an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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on national and other origins, and good leadership

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So Mr Pudding was going around saying that Ukraine wasn’t a real country for some time before he decided that he needed to abolish its nationhood once and for all, a decision that he clearly made well before the actual invasion of February 24 2022, as the long build-up on the border told us. The fact that he chose to call it a special operation was also a sign that he’d convinced himself that he was simply clarifying a border or territorial issue. 

Well, this issue of real countries and not-so-real countries has exercised me for a while, I suppose ever since I started to read history, which was a long time ago. 

How do nations come to be nations? Well, there clearly isn’t any general formula, but it more often than not involves warfare, rape, dispossession, and suppression of militarily weaker language groups and cultures. It rarely makes for fun reading. I could probably close my eyes, spin a globe of the earth around and if my finger stopped it on any piece of land, there would be a tale of horror to tell, in terms of the human history of that land, in, say, the last thousand or two years. 

I should also say that nations, or states, have been phenomenally successful in terms of the spread of human nature and human culture. My argument against libertarians who inveigh against their bogeyman, the state, and its taxes and regulations and encroachments on our personal liberties, is to point out that we are the most hypersocial mammalian species on the planet. We didn’t get to be 8 billion people, dominating the biosphere, for better or worse, by virtue of our personal liberties. Those personal liberties didn’t provide us with the language we speak, the basic education we’ve been given, the cities and towns and homes we live in, the roads and the cars and bikes and planes we use to get around, and the jobs we’ve managed to secure over the years. All of us living today have been shaped to a considerable degree by the nation-state we live in, and our place in its various hierarchies. 

So you could say that nations have become a necessary evil, what with the crooked timber of humanity and all. But it’s surely an indisputable fact that some nations are better than others. But how do we measure this? And let’s not forget the idea, advanced rather cynically and opportunistically by Mr Pudding, that some nations might be more legitimate than others. Afghanistan, to take an example almost at random, was for centuries a vaguely delineated region of various ethnicities – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others. Warlords from without and within have brought disintegration upon unification upon disintegration to its ‘nationhood’, while its mostly subsistence-level inhabitants have tried to avoid or ignore the mayhem. It’s likely that most of them don’t consider themselves Afghani at all, but stick to their own ethnicity. The Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, for example, don’t pay much attention to the border that separates them from their Pashtun neighbours in northern Pakistan, so I’ve heard. And one has to ask oneself – why should they? The Durand line, separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, was created only in the late 19th century – by the British. So, is Afghanistan a real country? 

And since I find that Afghanistan has a population of almost 40 million, let me compare it to a nation of similar population. Poland is a north-eastern European nation, inhabiting a region long contested between two expansionist states – Prussia/Germany to the west and Russia to the east. One of the largest countries in Europe, it occupies less than half the area of Afghanistan. It had expansionist ambitions itself a few centuries ago, as the senior partner in the Polish-Lithuanian federation, which dominated the Baltic and often posed a threat to Russia, but in the 20th century it suffered terribly in the second world war, and fell under the domination of the Soviet Union in the aftermath. Of course, if you take the history back to the pre-nation period there were various cultures and tribes, generally warring, with the Polans being the largest. By the Middle Ages, this region had become an established and reasonably sophisticated monarchy, though often struggling to maintain its territory against the Prussians, the Mongols and Kievan Rus. Naturally, its borders expanded and contracted with the fortunes of war. The region, though, reached relative heights of prosperity when, as mentioned, it became the dominant partner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for a time the largest state in Europe. Its fortunes ebbed and flowed in the 16th and 17th centuries, but at the end of the 18th it was partitioned between the ascendent powers in the region, Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Poland was finally reconstituted as a nation after the 1914-18 war, but arguably the worst was yet to come…

So again, one might question – is Poland a real country? As a working-class fellow myself, my sympathies go to the ordinary people who grow up gradually discovering what land they’ve landed up in, and the various vicissitudes that have given it the territory and the borders that it currently has.

This is the central point of this post. People are more important than nations. It’s ridiculous to compare them really. And, without getting too much into the free will issue here, it’s obvious that none of us get to choose our parents, or the place and time of our birth. That old philosophical chestnut of being thrown into this world has always rung true for me, and that’s why I don’t get nationalism, though I understand nations as a social evolutionary development.

I’ve been lucky. I was born in Scotland in the 1950s and was taken, with my siblings, to Australia, on the other side of the world. I’ve never seen warfare. I’ve never lived in a thugocracy, and I don’t know if I’d have been aware of living in a thugocracy, had that been the case – that’s to say, if I’d never experienced an open society, in the Popperian sense. I could’ve been born in the 1950s in Vietnam, In which case I may well have been killed in my village or field during what the locals call the American War, and others call the Indo-Chinese War, in which upwards of 2 million died. Or I could have been born in the Soviet Union, thinking who knows what right now about Putin’s treatment of his own and other countries. And so on. If we could all bear in mind that our circumstances, in large, are not of our own making, we might think in less nationalistic terms and in more humane terms. We might even begin to understand and feel a modicum of sympathy for the hill-top gated-community denizens who have grown up convinced of their natural superiority.

So I think in more personal terms. How well are nations, states, communities, cultures serving their members? Whether we measure this in terms of the human rights universalised after the world wars of the 20th century, or the Aristotelian concept of Eudaimonia as reframed and refined over the centuries, or some other valid criteria, it’s surely obvious that some regions are doing better than others, by all reasonable measures. For the sake of human thriving, we need to sympathetically encourage open societies, as well as to stand up en bloc, against bullying and coercion everywhere. There is, of course, no place – no culture or society – where such behaviour is entirely absent, but it’s worth noting that the world’s most authoritarian states, including all 59 of those classified as such by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (I prefer the term ‘thugocracy’), are led by men, whereas, of the top ten democracies, as judged by the compilers of that index, more than half are led by women. Now, there’s no doubt a ‘chicken-and-egg’ issue at play here. That’s to say, do inclusive, participatory, diverse and humane democracies encourage female leadership, or vice versa? The effect, I’m sure, is synergistic, and it’s a positive effect that needs to be spruiked around the world by everyone with the power to do so.


Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2022 at 12:41 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 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.


Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 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 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? 8 – hunter-gatherers, the agricultural revolution, capitalism and science

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We can see that human society, various though it is, has much in common with chimp society. Throughout human history, males have dominated females to an overwhelming degree, and large groups of males have fought to the death over territory, or over which dominant male should vanquish and control the territory of the other. Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of 500 years of political intrigue, betrayal and murder in a system where succession was never based on inheritance but only on political power and skill, with the military always prominent. 

It’s generally accepted that the ancestors of modern human apes engaged in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle from at least 2 million years ago. This very successful lifestyle was dominant until the development of agriculture a mere 12,000 years ago. While there’s much debate on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, the dominant view is that they were more egalitarian than post-agricultural societies, and also chimp societies. Recent research also suggests that the success of the hunter-gatherer system, with its sexual division of labour, enabled Homo sapiens to outcompete Homo neanderthalensis as they spread across the globe. However, it’s unlikely that this lifestyle and social system was invariant across regions or time, and evidence found about one group will not stand for all. Technologies varied, as did diet and climatic conditions. In some of these societies, women joined the hunt, or hunted with other women, depending on the type of quarry being hunted and how the hunt was carried out. Kinship relationships in these early societies tended to be matrilineal, that is, descent through the female line is generally acknowledged, though this had little effect on inheritance among hunter-gatherers, as there is virtually nothing to inherit, except, perhaps, reputation. However, the gradual transition to a settled, agricultural lifestyle created a more routinised existence of digging, sowing, reaping, building and defending territory. Research has found that, in women as well as men, bones became bigger and harder during the early agricultural period. It could in many ways be described as a disastrous change in the short term, as workloads increased and diets became less varied. It certainly spelt long-term danger to other species, with deforestation, land degradation and the diversion of natural water-courses becoming increasingly widespread. The reliability of seasonal rains and sunshine became a focus, which led to the growth of religious rites and ceremonies, and to a class of religious intermediaries. As to gender roles, with the development of fixed dwellings, the males tended to do more of the field-work and the women became more home-bound, engaged in child-rearing, cereal processing and other food preparation. And naturally, with land itself becoming increasingly central, territorial conflicts and ownership hierarchies developed. The domestication of animals, together with the cultivation of fields, made these hierarchies more visible. If you laid claim to more land, you could produce more food, making others in the village more dependent upon you. We think today of wealthy people with more capital to invest or otherwise utilise, and interestingly, the word capital comes from the same Indo-European root as cattle, the first animals to be domesticated in large numbers. You might make this increase in your capital more tangible with a bigger dwelling and perhaps more ‘wives’ and dependents under your keeping. 

It certainly seems likely that the development of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle created a more patriarchal, and unequal, human society. Women spent more time ‘at home’ than they did in hunter-gathering times, and had more children. Recent research has also found that the regions which have had the longest history of an agricultural lifestyle have the most deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. 

In modern capitalist counties, inequality is obviously increasing, especially if you judge by that most capitalist of nations, the USA, which currently has the greatest income inequality in its history, and the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The gap between the super-rich and the merely rich in the USA has widened spectacularly over the past twenty-five years, and If we examine US wealth from a gender perspective we find that women own 32c for every dollar owned by men. Whether or not the gap between women and men’s wealth increases, I cannot envisage anything but an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US, as it is far more wedded to libertarian mythology than any other nation. 

It’s my belief, though, or maybe it’s a mere hope, that less atomistic societies, such as we find in Asia, may ultimately lead us to the way of the bonobo – a society with less internal strife, less rigid hierarchies and inequalities, a greater sense of togetherness and mutual concern, and even more relaxation and play. 


Some years ago the philosopher A C Grayling gave a talk in Australia, which I heard on Radio National. He spoke of two visits he made in the region of Geneva, to the headquarters of the United Nations, and to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was stuck by the contrast between the genial, collaborative atmosphere at CERN, featuring scientists from over 100 nations, and the testy, zero-sum nature of negotiations at the UN. 

Science has become more collaborative over time, and far less patriarchal over the last century, though there’s still some way to go. Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to decoding the structure of the ribosome, made many interesting points about the famous prize in his book Gene Machine. He notes the increasingly collaborative nature of science, and doesn’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Many people and groups in recent years have been given the prize – which is always life-transforming because it brings their name to the generally non-scientific public in one fell swoop – for simply being the first to solve a puzzle or make a discovery that many groups or persons were on the verge of making, within an atmosphere of generally collegial competition. It’s also noteworthy that, while the early Nobel Prizes in the sciences were awarded to individuals, this has become increasingly rare. I rather enjoy the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, and on into the twenty-first, both the collective nature of science and the female contribution to it have become increasingly recognised. I would like to think that the connection between collectivity and female participation is not coincidental. 

Of course, many early breakthroughs in science and technology are anonymous, and as such, seen as collective. Who invented the plow? The Sumerians maybe, or some other Mesopotamian or Indus Valley culture. Writing? Mesopotamia again, or maybe the Indus Valley or China, or separately by different cultures, possibly even in Rapa Nui. But nowadays, we’re keen to give individual recognition for any technological or scientific developments. 



Written by stewart henderson

November 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm

covid19: corticosteroids, male susceptibility, evaluating health, remdesivir, coagulation factors

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from The Lancet, ‘the four horsemen of a viral apocalpse’


Canto: So short-course use of some steroids was being advocated in the medcram update 88, though without thorough RCT evidence. 

Jacinta: Well, data was presented from the Oxford RCT on those on oxygen or on ventilators showing a statistically significant reduction of mortality from short-course (up to 10 days) low dosage of dexamethasone, a freely-available steroid medication. The study involved some 2000 patients, but only those severely afflicted were helped by the medication. 

Canto: An interesting aside to the data is that in the study males outnumbered females by almost 2 to 1, and that accords with the overall ratio of male to female covid19 patients Dr Seheult is finding, which rather shocked me. Why would more males be coming down with the disease? Presumably that’s not the infection rate, but the rate at which they need to be hospitalised. 

Jacinta: Yes, you’re right, according to this Australian site (unfortunately undated):

Reports continue to emerge that men are significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19 than women. The commonly held perception that more men smoke and this makes them more susceptible along with other lifestyle factors does not tell the whole picture. White House COVID-19 Task Force director Dr Deborah Birx highlighted a “concerning trend” that men in all age brackets were becoming seriously ill from the virus at a higher rate than women, including younger males.

They’re suggesting more research needs to be done on this gender difference, for health issues in general. Some are claiming that estrogen makes a difference. In any case I think cardiovascular problems are more common in males – but maybe not so much in younger males. 

Canto: So update 89 is fairly short, and deals with US data about cases and deaths, most of it out of date now, and more on corticosteroids and the dangers of unsupervised use. Update 90 introduces us to a tool I’ve never heard of called ‘Discern’. Very useful for we autodidacts in helping us, for example, to enlighten our doctors as to our condition. Discern is a tool for evaluating internet health info, such as medcram’s updates on youtube, or anything else on youtube. The instrument asks you to evaluate the material according to 16 different criteria. Interestingly, this tool has been tested on covid19 material by a study out of Poland done in March. The results weren’t so good, especially for news channels. 

Jacinta: Yes, physicians’ information did best – but of course we don’t go to news channels for health information, and we’d advise against anyone else doing so. The study evaluated the Discern tool itself and found it excellent, then used the tool to evaluate health information, specifically on youtube. Of course know that there’s ‘viral misinformation’ from various news outlets that gets posted on youtube. And good to see that the medcram updates were some of the most highly rated using the Discern tool. 

Canto: So we’re now into reporting from early July with update 91. It starts by looking at a ‘covid risk calculator’ in which you can type in your age, gender, BMI, underlying conditions, waist circumference, and other data which you might need a full medical checkup to find out about (and that’s overdue for me), including, for example, %FMD, a measure I’ve never heard of, but which has to do with endothelial function. 

Jacinta: FMD stands for fibromuscular dysplasia. The Johns Hopkins medicine site describes it as a rare blood vessel disease in which the cells of some arteries become more stiff and fibrous and less flexible. This leads to weakness and damage. Not sure how it relates to covid19 but surely any pre-existing blood vessel damage is a danger for those contracting the virus. 

Canto: Right, so it’s unlikely anyone will know offhand their percentage of FMD. I don’t even know my HDL and LDL levels, never mind my HbA1c or lipids. I’d love to be able to take measures of all these myself, without visiting a doctor.

Jacinta: Typical male control freak. So all of this is to measure your risk of covid19 hospitalisation, ICU admission or mortality. Fun times. So next the update looks at Gilead, the makers of the antiviral remdesivir, who donated all their supplies of the drug to the USA in early May. But of course they kept manufacturing the drug and have to recoup the money they spent researching, developing and trialling it etc. The Wall Street Journal reports that a typical course of the drug will cost over $3000 per patient. Interestingly the Trump administration is wanting the drug to stay in the USA as much as possible, rather than be available overseas, and is spending money to that effect. 

Canto: Hmm. Is that protectionism? 

Jacinta: Yes I suppose. It’s not surprising that a country wants to look after its own first, especially via a product produced within its own borders. But I suspect this government would’t be interested in helping any other country – unless there was a quid pro quo. And there’s another antiviral, favipiravir, currently being trialled in Japan and the USA (I mean as of early July), and a vaccine, developed in China, is being used on the Chinese military in what seems a rather rushed and somewhat secretive fashion – we don’t know if they got the soldiers’ permission on this seemingly untried vaccine. At least at the phase 3 level.

Canto: Very CCP. 

Jacinta: So onto update 92, and we revisit the electron transport chain, with four successive electron transfers converting molecular oxygen into water. Problems within this chain can produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) such as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxy radicals, which are destructive in excess. We also look, yet again, at covid19’s impact on angiotensin and particularly the production of superoxide, which in turn causes endothelial dysfunction, increased von Willebrand factor activity, which leads to thrombosis. People were presenting as ‘happy hypoxics’, looking and feeling fine but with very low oxygen levels, and autopsies revealed ‘microthrombi in the interalveolar septa’ of victims’ lungs. All this leading to a paper published in The Lancet which looked at factors in this process of coagulation and thrombosis:

We assessed markers of endothelial cell and platelet activation, including VWF antigen, soluble thrombomodulin [a marker of endothelial cell activation], soluble P-selectin [a marker of endothelial cell and platelet activation], and soluble CD40 ligand [a marker of platelet and T-cell activation], as well as coagulation factors, endogenous anticoagulants, and fibrinolytic enzymes.

So this was about getting to the bottom of the increased clotting. And the results were hardly surprising, but the final discussion section is worth quoting at length, as it seems to capture much that we know about covid19’s effects (at least short-term effects) at the moment: 

We therefore propose that COVID-19-associated coagulopathy is an endotheliopathy that results in augmented VWF release, platelet activation, and hypercoagulability, leading to the clinical prothrombotic manifestations of COVID-19-associated coagulopathy, which can include venous, arterial, and microvascular thrombosis. The factors responsible for this endotheliopathy and platelet activation are uncertain but could include direct viral infection of endothelial cells, collateral damage to the tissue as a result of immune infiltration and activation, complement activation, or any number of inflammatory cytokines believed to play a role in COVID-19 disease.

They suggest anti-platelet therapy and endothelial cell modification treatments as well as anticoagulation treatments, and they suggest some agents ‘which might have therapeutic potential’.

Canto: Potential? You’d think they’d be onto all this by now. 

Jacinta: Well there’s also potential for untried medications – at least untried in this context – to go terribly wrong. And it’s also likely that some hospitals are already onto using the safer forms of treatment. Dr Seheult speaks of the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) in this context, as it has been shown to be a thrombolytic when used intravenously. There are studies pending on the effects of NAC in treating covid19 patients. 

Canto: Now, I’ve just been watching something on monoclonal antibodies as perhaps the most promising treatment yet, short of a vaccine. Can you explain….

Jacinta: Yes I’ll try, maybe next time.


Coronavirus Pandemic Update 88: Dexamethasone History & Mortality Benefit Data Released From UK

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 89: COVID 19 Infections Rising in Many States; Dexamethasone Cautions

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 90: Assess The Quality of COVID-19 Info With A Validated Research Tool

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 91: Remdesivir Pricing & Disparities in Drug Availability

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 92: Blood Clots & COVID-19 – New Research & Potential Role of NAC


the male and female brain, revisited

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Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An article, ‘Do women and men have different brains?’, from Mysteries of the human brain, in the New Scientist ‘Collection’ series, has persuaded me to return to this issue – or perhaps non-issue. It convincingly argues, to me, that it’s largely a non-issue, and largely due to the problem of framing.

The above-mentioned article doesn’t go much into the neurology that I described in my piece written nearly 7 years ago, but it raises points that I largely neglected. For example, in noting differences in the amygdalae, and between white and grey matter, I failed to significantly emphasise that these were averages. The differences among women in these and other statistics is greater than the differences between women and men. Perhaps more importantly, we need to question, in these studies, who the female and male subjects were. Were they randomly selected, and what does that mean? What lives did they lead? We know more now about the plasticity of the brain, and it’s likely that our neurological activity and wiring has much more to do with our focus, and what we’ve been taught or encouraged to focus on from our earliest years, than our gender. 

And this takes me back to framing. Studies designed to ‘seek out’ differences between male and female brains are in an important sense compromised from the start, as they tend to rule out the differences among men and among women due to a host of other variables. They also lead researchers to make too much of what might be quite minor statistical differences. To quote from the New Scientist article, written by Gina Rippon, author of the somewhat controversial book The gendered brain:

Revisiting the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than they are different. In 2015, a review of more than 20,000 studies into behavioural differences, comprising data from over 12 million people, found that, overall, the differences between men and women on a wide range of characteristics such as impulsivity, cooperativeness and emotionality were vanishingly small.

What all the research seems more and more to be pointing to is that there’s no such thing as a male or a female brain, and that our brains are much more what we make of them than previously thought. Stereotyping, as the article points out, has led to ‘stereotype threat’ – the fact that we tend to conform to stereotypes if that’s what’s expected of us. And all this fuels my long-standing annoyance at the stereotyped advertising and sales directed at each gender, but especially girls and women, which, as some feminists have pointed out, has paradoxically become more crass and extreme since the advent of second-wave feminism.

And yet – there are ways of looking at ‘natural’ differences between males and females that might be enlightening. That is, are there informative neurological differences between male and female rats? Male and female wolves? Are there any such differences between male and female bonobos, and male and female chimps, that can inform us about why our two closest living relatives are so socially and behaviourally different from each other? These sorts of studies might help to isolate ‘real’, biological differences in the brains of male and female humans, as distinct from differences due to social and cultural stereotyping and reinforcement. Then again, biology is surely not destiny these days. 

Not destiny, but not entirely to be discounted. In the same New Scientist collection there’s another article, ‘The real baby brain’, which looks at a so-called condition known as ‘mummy brain’ or ‘baby brain’, a supposed mild cognitive impairment due to pregnancy. I know of at least one woman who’s sure this is real (I don’t know many people), but up until recently it has been little more than an untested meme. There is, apparently, a slight, temporary shrinkage in the brain of a woman during pregnancy, but this hasn’t been found to correlate with any behavioural changes, and some think it has to do with streamlining. In fact, as one researcher, Craig Kinsley, explained, his skepticism about the claim was raised in watching his partner handling the many new tasks of motherhood with great efficiency while still maintaining a working life. So Kinsley and his team looked at rat behaviour to see what they could find:

In his years of studying the neurobiology underlying social behaviours in rats, his animals had never shown any evidence of baby brain. Quite the opposite, actually. Although rats in the final phase of their pregnancy show a slight dip in spacial ability, after their pups are born they surpass non-mothers at remembering the location of food in complex mazes. Mother rats are also much faster at catching prey. In one study in Kinsley’s lab the non-mothers took nearly 270 seconds on average to hunt down a cricket hidden in an enclosure, whereas the mothers took just over 50 seconds.

It’s true that human mothers don’t have to negotiate physical mazes or find tasty crickets (rat mothers, unlike humans, are solely responsible for raising offspring), but it’s also clear that they, like all mammalian mothers, have to be more alert than usual to any signs and dangers when they have someone very precious and fragile to nurture and attend to. In rats, this shows up in neurological and hormonal changes – lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and less activity in brain regions such as the amygdalae, which regulate fear and anxiety. Other hormones, such as oestradiol and oxytocin, soar to multiple times more than normal levels, priming rapid responses to sensory stimuli from offspring. Many more connections between neurons are forged in late pregnancy and its immediate aftermath.

Okay, but we’re not rats – nothing like. But how about monkeys? Owl monkeys, like most humans, share the responsibilities of child-rearing, but research has found that mothers are better at finding and gaining access to stores of food than non-mothers. Different behaviours will be reflected in different neural connections.

So, while it’s certainly worth exploring how the female brain functions during an experience unique to females, most of the time women and men engage in the same activities – working, playing, studying, socialising and so forth. Our brain processes will reflect the particular patterns of our lives, often determined at an early age, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study has shown. Gender, and how gender is treated in the culture in which we’re embedded, is just one of many factors that will affect those processes.


New Scientist – The Collection, Mysteries of the human brain, 2019

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2020 at 10:50 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 4: the male-female thing

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Gametes are gametes because of epigenetic modifications in their pro-nuclei, but they have to lose these modifications, or transform them, when they come together to form zygotes. The male pro-nucleus DNA methylation is stripped away immediately after sperm penetrates egg. The egg pronucleus undergoes the same process, but more gradually. It’s like a wiping away of epigenetic memory, creating totipotency, which becomes a more limited pluripotency as the blastocyst, with its inner cell mass (ICM), forms. 

The ICM cells begin differentiating through the regulation of some key genes. For example, a gene codes for a protein that switches on a set of genes, which code for proteins in a cascading effect. But it’s not quite a matter of switching genes on or off, it’s rather more complex. The process is called gene reprogramming, and it’s of course done effortlessly during every reproductive cycle. Artificial reprogramming of the kind carried out by Yamanaka and others, an essential part of cloning, hasn’t come close to this natural process that goes on in mammals and other species every day.

Clearly, though the epigenetic reprogramming for the female pronucleus is different from that carried out more swiftly in the male. As Carey puts it, ‘the pattern of epigenetic modifications in sperm is one that allows the male pronucleus to be reprogrammed relatively easily.’ Human researchers haven’t been particularly successful in reprogramming an adult nucleus by various methods, such as transferring it to a fertilised egg or treating it with the four genes isolated by Yamanaka. The natural process of gene reprogramming eliminates most of the epigenetic effects accumulated in the parent genes, but as the reprogramming is a different process in the male and female pro-nucleus, this shows that they aren’t functionally equivalent. There is a ‘parent-of-origin effect’. Experiments done on mice to explore this effect found that DNA methylation, an important form of chromatin modification (and the first one discovered), was passed on to offspring by the female parent. That’s to say, DNA from the female was more heavily methylated than that from the male. Carey describes the DNA as ‘bar-coded’ as coming from the male or the female. The common term for this is imprinting, and it’s entirely epigenetic.

Imprinting has been cast by Carey, and no doubt others, as an aspect of the ‘battle of the sexes’. This battle may well be imprinted in the pronuclei of the fertilised egg. Here’s how Carey puts the two opposing positions:

Male: This pregnant female is carrying my genes in the form of this foetus. I may never mate with her again. I want my foetus to get as big as possible so that it has the greatest chance of passing on my genes.

Female: I want this foetus to pass on my genes. But I don’t want it to be at the cost of draining me so much that I never reproduce again. I want more than this one chance to pass on my genes.

So there’s a kind of balance that has developed in we eutherian mammals, in a battle to ensure that neither sex gains the upper hand. Further experiments on mice in recent times have explored how this battle is played out epigenetically. I’ll look at them in the next post in this series.


The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 9, 2020 at 10:50 am