an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘history’ 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

17th century perspectives, 21st century slaughter

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Vlady the Thug – returning us all to the glories of centuries-old slaughter

Canto: So much is happening, so much is being learned, so much of my ignorance is being brought home to me, and so much of my good luck is also being brought home, in that I’ve never had to live in or be brought down by a thugocracy. Then again, if you’ve come to this ‘lucky country’ be means of a leaky boat, trying to escape a foreign thugocracy by any means possible, you’ll likely have a very different perspective.

Jacinta: Haha yes it’s Writer’s Week here in Adelaide, and we’ve been sampling, generally by sometimes dodgy internet links, the thoughts of former refugees writers, investigative journalists on even more dodgy pharmaceutical companies, and words of wisdom from our intellectual elders. And of course many of these conversations have been clouded by the invasion of Ukraine by Vlady the Thug, and the consequent carnage.

Canto: Yes, it seems he’s trying to channel Peter the Great, but he’s 300 years behind the times, and hasn’t been told that warlordism just doesn’t fit with 21st century fashion. But Vlady the Thug, that’s good, it would definitely be helpful if all world leaders, including and especially Zelensky, started  addressing him as such. Vlady is extremely small-minded, with a narrow understanding of nationalism and glory, and with a huge sense of his own grandeur. The WEIRD world may not be able to unite to destroy him, given the protection racket around him and the vast nuclear arsenal he and his predecessors have been allowed to assemble, but I think that worldwide mockery, difficult though it might seem at this awful time, might unhinge him just enough for a rethink, or alternatively, might be enough to turn his thug underlings against him.

Jacinta: True, but I don’t think Vlady the Thug is punchy enough…

Canto: It’s a good start, certainly a far cry from Peter the Great (who was a bit of a thug himself of course). And don’t forget, world leaders have never been too good at comedy, they’re generally too full of their Serious Destiny. I doubt if they would come at Vlady the Thug, never mind Vlad the Tame Impala or Mr Pudding.

Jacinta: True, but Zelensky is apparently a former comedian, and he’s absolutely Mister Popularity on the world stage at the moment. If he went with this mockery, and encouraged his new-found fans to follow his example, it might be the best, and certainly the cheapest form of attack available at present. Though it’s true that I can’t imagine Sco-Mo or Scummo, our PM, managing to deliver any comedy line with the requisite aplomb.

Canto: Well, it’s an interesting idea, if only we could get Zelensky’s minders to take it up. Unfortunately he seems to have caught the Man with a Serious Destiny disease recently – for which I don’t blame him at all. And anyway, I have to check the internet on a regular basis currently to see if he’s still alive.

Jacinta: Yes, I thought the imitation of Churchill in his address to the British Parliament was a bit cringeworthy, but I agree that it’s hardly a time to criticise Zelensky when Vlady the Thug is on the loose. Anyway, the WEIRD world is stuck in dealing with little Vlady. I listened to a long-form interview with Julia Ioffe on PBS today – she’s a Russian-born US journalist who has reported from that country for some years, and her depiction of Vlady was spot-on – that’s to say, it chimed exactly with mine. She feels that he will never withdraw or change his mind about Ukraine. He has stated often in communication with other leaders that Ukraine is not a ‘real country’.

Canto: Yes, unlike Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and all those African countries. Russia on the other hand is a real country thanks to the wars of Ivan , Peter, Catherine and the rest. Thanks to all the slaughter, rape and suppression of alternative languages and cultures. Just like Australia and the USA are real countries thanks to the removal of previous cultures from their land – with associated slaughter, rape, and ‘white man’s disease’.

Jacinta: Yes, few countries – or maybe there are no countries whose national ‘development’ hasn’t involved a fair amount of bloody repression. Ukrainians, as Ioffe pointed out, have made it abundantly clear in recent times that they reject Vlady’s thugocracy, and their resolve has hardened as a result of the 2014 events. But Ioffe’s view is also quite bleak – due to Vlady’s complete inability to back down, in her view. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that. And, according to her, his ‘inner circle’ has contracted considerably in recent times, and they’re all as crazy as himself, maybe even crazier. So this may mean the invasion will continue, until he becomes master of an almost uninhabited wasteland. Nobody wants to provoke him to take the nuclear option, which he’s quite capable of.

Canto: So the only real option would be to kill him. And he’s no doubt been guarding himself against that option for years.

Jacinta: It would most likely have to be an inside job. I’m sure there are negotiations under way, but Putin is very much a survivor. At the moment he’s cracking down on dissent like never before. But the world is seeing it, and this will ultimately be a victory for democracy. In the short term though, it’s a terrible tragedy.

Canto: If there is a silver lining, it’s the winning of the propaganda war, the worldwide condemnation will give the CCP thugocracy something to think about vis-a-vis Taiwan. At the moment they’re trying to blame NATO for the invasion, and of course they have blanket control over the media there, but people have ways of getting reliable information, for example from the massive Chinese diaspora.

Jacinta: So I’ve been listening to Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill and others, but of course no amount of analysis is going to improve the situation, and even our concern seems more debilitating than anything. I imagine holding Vlady prisoner and then pointing out some home truths…

Canto: Very useful. But here’s a few arguments. As you say, he’s been fond of claimng over the years that Ukraine isn’t a real country. But what makes Russia a real country? What make Australia a real country? What make the USA a real country?  Presumably Vlady thinks that Russia’s a real country because the slaughter, rape and suppression of ‘minority’ languages and cultures occurred earlier.

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know what he would say. What if we didn’t tell him why he’s wrong, but allowed him to explain why he’s right? What would he say?

Canto: Well, we know that he’s a very ardent nationalist, so to suggest to him that all nations are artificial in an important sense would just incense him. But once he calms down (and we’ve got him all tied up and hanging upside-down so he can’t escape, and we’ve promised him that if he provides really cogent arguments according to a panel of independent experts, he’ll be given his freedom, with his thugocracy completely returned to him), what will be his arguments?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t have his views on the legitimacy of Russia as a nation, and I suspect he would scoff at the very idea of having to justify Russian nationhood, because I’m sure he believes that if Russia didn’t exist his life would have no meaning – which is about as far from our understanding of our humanity as one could possibly get – but we do have his essay from last year about why Ukraine isn’t and can never be a legitimate nation.

Canto: Yes, he harps on about Ukrainians and Russians being ‘a single people’, who shouldn’t have a border between them, but the very idea of any nations being a ‘single people’ is a fantasy. It’s of course where the terms ‘unAustralian’ and ‘unAmerican’ get their supposed bite from – the fantasy of individuals being united by their ‘nationhood’.

Jacinta: More importantly, he seems completely unaware, or prefers to be unaware, of the extremely repressive state he’s created, and that few people in their right minds, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Icelandic, would want to live under a jackboot when they have the opportunity to choose and criticise their own government.

Canto: Yes, he talks in the vaguest, most soporific terms of Ukrainians and Russians occupying ‘the same historical and spiritual space’, and  being ‘a single people’, and with ‘affinities’ created by Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus over a thousand years ago. As if.

Jacinta: Yes, the fact is that Ukrainian pro-European and anti-Russian sentiment has obviously grown since Vlady’s bloody adventurism in 2014. Ukrainians are wanting to survive and thrive in the here and now. I mean, it’s good, sort of, that Vlady takes an interest in history, as we do, but from a vastly different perspective. His potted history, like many, is about rulers – earthly or spiritual, and territories won and lost between the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Russians and so on. But these battles for territories from centuries ago bear little relation to the lives and thoughts of individual people today, people whom Vlady is completely disconnected from, just as Xi Jinping  and his fellow thugs are completely disconnected from the everyday freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Canto: The point to make here is that no amount of tendentious historical description will conceal the fact that Ukrainians, like Hong-Kongers, see that their best future lies in the arms of the WEIRD world, with all its messiness. Here’s a banner epigram – fuck our history, what abut our future?

Jacinta: Good one. Yes, Vlady doesn’t like that not-so top-down messiness. He prefers stasis and control, especially by himself. And if it means wholesale slaughter to obtain it, so be it. Mind you, I strongly suspect he was misguided in his perception of Ukrainian sentiment, for whatever reason. And the people who are paying for this misguidedness, by and large, (and horrifically) are the Ukrainians.


Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions


Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 


Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019


Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

what is electricity? part 9 – the first battery

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from Wikipedia, etc

Canto: So, going back to the eighteenth century, now. The exploration of electricity was becoming thoroughly fashionable. Lightning was an obviously powerful force that scientists of the day were looking to tame and harness. Most of these modern histories begin with Franklin, but what, or who, turned him on to the subject?

Jacinta: Well of course knowledge and influences developed slowly in the eighteenth century and before. I’ve already spoken of William Gilbert’s De Magnete, written some 150 years before Franklin’s work. Gilbert posited that the Earth itself was essentially a gigantic magnet, with an iron core, which was pretty clever in 1600. He studied static electricity, using amber, and called its effects an electric force, the first modern usage. He was one of the first modern experimentalists, undervalued in his own time, most unfortunately by Francis Bacon, who contributed so much to the development of new scientific methods.

Canto: The 1600s were important in Britain, of course, the period of their Scientific Enlightenment, but one of the most intriguing and brilliant experimenters upon electrostatics in that century was the German polymath Otto von Guericke. His work on vacuums and static electricity in the mid 17th century found its way to England and inspired Robert Boyle to experiment in these fields. But no great breakthroughs occurred, at least for electricity, and no real attempts were made to mathematise electrical concepts until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jacinta: Yes, we won’t dwell for too long on these pioneers (famous last words), but J L Heilbron’s 1979 book Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries: a study of early modern physics, much of which is available online, should guide us towards the advances made by Volta and the nineteenth century mathematisers, notably Maxwell.

Canto: Yes, Heilbron divides the physics of this period into three stages, the first, before 1700, was a relatively amateur, narrow form of neo-Aristotelian systemising (pace Gilbert), and the second involved new discoveries and experiments treated without systematic quantising, which gave way to a more modern, mathematical third stage leading to new discoveries and inventions, such as the battery, just at the end of the 18th century.

Jacinta: We’ve mentioned triboelectric effects in an earlier post. These were the first static effects, between all sorts of different materials, experimented with by scientific pioneers such as Newton and many others. The enormous variety of these effects were, and still are, difficult to quantise. Why was their attraction in some cases and repulsion in others? In fact, ACR, the attraction-contact-repulsion process, came gradually to be recognised, but with no understanding of atoms and particles, or elements in the modern sense, little sense could be made of it.

Canto: There were some attempts to characterise the phenomenon, which was considered a fluid in those early days. In 1733 the French chemist Charles DuFay, one of many electrical experimenters of the time, divided these fluids into two types, vitreous and resinous – the positive and negative forms of today, sort of. Perhaps he was trying to define an attracting and a repelling force.

Jacinta: Effluvia was in the air at that time… ‘particles of electrical matter, which effect attraction and repulsion either by direct impact or by mobilising the air’, to quote Heilbron. But I should mention here the work of Stephen Gray, one of those marvellous upwellers from the lower classes with great practical skills and an experimental spirit, who, like Newton, built his own telescope, with which he made discoveries about sunspots and other things. An obviously alert observer, he noted that electricity could be conducted over distances in various substances, while other substances, such as silk, damped down the effect, acting as insulators. These discoveries were of vital importance, but Gray is probably the most underrated and unrecognised of all the electrical pioneers.

Canto: With the ‘discovery’ of the Leyden jar in 1745 the idea of electricity as a fluid, or two fluids, was laid to rest. This instrument, the key components of which were a jar of glass with metal sheets attached to its inner and outer surfaces, and ‘a metal terminal projecting vertically through the jar lid to make contact with the inner foil’ (Wikipedia), was the first type of capacitor, though it took time for their storage capacity, and those of other devices, to be quantised. Today it’s understood that these early Leyden jars could be charged to as much as 60,000 volts.

Jacinta: Another important early device was called an electrophore, or electrophorus, first invented in 1762 and later improved by Alessandro Volta. These instruments, and the increasing realisation throughout the eighteenth century that this mysterious force, substance or capacity called electricity was a Big Thing, with enormous potential, kept interest in the phenomenon bubbling along.

Canto: An electrophore typically consists of a plastic plate, which won’t conduct electricity, connected to a metal conducting disc with an insulating handle. There are some useful demonstration videos of this, and I’m describing one. If you rub the plastic with some silk cloth, this will, as we now know, transfer electrons from the silk to the plastic, giving it a negative charge (the triboelectric effect). Placing the metal disc on the plastic will not enable too much transfer of electrons, or electron flow. It will in fact cause a polarisation in the disc, positively charging it on the side facing the plastic, and negatively charging it on its opposite side, due to like charges repelling, though this wasn’t known in Volta’s time.

Jacinta: The plastic plate, or sheet, has become a dielectric, I think, which is a pretty complicated concept, involving dielectric constants and relatively complicated mathematical formulae, but for our current purpose (and theirs in the 18th century) this electrophore was a useful demonstrator of static electricity. The metal plate was on balance neutral in charge, but in a sense magnetised, with a negative charge on its upper side, which could be grounded at a touch – causing a spark. Being replaced on the plastic, it could again have its charges separated, a cycle which could be endlessly repeated in theory, though not in practice – due ultimately to the second law of thermodynamics, perhaps.

Canto: So, the battery. It was a term coined by Franklin, giving a sense of overwhelming power, though what he created in connecting Leyden jars in an array was a capacitor.

Jacinta: In fact even one Leyden jar is a capacitor. So what he created was a battery of capacitors, though not quite a supercapacitor. I think.

Canto: Volta is famously supposed to have arrived, in a roundabout way, at the construction of an effective battery due to his dispute with a soon-to-be-former friend Louis Galvani (as described in part 4 of this series), and the dispute led him to further experiments. He came to realise that the reason Galvani’s dead frogs were ‘reanimated’ by electricity had to do with the wires being used, and the chemistry of the frogs.

Jacinta: And meanwhile this ‘reanimation’ business became popularised by Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, among others, with popular displays and discussions which led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Canto: And meanwhile again, Volta experimented with different wires, including zinc and silver, and with moisture, because he noticed that wetness had an electrifying effect. He soon found that these wires of silver and zinc, connected in a series of water containers, increased the electric effect. Further experimentation with silver and zinc discs, separated by cardboard saturated in salt water, enhanced the effect – the more discs, the stronger the effect. And this effect was permanent (more or less). A battery in the modern sense.

Jacinta: In effect. So voltage is electric potential, as we keep saying. So it’s there even when the battery isn’t connected to anything, a storage device which provides electrical flow when connected. And that potential is measurable, as in a 1.5v battery. Current is the actual flow, which is often quite small, especially in Volta’s original pile, though he was able to build a potential, or voltage of up to 20v. The key to an effective battery, I think, is to get as much current per volt as possible. That’s current flowing steadily, reliably and safely over time. A typical lithium ion phone battery of  3.7 volts delivers between 100 and 400 milliamps of current, whereas Volta’s pile will get you not much more than 1/2 of a milliamp of steady flow. And by the way, why did salt enhance the electrical effect?

Canto: That has to do with with the ionisation of the salt, which when dissolved in water splits into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chlorine ions. Sending a current through the water will drive the chlorine ions to the positive terminal and the sodium ions to the negative terminal. This creates a bridge of ions, somehow.

Jacinta: Yeah, great explanation. And apparently one of the most interesting features of Volta’s weak battery, or voltaic pile, at the time was its use in separating H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. This new chemical power – electrolysis – particularly interested Humphrey Davy in England. He proceeded to create the largest battery of the age at the Royal Institution, using it to isolate a large number of elements for the first time, including sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, boron and strontium. That was in the first decade of the 19th century – and electricity was really coming of age.

References (just some)

How Volta Invented the First Battery Because He Was Jealous of Galvani’s Frog (video – Kathy loves physics)


Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2022 at 7:18 am

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

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

clothing: when a solution becomes a problem

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Canto: So we talked previously about the horror of stilettos, which was all about the absurdity of fashion, and the sad fate of fashion victims, sigh, but fashion, and the clothing industry in general has lots of problems at the production end as well as for the end-users.

Jacinta: Yes – of course at the user end there’s the huge problem of waste. I walked past a nearby Salvos shop on the weekend, and their donation bins were overflowing to a ridiculous degree, piled up in the doorway, and neighbouring doorways, extending a long way down the street.

Canto: At least people are trying to recycle, but I wouldn’t like the job of sorting that stuff out. And of course the people who do that job are volunteers, though living in a country with a reasonable safety net and a minimum wage which is one of the highest in the world according to this Australian Industry Group website. But wages and conditions, as well as our buying habits, especially those of your fellow female primates, are what I want to focus on today.

Jacinta: So women, especially teens, buy these cheap foreign-made clothes from overseas sweat-shops, wear them once or twice and chuck them out – they call it ‘fast fashion’ – and the cycle continues. A handful at the top are making tons of money, while others are getting sick from overwork or from ingesting toxic chemicals. Petrochemical-based textiles now make up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and rising. They also add to the biosphere’s growing microplastics problem. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 35% of microplastics come from these textiles.

Canto: I should point out another issue with ‘fast fashion’. When the fashion changes, which it does on an almost weekly basis, the brand names, such as H&M, Topshop, PrettyLittleThing and please don’t make me name any more, they just dump them.

Jacinta: Yes, but not in recycling bins. Only about 1% of textile waste is currently recycled, for all sorts of reasons, such as the technology required to separate blended chemical textiles. They can be shipped to India or African countries, but that just delays the problem briefly.

Canto: It’s kind of fascinating how many problems we make for ourselves by becoming supposedly more sophisticated, manufacturing and then dumping all these techno-solutions. We’re the only mammals that wear clothes, and as with footwear, it’s hard to say exactly when all that began, never mind when it all morphed into competitive fashion shite.

Jacinta: Actually we can only say that we’re the only extant mammals to wear clothes. An associated question is, when did we start, and finish, losing our body hair? Here’s an interesting quote from one Charles Darwin:

No one supposes that the nakedness of the skin is any direct advantage to man; his body, therefore, cannot have been divested of hair through natural selection.

He thought it was a matter of sexual selection. Do we find hairless bodies more attractive? Maybe, but probably not universally. Today we undoubtedly find bonobo/chimp/gorilla-type hair unattractive, but that’s surely because we associate it with non-human primates. Many women I know find men with hairy legs quite the turn-on.

Canto: But not furry legs. They have to be humanly hairy. So maybe there was a natural advantage to being less hairy. The move into open, sunlit spaces seems to have been key. If you’re covered in hair, it reduces heat loss through the skin. Also, being upright exposed less of the body surface to the sun. Probably explains why we keep the hair on our heads, to protect those heads, and the ever-expanding brains inside them, from getting fried.

Jacinta: And in the cooler regions, and during cooler eras, and at night, we could supplement our hair with artificial coverings, proto-clothing. But in those regions and times, plenty of hair would be an advantage. But anyway, for some reason, our ancestors started losing their body hair. I wonder when, exactly.

Canto: There’s probably no exactly. But upright stature helped in hunting, allowing us to run long distances, in which case losing heat through sweating would’ve been advantageous. Remember, it would’ve been easier to keep warm, through covering, than to cool down, with all that hair.

Jacinta: They could stay in the shade, like bonobos do.

Canto: Big-brained humans require too much energy for their owners to spend time under yum-yum trees. We have lots of sweat glands compared to other primates. It helps us to run fast and long. Those monkeys that have more sweat glands than others are also fast movers. There are some puzzles about all this, though, about what came first and why – reduced hair, bipedalism, larger brain. 

Jacinta: But getting back to modern clothing and fast fashion and the like – or maybe not modern clothing. I’m thinking, when did clothing become mandatory. Maybe it’s not manatory in all cultures, but among our European forebears, how did it manage to become grossly offensive to go about naked like our bonobo cousins? It seems to have happened very recently in paleontological terms. I mean it’s associated with civilised behaviour somehow. 

Canto: Only ‘savages’ went about in the altogether. Or ancient Greek actors and athletes. Of course, clothing quickly became a hierarchical thing – the higher-ups dressed more elaborately, and the proles weren’t allowed to, and so were despised for their shabbiness. Being completely naked was real low-life stuff, and a sexual element evolved alongside all of that. And a gender element. 

Jacinta: That’s going a bit fast, perhaps, but I’m sure it’s on the right track. So I’ve found various sites discussing this issue of hiding our genitals. John Romero provides a pretty comprehensive account, of clothing in general as well as our new age modesty. He reminds us, for example, that nakedness among the Greeks wasn’t confined to performers and athletes. Public baths were communal, as were Roman toilets – they didn’t blush when they flushed. Actually, they didn’t flush, at least not the way we do. Of course the creation myth of Judeo-Christianity, which had small beginnings but soon spread throughout Europe and the globe, had Adam and Eve feel ashamed when they realised they were naked, but it doesn’t explain the realisation, since they were the only humans on the planet at the time apparently. Nevertheless, this association with nakedness and shame was hammered home by church authorities, and has much to do with current attitudes.

Canto: But the association between nudity and shame was clearly felt by those early biblical writers. That dates it to around 2,600 years ago at most, though religious biblical scholars generally prefer an older date.

Jacinta: We just don’t have any way of dating the origin of nudity as shameful. Clothing is only the most obvious way of concealing nudity, but the origin of clothing surely has nothing to do with shame. And nobody really knows when clothing originated, or when we lost our body hair, which was clearly a gradual process. But to return to our arguably over-dressed, throwaway modern society – which often plays with modesty in a titillating way…

Canto: Modesty’s a tricky word though. Isn’t wearing showy expensive clothing a kind of immodesty?

Jacinta: I was thinking of the skin-tight fashion of young women – I don’t know about the price. Not that I disapprove, I’m only concerned with the waste.

Canto: Better for the environment if they go about naked, you’re right.

Jacinta: Hmmm…



Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019


Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2021 at 7:46 pm

a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.


Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

A bonobo world 31: are bonobos people?

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William Damper’s Aussie disappointment

Apparently, under current US law at least, there is a clear distinction between people, or persons – that’s to say, all human animals – and everything else, with the emphasis on thing. From a legal perspective, bonobos, chimps, rats and lice are things. This of course raises questions about a human embryo or blastula or morula etc, which I won’t explore here.

Clearly bonobos, chimps and our pet birds and animals aren’t things, except in the sense that we’re all things – living things. It’s also clear that many non-human animals do many of the things people do, such as feeling angry, sad, bored, scared, tired, confused etc. With these obvious facts in mind, a US organisation called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought habeas corpus hearings in a New York State court ‘to determine whether Kiko and Tommy, two captive chimpanzees, should be considered legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty’. The chimps, who have different owners, are each kept in conditions which any reasonable person would describe as inhuman – but then, they’re not humans. According to current US law, they’re human possessions, subject no doubt to certain animal welfare laws, but arguably not to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking to strengthen their case, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought together a series of amicus curiae (friends of the court) essays by philosophers and ethicists, published in 2019 in a booklet, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosopher’s Brief. 

All of this should make us wonder what a person actually is, and whether there are degrees of personhood. On this point I want to share an anecdote. 

I was walking my young dog in the park, and she was bouncing and darting about friskily in front of me. We passed two women on a park bench, and one of them beamed at me, ‘I bet she’s a girl!’ ‘Yes, she’s a girl’, I smiled. ‘Yeah, they’re always the lively ones,’ she asserted. Being ever a contrarian, as I’ve been told, I wondered about the truth of this assertion, which led to a far more interesting question – was Mulan (the dog) still a girl? A quick calculation, using the human-to-dog years rule-of-thumb, told me that she was now in her early-mid twenties, just that age when it starts to become dodgy, PC-wise, to keep using the girl moniker.

So, this dog was a woman now?

We actually call our pets girls or boys even deep into old age. Isn’t this a form of infantilism? It goes with the word ‘pet’ of course. So what about, say, lions? Do we condescend to confer adulthood on those regal animals? Well, sort of. We use male and female, and of course him and her, and personal names if we’ve thought ones up. But the terms man and woman are only for us.

This is understandable, while at the same time it has the odour of human specialness. I imagine that zookeepers or zoologists who get friendly with wild animals might employ the term girl or boy to refer to them, a term of affection laced with superiority. We just can’t allow them to rise to our level. That’s why, with bonobos, it’s okay, and indeed very fruitful, to learn about them, but to learn from them is a step too far, is it not?

And yet. Gillian Dooley, a research fellow at Flinders University, and Danielle Clode, of the same university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, recently co-edited The first wave, a collection of writings on Europeans’ early contacts with Aboriginal cultures in Australia. The book’s cover features ‘the first known illustration of the Aboriginal people of Australia, which appeared in a rare 1698 Dutch edition of William Dampier’s 1697 New voyage around the world.’ It was only recently brought to light in the library of the University of Hawaii. The image depicts a confrontation of sorts between Dampier and his crew and the Aborigines, in which the Europeans tried to get them to carry barrels of water, perhaps in exchange for articles of clothing, as one Aborigine is depicted sporting a European jacket. It seems the Aborigines didn’t ‘get it’ and were unwilling to comply. Dampier wrote umbrageously that ‘we were forced to carry our water ourselves’.

The scene beautifully illustrates the European attitude, over many centuries, to the people of what they liked to call ‘the new world’ – which effectively meant the world beyond Eurasia. The term savage, noble or ignoble, was first applied to human apes (of a certain condition), as far as we know, by John Dryden in a 1672 play, though the idea goes back to Montaigne and beyond. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Europeans of the last few centuries, with their elaborate clothing and appurtenances, their monumental architecture, their complex religious rituals and beliefs, their technological developments and political systems, would mostly see the ‘natives’ as part of the fauna of these exotic    new lands. And history tells us that it doesn’t even take a sense of their inferior otherness to turn our fellow humans into beasts of burden or slaves. Aristotle defended slavery and believed that some people were ‘natural slaves’. Athenian soi-disant democracy was entirely dependent on slaves, who vastly outnumbered citizens. Many of the indigenous nations of the Americas had slaves before they themselves were enslaved by the Conquistadors. The feudal system that pervaded Europe for centuries was essentially a slave system. Montaigne was able to retire to his castle and write the essays that inspired me decades ago because he inherited that castle, the productive lands around it, and the people who worked the land. They were his. If he asked them to carry water for him, they would feel obliged to do so. 

I imagine that if we travelled back in time and asked Aristotle whether slaves were people, that he would come up with a long complicated discourse to the effect that there were natural slaves who were best suited to be beasts of burden, and that these natural slaves beget more natural slaves, entirely suited to serve their masters – which is essentially the basis of the feudal system. What has, of course, blown all this type of thinking away (though fragments still remain) is modern biology, especially neurophysiology and genetics. Our understanding of human connectedness has been raised by these disciplines, as has our understanding of the connectedness of all species. So we look at ‘first nation’ culture and technology and its adaptation to environment with more enlightened eyes, and we see other species more in terms of family, culture and problem-solving, even if in very different contexts from our own. But the human context is constantly changing. For seventy-odd years now, we’ve built and maintained the weaponry to destroy human and other life on a grand scale. the USA alone has over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Surely there’s nothing more to achieve on the warfare front. Our survival is assured against all comers, except of course, ourselves. The future has to be about making peace, making connections, learning how to do things more cleverly, more supportively, more sustainably for all the life forms we’re connected with. 

Which returns me to bonobos. The question, of course, isn’t whether they are people. They’re in many ways like us, as are their chimp cousins. I just happen to think they’re more worth learning from than chimps (though I must say, I always feel guilty about dissing our chimp rellies – they’re not that bad!). They know how to nip violence in the bud, they’re relaxed and open about sex (though not obsessed, either positively or negatively), they keep their menfolk – sorry, males – in line, and in all those things they do better than we human apes. If we can follow bonobos in these ways – and maintain and build on the best of what’s human – our curiosity, out ingenuity, our sympathy, and our extraordinary creative capacity – I think we’ll be around for a long time.

savages – or maybe just greeny nudists – upholding Denmark’s coat of arms

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2021 at 1:57 pm