young as a nation, but very old as a culture, odd that.

Jacinta: Not odd at all, actually. Yes, back here in a nation largely sheltered from the storm, we’re too small, population-wise, to be internationally despotic the way Putinland is currently being. But I’m happy that we’re joining the chorus of condemnation against Putinesque aggression. I’m just wondering if this is the future. This attack on Ukraine seems like a throwback, throwing us as far back as – well, Putin isn’t even an ‘enlightened despot’ in the tradition of Catherine II, or Elizabeth (Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762). He’s more like Peter the Macho Thug, whose reign certainly modernised Russia, but the women who followed him did a far better job of improving Russia’s internal state. It was of course a time of violence and warfare, and these women were always surrounded by macho advisers at a time when warfare was a way of life, but their record for internal improvement stands the test of time. Russia has never had a female ruler since Catherine the Great – and it shows.

Canto: Yes, I know it annoys you that these early female leaders are like anomalies – treated as honorary males, surrounded by male advisors and expected, in fact virtually forced, to continue the fashion of aggressive territorial expansion. But current female leaders are a different matter, and maybe the current macho thugocracies are a dying breed, trying to bring everything down with their last gasps.

Jacinta: Yes, pleasant fantasies indeed. But with the growth of global problems – global warming, air pollution, species loss, refugee crises (caused by those thugocracies, but also by climate change and the eternal tendency of animals to move from high-danger low-opportunity regions to regions of lower danger and higher opportunity) we need collaborative solutions, rather than macho weapons build-ups. Enough arguing, let’s collaborate, and if the men want to contribute, they’re welcome. If not, they need to be put in their place. We need to set our social evolution in that direction. The point isn’t to understand our human world, it’s to change it.


David Christian, Origin story: a Big History of everything, 2018


Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

more on macho thuggery and a world turned upside-down

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WPL – female political leaders past and present


Jacinta: So here’s the thing – after the horrible cannon-fodder event of 1914-18 that became known as the Great War, and subsequently WW1, the League of Nations came into being, to try to ensure that no futher war of such magnitude, such destruction, would occur. It would be a forum for the negotiation of grievances, a move towards a more civilised behaviour between nations.

Canto: Yes there must’ve been a sense of urgency as the death toll and the suffering came to light. But then it all happened again – so it failed?

Jacinta: Well of course I’m talking about this as the world watches a piece of obvious butchery in Ukraine, over a hundred years after that ‘war to end all wars’. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, these institutions have been, IMHO, vitally important 20th century developments, but they haven’t effectively prevented wars and invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. And war is hell, especially for those who’ve made the mistake of being born in those fought-over lands.

Canto: Yes, the ICC is massively hamstrung by the fact that the most militarily powerful countries, the USA, Russia and China, won’t join it, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to be held accountable. What’s the point of being massively powerful if you don’t get to throw your weight around with impunity?

Jacinta: Yes, and to be bonoboesque about it, none of those countries have come close to having female leadership in recent times. Okay, the USA has at last celebrated it first Vice-President, but it’s not really an elected position. There have been 45 male US Presidents, and zero female Presidents so far. Not bad for a group that represents just under half the population. China hasn’t had a woman on top since the much under-rated Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, a kind of divinely elected inner Cabinet, which has been operational, more or less, since the 1950s, has had fifty-four members, of which zero have been women.

Canto: Wow – not even a female impersonator? But then, during the one child policy, something miraculous happened. Almost all the kids born turned out to be male. You can hardly blame the CCP for that.

Jacinta: And as for Putinland’s mighty ruler, he’s an unabashed misogynist and he plans to rule his namesake for the next 200 years or so, so the chances of any of those countries allowing themselves to be accountable to the rest of humanity are close to zero for the foreseeable.

Canto: Yes, and it’s funny how the nations most likely to be naughty to the tunes of their national anthems are the ones least willing to defend themselves in open court. I’ve found that there are some other interesting countries that aren’t interested in the ICC – Israel, Libya, Iraq – nations with a very spotty recent history.

Jacinta: And nothing much in the way of female leadership. Israel did have Golda Meir, described in Encyclopedia Brittanica as the country’s first female Prime Minister, as if there were others.

Canto: And then there are nations where women are barely allowed to hold down a job never mind boss others around. So what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, all we can do is try to lay down foundations. And there’s a groundswell of interest in women’s empowerment, it’s been happening for decades. When we compare women’s wages with those of men, and grumble about a gap that never seems to narrow, we need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago, in the long arc of human history, that women weren’t considered a part of the paid work-force at all. Now they own businesses, run science labs and occasionally help to govern nations. And I should mention that here in little old South Australia – where we’ve never had a female Premier, our newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas celebrated his victory with a press chit-chat flanked by five new female MPs as well as Deputy Premier Susan Close. A sixth new female Labor candidate looks set to win her seat.

Canto: So how do we promote the empowerment of women in Australia, before taking over the world?

Jacinta: Well the government occasionally brings out policy documents, such as the ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy’, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in early 2016. It recognises that ‘nowhere in the world have women and men achieved equality’, and points out, in its global analysis, that GDPs would rise everywhere if such equality could be realised, or approached. It points out the obvious benefits of female education, for women, their children and the community, and the greater stability and peace that comes with female empowerment (no mention of bonobos however). As was pointed out in the military document I read some months ago, a greater female presence in the military leads to better peace-keeping. This DFAT document repeats the point:

Greater gender equality contributes to stability and peace. Women are often instrumental in brokering ceasefires in conflict situations, and peacekeeping operations involving women as soldiers, police and civilian personnel are more effective. Greater equality can prevent disputes escalating to armed conflict.

Canto: That must be why Putin and his Patriarch aren’t into gender equality so much. And just to change the subject, I’ve heard that, since their invasion isn’t going so well – possibly because the billions spent on the military have been largely siphoned off by the luxury yacht-loving kleptocrats in his inner circle – they’re now trying to pretend that they’ve been largely successful in their main aim, which is to gain complete control of the Donbas and Crimean regions, and this is really all they wanted in the first place, etc etc.

Jacinta: Well, I’ll believe that when I hear something from Putin himself, but that’s highly unlikely. They’re basically fucked, though Putin will never admit it. Hoist by his own macho petard, I’d say. Anyway, this document from six years ago talks the talk convincingly enough, and with a likely change of Federal government in the next few months, the talk will continue. It promotes a three-pronged approach to its aid, trade and foreign relations programs – 1) Enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building. 2) Promoting women’s economic empowerment. 3) Ending violence against women and girls. Which all sounds great, though all this needs to start at home. Also the document argues that ‘at least 80 per cent of investments [presumably by DFAT], regardless of their objectives, should effectively address gender equality issues in their implementation’. What about the other 20 per cent? Where did the 80 per cent come from?

Canto: Well, 80%, 90%, 60%, it’s all just talk, who’s going to be doing the measurements? Surely the important thing is that they’re pushing for a much better situation than pertains at the moment. And meanwhile on the world stage there’s an organisation, probably quite informal, called Women Political Leaders (WPL), consisting of former and some current national Prime Ministers and such, as well as heads of the European Commission, high-ups at the UN and so forth, all promoting the benefits of female leadership, benefits we’ve outlined so many times. They held a major forum last July, which seems to have garnered little attention.

Jacinta: I’m hoping that the machismo antics of Putin, Xi Jinping and others, which of course are garnering plenty of attention, might have more effect on our appreciation of female leadership than these forums, which of course are a pointer to the future. Unfortunately, our attention will always be more drawn to  the thuggery of these types than to the speeches and achievements of intelligent women. Violence, destruction and suffering are riveting because they bring to mind our own vulnerability, and often our own sheer good luck at not finding ourselves in the thick of it. And I sometimes wonder whether, if we ever achieve something like a bonobo world, many lifetimes into the future, our victory over the male hellholes of the world will render us complacent and soft…

Canto: Haha, little likelihood of that – after all, even the bonobos males have to be kept in check by what Bjork calls ‘an army of me’. So I suspect bonobos aren’t as complacent as they might look.

Jacinta: Yes, happy loving relations often need a lot of work. Hostile relations tend to come naturally – at least so it seems from within our patriarchal culture. So, nothing for it but to keep working for a world turned upside-down.


Written by stewart henderson

March 29, 2022 at 4:04 pm

the anti-bonobo world 2: Putinland

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So what is the opposite of a ‘bonobo world’ in human terms? I’d describe it as a macho thugocracy. The chimp world, from my research, isn’t anywhere near the kind of macho thugocracy that we find in some places in the human world, in which the concentration of male power is extreme. The chimp world is certainly more aggressive and more hierarchical than the bonobo world, but alliances are constantly shifting, and females make alliances with both males and other females, to protect their young and sometimes themselves against growing males who are constantly challenging the current hierarchy.

With humans, organisation and power became more institutional, but with democracy, power tends to be more fleeting and more dependent on collaboration, promise-keeping, popularity and the like. So a more democratic region tends to lend itself to a more bonobo-like culture. There used to be a claim that democracies never make war with each other, but one should never say never. Nevertheless, with the advent of modern democracy, the WEIRD world has clearly settled down into less violent forms of exploitation. And in terms of female power and influence, the door is slowly creaking open.

Some of us are more impatient than others. I need to recall that, 100 years ago, in 1920 to be precise, women were awarded their first degrees at Oxford University. In that same year, women in the USA were granted the right to vote, after years of struggle and vitriolic resistance. Social evolution has been increasingly rapid, but it’s still too slow for many of us to bear, as the sands of one lifetime start to run out.

And there are frustrating reversals. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, written in the late forties, she described the gains made by women in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, influenced by the feminist principles of Engels and Marx as well as the mostly British suffragette movement, followed by a backlash in the 30s and 40s as Stalin established his stranglehold on power. She ended her analysis on a grim note:

… today the demands of repopulation have given rise to a different family policy: the family has become the elementary social cell and woman is both worker and housekeeper. Sexual morality is at its strictest; since the law of June 1936, reinforced by that of June 1941, abortion has been banned and divorce almost suppressed; adultery is condemned by moral standards. Strictly subordinated to the state like all workers, strictly bound to the home, but with access to political life and the dignity that productive work gives, the Russian woman is in a singular situation that would be worth studying in its singularity; circumstances unfortunately prevent me from doing this.

Stalinist Russia and its profoundly corrupt and terrorising state control heavily impeded feminine and general freedoms, a situation that largely persisted until the advent of Gorbachev in the 1980s. What followed, according to the political science academic Brian Grodsky, was an unprincipled mess of grab-bag opportunism under Boris Yeltsin and his cronies:

…. Russians watched as Yeltsin clumsily dragged the country through a decade of lawlessness, poverty and humility, all in the name of American-supported democracy. The economy plummeted while a new tiny class of ostentatious “haves” made their fortune frequently by plundering what people had built during Soviet times.

Putin, the acme of the smart, devious, unprincipled KGB operative, was able to take advantage of the situation, quite likely by contributing to the murderous chaos before presenting himself as ministering angel to the country’s plummeting economy. He used Stalin’s tactics of sowing suspicion everywhere, while managing to sell himself as a friend of the ‘common people’, a skill that was never in Stalin’s make-up.

There is no doubt, though, that Putin is a ruthless, murderous thug who hates democracy with a passion. He’s clearly obsessed with his eastern border and the democratisation of any of Russia’s neighbours or economic ‘partners’. He’s much more comfortable among fellow macho thugs, as long as he can manipulate them. Within the country he’s intent on maintaining a conservative, masculinised culture. More than any other leader before him, certainly throughout the Soviet era, he has fostered close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, the leader of which, their equivalent of the Catholic Pope, is called the Patriarch. If only this was a parody.

But the promotion of patriarchal values via conservative Christianity is only one piece of the attack on feminism. Like the Chinese thugocracy, which chortles under the exquisitely meaningless title, the Chinese Communist Party, Putinland decries feminism – a campaign to promote equal rights, opportunities and respect for women – as liberal-democratic decadence. In her 2018 essay, ‘Russian politics of masculinity and the decay of feminism’, Alexandra Orlova describes the state propagandising of opposition figures and even dissenting nations like Ukraine as weak and ‘feminine’, even resorting to video campaigns dressing such figures up as transvestites and ‘fairies’. Traditional, unchanging values are continuously promoted in an unrelenting propaganda war, which unsurprisingly connects feminism with gay freedoms under the ‘banner’ of degeneracy. State-funded video ads for the already-rigged 2018 elections presented the alternative to the status quo as an enforced de-masculinisation of Russian society presented in absurdist comic terms.

Much of this disastrous absurdity springs from the failures of the Soviet era, which, as Beauvoir and Orlova make clear, began very promisingly for feminism. Why such a failure? The answer lies, it seems to me, in the moral congealing of a top-down, anti-democratic system, as existed under patriarchal catholicism for centuries in Europe. Communist ‘values’ have never been particularly coherent, but they were soon replaced by a ‘we know best’ authoritarianism which divided the rulers from the ruled and sought to promulgate rules that would maintain a status quo which would benefit the empowered. A promotion of stasis – of traditional or eternal values. For example, as Orlova puts it, ‘by the 1930s the Soviet government claimed that women’s issues were largely solved.’ Compare this to the Beauvoir statement above, which Orlova would surely endorse. Under Putin, nothing has changed, which essentially means that Russia has gone backward compared to the WEIRD world, in which progress has been slow enough to be extremely frustrating for some.

There was, of course, a window of opportunity in the nineties before Putin consolidated his power at the end of that decade. During this period, WEIRD organisations were active in promoting feminism and other progressive values in a nation whose immediate future was uncertain. All of these initiatives have been quashed with the advent of Putinland.

Putin is, as of this writing, 69 years and 4 months old. He has dispensed with the charade of rigged elections, and so has managed, by fiat, to avoid the skirmishes that alpha male chimps and gorillas have to face in order to maintain a hegemony that nature determines will pass on to someone else, usually through further violent confrontation. He’ll leave behind a nation that’s left behind, considering how globally connected the world – especially the WEIRD  world – has become. The Russian people, though, are better than this. Its beleaguered women will bounce back. Already they can see through the propagandist bullshit of Putin’s thugocracy. Like a coiled spring, they’re waiting for release. Any day now.

Evidence of a more positive future is clear enough. Orlova focuses in her essay on two issues that exercised the Russian court system, which, like the Duma, is stacked with ‘traditional values’ conservatives, and highlighted its absurdity vis-a-vis the rest of the WEIRD world. Firstly, the Pussy Riot débâcle, and secondly the Markin v Russia case regarding military leave, which was finally taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

To take the second case first, Konstantin Markin, a single father of three children, was employed by the military as a radio operator. His request for parental leave in 2010 was rejected, due to the fact that, under Russian law, such leave could only be granted to women. Two levels of appeal under the Russian justice system were rejected, and the judicial reasoning in these cases, and in response to the European Court, which found in favour of Markin, reveal how problematic the Russian judiciary’s attitude was in the face of obvious reality. The chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, claimed that the special role of women in the raising of children was supported by contemporary psychology. Presumably, he considered this ‘fact’ to be sufficient to prohibit a male who happened to be raising children from being provided the support given to women. The children don’t appear to have been given very much consideration in the matter. What Zorkin and his ilk proposed should be done about the children in these circumstances is unknown. I would also presume that Russia, like the USA, doesn’t feel itself bound by judicial bodies beyond its boundaries. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Markin ever got his leave, but I would agree with the Strasbourg observers, linked below, that the well-being of the children in the case should have been front and centre, the first and virtually only focus of the courts in all cases.

The Pussy Riot events are, of course, better known, and the humour and deliberate outrageousness of their activities were bound to endear them to the WEIRD world that Putinland pretends to despise. Tellingly the Russian courts were most ‘outraged’ by the group’s takeover of a particularly male section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to stage a feminist performance. One section of the court’s decision indicates their attitude:

While following the ideology of feminism does not constitute a crime or another type of an offence in the Russian Federation, a number of religions, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, cannot be reconciled with the ideas of feminism. While feminism does not represent a religious ideology, the followers of feminism are interfering with such public spheres as public morals, norms of propriety, family relations, and sexual relations, all of which have been historically built on the basis of religious principles.

This is essentially the dictate of a religious institution rather than a secular one. The religious organisations mentioned have, of course, been opposed to the equal treatment of women for centuries, and are obvious and necessary targets for feminist and human rights organisations.

As of this moment of writing, the forces of Putinland are about to invade Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation. Whether or not Putin wins this battle, he has no chance of winning the war of values. Meanwhile, horrors will be inflicted and needless suffering will occur. Fighting the anti-bonobo world is going to be difficult for an increasingly bonoboesque WEIRD world that prefers to make love. I’ve no idea how we can overcome this macho push, at least in the short term, but long-term victory will definitely involve women, in vast numbers.


Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

February 19, 2022 at 5:17 pm

me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half


I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world: monogamy, heavy culture, gynocracy

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“our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of the weakness of their intellect, should be under the power of guardians”

Cicero,  Pro Murena


Boudica of the Iceni – to the life

Having been brought up in a disastrous monogamous relationship has given me a lifelong bias against monogamy – I should make this important admission from the start. Of course, I’ve since witnessed many successful and happy monogamous pairings, but I can’t help feeling that social pressures (and religious pressures, but those are gradually weakening in the WEIRD world) and long-term cultural expectations are acting as a kind of cement to relationships that could have been more open.

The recent dithering of our Australian federal government in finally legalising same-sex marriage (largely due to the composition of our federal parliament being significantly more religious than the general population) had me thinking in something of a blooming, buzzing confusion. My initial reaction was – what do they want to get married for? When I realised that one important reason was that marriage was supported by law in various ways – spouse inheritance for example – as well as being an important form of public recognition in the face of naysayers, I relented. But still – monogamy as the ultimate legal achievement?

As a teenager in the late sixties and early seventies, I felt energised by the sense around me that so many social mores were being up-ended. Dress codes became degendered, colour was in for everyone, and free love was in the air (up there just beyond my reach). It didn’t last, of course – no hippy parliamentarians, judges, business leaders in the nineties, or very few. Men in blue or black ties, women (the few who achieved such prominence) in stupid shoes, it all seemed horribly retrograde – one step forward and two steps back. Currently, there’s a lot of talk about community values – perhaps underlined by the current pandemic – but the hard shell of the nuclear family, with one or two parents, and the occasional grandparent – shows no sign of cracking.

As mentioned previously, I read Children of the Dream in my youth, hoping to find an alternative to nuclear family monogamy, long before I discovered bonoboism. The kibbutz world, though, had little about it that was organic or evolutionary. It was a devised, top-down socialist thingummy, and its ruling shibboleth – ‘from each according to her ability to each according to her need’ had an element of enforcement about it, while bonobos appear to have arrived at a similar system without a conscious thought. And there were/are other problems with the kibbutzim. It was essentially monocultural, though gentiles were allowed in, if they toed the line. Multiculturalism, and multicultural interaction and exchange, it seems to me, must be an essential feature of a successful human community in the modern world. In fact Israel is a country that shrieks failure in this regard – a failure that was essentially intended from the formation of the new state of Israel – to the despair, I should add, of many Jews with better intentions.

To continue on this theme of culture, I like the idea of the light culture/heavy culture distinction. I was born into a Scottish culture transplanted to Australia – about as far away from Scotland as the globe allows (though culturally not so much). This allowed me to dip in and out of the shallows of Scottish culture more or less at my leisure. My mother occasionally mentioned the hope of one of her offspring learning highland dancing or bagpipe-paying, but nothing came of it – though I wish I’d kept the kilt I was gifted at age thirteen or so, and had the chutzpah to wear it to school, and beyond. In any case, our move to Australia further lightened a culture that was already blended into a more generalised WEIRD world. This is important, as not all cultures are equally valuable – a controversial claim for some, but argued eloquently, for example, by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape. I recently met a friendly New Zealander at an art event, a man who, by his features, I recognised as of Māori origin. When I mentioned this, he became almost aggressively negative. He wanted nothing to do with that culture, he’d come to Australia to escape all that. Of course I didn’t press him on any details, which left me free to speculate wildly. The Māori male has become a stereotype of macho toughness, a stereotype much-promoted by non-Māoris, according to Waikato University’s Professor Brendan Hokowhitu. However, stereotypes generally have some basis in truth. My first experience of Māori maledom was a bantering conversation in an Adelaide pub, which led to him grabbing my arm tightly and pushing his staring, tattooed face into mine. I was quite sober and quite sure I hadn’t said anything to offend any reasonable, or reasonably unreasonable person. I should also add that, physically, I’m a rather flimsy male specimen. However, I didn’t want to be humiliated, so I simply stared back at him, and waited for his whole-body erection to subside, which it eventually did. After which I managed to skedaddle with a modicum of dignity, only cursing that I hadn’t notified the bar staff of his behaviour.

This was heavy culture, it seemed to me, of the most physical type. Another quite different example, came to me via a highly intelligent young student whom I was tutoring on Zoom recently. She lived in Australia but English was her second language and I was helping her with its connotative aesthetics vis-à-vis essay-writing. In one essay she described returning to India for a holiday, and the culture shock she received, as a near-adult, in being confronted by her extended family’s adherence to the caste system. As a member of the Brahmin caste, and as a person who’d experienced years of relative egalitarianism in Australia, she was well placed to recognise the casual injustice, and the blindness to it, in her extended family’s behaviour. She tried to confront her elders about it, but of course as a teenager she lacked the status and the articulacy to be effective, and was only too happy to return to a future in Australia.

It seems to me that heavy cultures are invariably patriarchal, and monogamous, often punitively so for women. We can’t always blame religions, which are generally born into a patriarchal culture, which they then reinforce. Perhaps the most patriarchal culture in human history was that of the ancient Greeks, often described as the culture that gave birth to democracy, a ridiculous claim given its dependence on slavery and its treatment of half the population, or potentially half, since female infanticide was almost compulsory among them. Archaeologists digging up bones from that era have noted the overwhelming preponderance of adult male bodies over females, largely the result of an unofficial, and rather self-defeating, ‘no female child’ policy. The Romans were no better – no ancient Roman female, apart from the odd goddess, has ever been recognised for her sagacity or prowess in anything, as far as I’m aware. The Romans were apparently shocked, on occupying Brittania, to find that certain women there, such as Cartimandua and Boudica, wielded actual power over estates and armies. Tacitus, Caesar and Cassius Dio are, unfortunately, the only writers to have presented these women to the world, and being Roman, are highly unreliable sources. Boudica in particular has become a woman for all ages since her time, with portraits of her reflecting the shifting social attitudes towards powerful women through the centuries. It’s quite likely, though, that the Romans’ prurient interest in the warrior women of Britannia exaggerated their power and their numbers. With territorial disputes often descending into warfare, men would surely have been at the helm during much of Iron Age Britain. The epigraphic evidence is limited mostly to militaristic inscriptions, and there is a weighting of archeological evidence from the Romanised aristocracy at a later date. We have little idea of the lives and status of Briton women before the Roman ascendancy.

Of course we don’t need prior examples of somewhat more gynocratic cultures to mold our own, though it would help to inspire. We also need to be aware of what we’re up against, as if it hasn’t long been obvious. In Afghanistan, as I write, the new government appears to be cutting girls off from all but the most elementary education. How Greek can you get? And this is only the news that’s speaking loudest to us at present. Lack of opportunity for women at the highest level is a commonplace for virtually every country on the globe. And the fewer women there at that level, the harder it tends to be for them. And yet…



Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm

capitalism, bonobos and feminism

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I’ve been getting stuff in my Youtube feed from Chris Hedges and Richard Wolfe, for some reason. Noam Chomsky comes up too, of course. And because I’m writing about bonobos and a dream of a female dominated society, I’ve grabbed a book from our shelves by Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl, just one of many feminist texts waiting around for my consumption. And the above-mentioned individuals all have one obvious target in common – capitalism.

So what is capitalism? I’ll try to give my take. Capitalism isn’t a political system, except in the broadest sense. And it isn’t a system, or a behaviour, limited to humans. Birds seek to capitalise, bees seek to capitalise, even the plants and the trees seek to capitalise. Sometimes individually, sometimes in collaboration. The exploitation of solar energy, for example, is pure capitalism, capitalising on a more or less free resource. Shocking. As the most hypersocial of all species, we collaborate in capitalising, to the benefit of some of our own, to the detriment of others. Feudalism was essentially a capitalist system, the primary capital being land, or territory. It wasn’t a fair system – humans have never been fair, any more than any other species has. They’ve sought to optimise opportunities, for themselves and their rellies or in-group. It’s hardly surprising that we only really conceived the concept of human rights in the 20th century, after a few hundred thousands of years of existence as a species. It took two brutal world wars and the threat of being obliterated by a nuclear holocaust to bring us to our collective senses. Human rights are of course an artifice. We’re not created equal, we’ll never have equality of opportunity, and we’re only free to be human, which is quite a limitation. If you think we’re free to do whatever you want, try it and you won’t last long. In this we’re no different from elephants, hyenas and other highly social species.

The political pundits mentioned above rage a lot against capitalism, and prognosticate its overthrow in tomorrowland. What will replace ir? That’s a bit more vague, but they have faith in the young and the oppressed, who they consider a lot nicer than their overlords. Now I have to admit I haven’t met too many capitalist overlords, but I’ve met a few proles and strugglers, and I’d describe them as a mixed bag. In fact, that’s how I’d describe everyone I’ve met, including myself. This is surely why every state that has tried to institute ‘socialism’, some kind of fake equality sent down from above, ends up devolving into dictatorship. There’s a great line from Immanuel Kant, which roughly translates as ‘from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing was ever made straight’. It follows that no political system fashioned from crooked timber will ever be more ‘true’ than its rough constituents – but timber is valuable for all that.

The bonobo world isn’t free of violence, hierarchy or, if we can call it that, capitalism. It simply seems, from all observations, rather less violent, hierarchical and exploitative than the chimp world, out of which we appear to have grown, at least until recently. Now, after, it seems, eons of male-dominated human societies, which have mixed ingenuity and inventiveness with warfare and oppression, we are, at least in the WEIRD world, talking about female empowerment, and witnessing effective female leadership in government, science, business and other human affairs. We’re witnessing, I think, feel and hope, the start of something big. Leaving the sexual stuff to one side – though I wouldn’t mind a bit on the side – bonobos have learned to live within their means, to support each other in child-rearing, foraging and play. Humans are, of course, far more ambitious, and our hypersociality has brought about a biosphere-transforming dominance of the planet, for better or worse.

We’re recognising, now, the dangers posed by our own dynamism. ‘Disposable’ plastics everywhere, mountains of abandoned clothing and other rubbish, the consumption of millions of years of transformed carbon-based life-forms in the form of fossil fuel, the destabilisation and contamination caused by fracking, the deforestations and thoughtless reforestations that are destroying essential, age-old habitats, the warming and volatilising of our atmosphere and oceans, all of this is being increasingly brought to our generally limited attention. Ambitious solutions are being sought, fixes that will enable us to continue our rapacity regardless. Others suggest that we should pull our collective head in and live within our means. But how will we ‘begin infinity’ if we do that? By terraforming other planets and starting the same thing over again?

The current usage of terms such as capitalism and socialism, even of conservatism and liberalism, tend to get in the way of our future needs. There are no magic solutions to how we might negotiate our hypersocial future. Jess Scully’s book Glimpses of Utopia is excellent and highly recommended, my only slight quibble is with the title – there are no utopias in the real world. The book’s subtitle – ‘real ideas for a fairer world’ – is far less catchy but a more accurate description of the book’s contents. Scully recounts collective solutions to problems of housing, decision-making, taxation and financing in such far-flung countries as Iceland, Taiwan, Australia and India. They aren’t all being led by women of course, but they’re a great antidote and counter-example to the top-down, know-it-all macho thugocracies that have failed so miserably in dealing with the current pandemic – a failure whose history has, of course, yet to be written, and will, I’m sure, prove to be more devastating than we currently realise.

I need to point out that I have no dewy-eyed admiration of the superior capacities of human females – or of bonobo females, for that matter. Both genders are no doubt as diversely repellant as they are diversely inspiring, on an individual level. I’m impressed, though, with the ‘natural experiment’ presented to us by bonobos and chimps in negotiating their collective existence and their habitat. As we’ve come to question patriarchy only in the past 150 years or so, and to undermine it, to some small degree, in the last few decades, we’re seeing suggestive signs that female leadership in sufficient numbers – and we’ve yet to experience those numbers, and are in fact far from having that experience – makes a real difference in well-being, inclusivity and support. Will it diminish human creativity? To believe so assumes that creativity is dependent on competition, but the fruits of creativity rely on communication and collaboration – and in any case there’s no reason to believe that female humans are less competitive than males – just a little less murderously so.

So this is the point – bonobo society isn’t utopian, and overthrowing ‘capitalism’, or human behaviour, isn’t going to lead to utopia, or anything other than another capitalist arrangement. It’s just that bonobo society is happier, calmer, sexier and less destructive than chimp society, and this is clearly connected to the position of females in that society. Who doesn’t want that?


Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2021 at 12:12 pm

bonobos, religion and feminism

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bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

a bonobo world 60?: sex, gender and other species

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matriarchs in a complex society

Jacinta: So we need to talk about sex. Though of course bonobos never talk about it.

Canto: Yes, bonobos appear to have sex to calm each other down, and perhaps just for fun or because they’re bored.

Jacinta: I prefer to read books. It’s all about sublimation, they say.

Canto: Ahh sublimation. We had a lot of Freudian stuff around the house when I was a lad. So eros and thanatos, the superego and the id, polymorphous perversity and the Oedipus complex, these were some of the first smart-alecky terms I ever learned. And sublimation was a big favourite. The idea that all our creative and scientific activities were just a way of channelling or subverting the massive force of our sex drive seemed perfectly coherent to a horny teenager. I thought I’d found the secret of life – just stop channelling and subverting, get our perversity back to being unimorphous, and the life of sexual bliss would be ours.

Jacinta: Yeah – I don’t know where to begin. Humans have created effective theories about the universe, about species diversity, about nanoscale quantum behaviour and whatnot – I mean, would we ever have developed the means to have this conversation if we’d never managed to separate our brains from our genitals?

Canto: Okay, back to bonobos. Of course sex doesn’t completely dominate their lives, but what makes them so attractive to many of is the fact that they’re so relaxed about it. I blame religion.

Jacinta: Hmmm, but it’s entirely possible to have a religion that’s pretty relaxed about sex.

Canto: Okay, I blame those religions that are not relaxed about sex – that’s to say, most religions that have dominated our species, at least recently.

Jacinta: Well, my question is, can we as a species ever evolve to be as relaxed about sex as bonobos, without giving up on fully understanding or exploring life, the universe and everything?

Canto: Ah but, though it might be true that we are but one species, we’re tremendously diverse. There are doubtless many individual humans that are just as relaxed and free about sex as bonobos, and even the odd sub-culture that takes sex far further than any bonobo ever would.

Jacinta: Well, no doubt, but they tend to be underground – in dungeons with leather, chains and whips. Weekend fun, and then back to the office on Monday. We tend to cut sexual play off from the rest of our activities, if we engage in it at all. That’s not the bonobo way.

Canto: Well, even bonobos probably recognise there’s a time for every purpose, under heaven. But apart from the problems of sex in the workplace and the school playground, there’s also the interesting question of the relationship between bonobo sexual activity and the prominent role of females. Presumably that’s not coincidental. Do you think our sexual sides will get more airplay with the coming matriarchy?

Jacinta: Well, male societies seem to be more aggressively controlling. And more hierarchical. Controlling the females would’ve been a priority from the start. Making them feel inferior and dirty during menses, taking advantage of their reduced capacity during late pregnancy and the postpartum period, when they’d be reduced to ‘menial chores’, which would gradually – since they performed them so well – be seen as the chores they were designed for. And so the division of labour would result in more hierarchy.

Canto: And with bonobos female supremacy, if that’s not too strong a word, seems to have been the result of female-female bonding. Hard to know how that got started, but I imagine that the move, in humans, to separate unit housing and nuclear families would’ve militated against such bonding. And with bonobo promiscuity, males wouldn’t know which children were theirs, if any. One of the major purposes of human monogamy, I presume, would be to ensure that males would know who their children were, for patrilineal purposes, among others.

Jacinta: Yes, and certainly monogamy is still very much the norm, though it has become slightly less patriarchal in the wealthier economies. I do think the key to women getting on top is sisterhood, but not an exclusive sisterhood. We need to encourage men to realise that it’s in their interest to join us, and do what we tell them to do. But really we’ve got a long way to go. Men have been dominant for a very long time, and they still are.

Canto: There’s also the blowback from feminism. Men with guns, proud boys, oath keepers and shitkickers. And men who have been ‘stiffed’, according to the book by Susan Faludi.

Jacinta: Yes, men who feel their purpose in life has been shattered because their kids’ school principal is a woman. It depresses me to think about the enormity of the challenge, when female leadership seems so obviously superior by and large, and yet this superiority is so regularly denied.

Canto: This is an interesting question. Women generally talk about gender equality, while men – some men – worry about women taking over, as if we’re anywhere near that happening. But actually gender equality isn’t a thing among our primate cousins – that’s to say, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utangs and gibbons. They’re either female-dominant, like bonobos, or male-dominant, like more or less all the rest. And if you look at the multifarious human cultures, its probably the same thing – 99% patriarchal, 1% matriarchal, 0% gender-equal. It’s a bit like a see-saw, the guys at each end are virtually never exactly the same weight, so the see-saw has almost zero chance of being equally balanced.

Jacinta: So, might as well be honest and go for female supremacy. But maybe we should look more closely at your claim, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to primate examples. Take dolphins, for example. We’ve had huge difficulties in studying them, gender-wise, because it’s so hard to tell the sexes apart. All they’ve been able to find is that male dolphins tend to range more widely from the pod than females, which doesn’t appear to say anything about dominance.

Canto: Hmmm. Isn’t that the same with cats – I mean the domesticated types? The males range more widely at night, presumably for sexual purposes.

Jacinta: Males chase, females choose? It’s a thought. Anyway, elephants are essentially matriarchal, and as to birds, some species of which are now regarded as having smarts that are up there with the smartest monkeys, many of them seem to fit the bill for gender equality, but they’re maybe too far removed from us to provide us with too much guidance.

Canto: Well, hang on a minute. Corvids are a super-social lot, with a lot of extended family support in bringing up chicks, warning of danger and so on.

Jacinta: Yes but elephants are at least mammals, and they also live in extended families, and what with the obesity epidemic, we’re beginning to look more like them.

Canto: Okay, so next time we’ll talk about gender roles in other species, particularly primates, at least for starters. That’ll allow us to avoid the sticky subject of sex for a while longer.


9 of the Biggest Lies Christianity Tells Us About Sex and Marriage

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The betrayal of the modern man, 1999


Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2021 at 2:35 pm

a bonobo world: the thirty percent rule

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the parliamentary glass ceiling?


Canto: We talked about the thirty percent rule before. So where did it come from and what does it signify?

Jacinta: Well that’s very much worth exploring, because if it’s true that a 30% ‘infiltration’ of women into various social organisations – such as business corporations, governments, political parties, law firms, military organisations, NGOs, whatever – improves the efficacy of those organisations, then what about a 40% infiltration – or 60%, or 80%?

Canto: Or total control? The ‘males as pets or playthings’ argument comes up again.

Jacinta: So yes, before we go there – and I do think it’s a fun place to go – let’s look at the origins of the 30% rule, or the 30% aspiration, or whatever. The UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995 was considered, by some, as a major step forward, at least theoretically. It developed, and I quote, ‘strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern’, one of which was ‘women in power and decision-making’. In that section, I found this passage:

Despite the widespread movement towards democratization in most countries, women are largely underrepresented at most levels of government, especially in ministerial and other executive bodies, and have made little progress in attaining political power in legislative bodies or in achieving the target endorsed by the Economic and Social Council of having 30 per cent women in positions at decision-making levels by 1995. Globally, only 10 per cent of the members of legislative bodies and a lower percentage of ministerial positions are now held by women. Indeed, some countries, including those that are undergoing fundamental political, economic and social changes, have seen a significant decrease in the number of women represented in legislative bodies.

The section went on to expand on the need for female decision-making input in ‘art, culture, sports, the media, education, religion and the law’…

Canto: So this 30% target goes back even before the Beijing Conference. Fat chance of achieving it by 1995!

Jacinta: It’s a bit ironic that this conference was held in China, where women are supposed to hold up half the sky. You could hardly find a nation more male-dominated in its leadership. They’ve virtually outlawed feminism there, as yet another decadent western thing.

Canto: So, looking at this document, it includes an action plan for governments, political parties and others, including women’s organisations, NGOs and even the UN itself, but it doesn’t present any argument for this 30% target. Presumably they feel the argument is self-evident.

Jacinta: Interestingly, in the UN section, they’ve made the demands upon themselves even more stringent: ‘monitor progress towards achieving the Secretary-General’s target of having women hold 50 per cent of managerial and decision-making positions by the year 2000’.

Canto: Haha, I wonder how that went? No wonder many people don’t take the UN seriously.

Jacinta: Well, maybe there’s nothing wrong in aiming high. Aiming low certainly won’t get you there. Anyway, there’s a 2015 update on women in power and decision-making, which finds slight improvements in political power positions, very unevenly distributed among nations, and there are problems with obtaining data in other decision-making fields. In short, creeping progress in empowerment.

Canto: What’s interesting, though, is the argument that having a higher percentage of women in decision-making is a good thing due to basic fairness – women being 51% of the population – but because women are somehow better.

Jacinta: Well I haven’t found that argument in the UN documents (though I haven’t looked too thoroughly), but I must say it’s an argument that I like to put to anyone who’ll listen, even though I’m not too sure I believe in it myself. And when I do, I get a fair amount of pushback, as the Yanks say, from men and women

Canto: Well I do believe in it, because bonobos. They’re an example of a female-dominated culture of advanced apes, after all. And they’re sexy, if somewhat more hirsute than I’d prefer.

Jacinta: Yes – I’m not quite sure why I’m not so sure. I think maybe it’s just the blowback I get – though it’s often anecdotal, some story about some lousy female boss. A recent article in Forbes (authored by a male) has this to say:

Over the past decades, scientific studies have consistently shown that on most of the key traits that make leaders more effective, women tend to outperform men. For example, humility, self-awareness, self-control, moral sensitivity, social skills, emotional intelligence, kindness, a prosocial and moral orientation, are all more likely to be found in women than men.

Check the links for evidence. He goes on to list the ‘dark side personality traits’ which are more common in men: aggression (often unprovoked), narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism  – see the recent global financial crisis, the current pandemic and white collar crime…

Canto: And they’re the cause of most road fatalities and injuries, by a factor of almost 2 to 1, on a per capita basis. Mostly due to the 17-25 age group, crazy aggression and risk-taking, like elephants in musth.

Jacinta: Yes, and I’ve met men who seriously think women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Moslem men actually, presumably brainwashed. And no doubt intent on brainwashing their kids. Anyway good on the UN for pushing this issue, and surely the success of women leaders in Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland and elsewhere, and the absolutely disastrous leadership of so many men during this pandemic – much of it yet to be properly investigated and assessed – will spur us on to more rapid change in the leadership field.

References and links

Click to access WorldsWomen2015_chapter5_t.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2021 at 5:22 pm

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm