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22 – sex, reproduction, science, bonobos

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the act, depicted by Leonardo, along with his intriguing mirror writing

Thinking on dolphins again, I remember reading claims about sophisticated dolphin language, at a vocal range beyond human hearing, and I’ve also read scientific dismissals of such claims. I’m thinking again about these questions (the communications of some birds also comes to mind) because the communicative complexity of language would have enabled human apes to, among other things, be species-aware of the connection between sex and reproduction – though unfortunately failures in that communication still result in unwanted teenage pregnancies. 

But I don’t seriously imagine that any other species – on this planet at least – knows that the joys of rump-pumpy lead to the much-later popping out of wee human replicants. For one thing, Matthew Cobb’s book The egg & sperm race provides an account of how confused we humans were, even at the time of Leonardo, about ‘the exact relationship between male, female and offspring’. They were particularly confused with regard to non-human generation. Ideas about barnacle geese being hatched from barnacles, mice being generated from wheat and vipers from dust were entertained at the highest level, even at the Royal Society in the 17th century. The spontaneous generation of the tiniest creatures was essentially a given for millennia. But human generation was also much of a mystery until relatively recently. Here’s a little summary from Cobb:

Although the real situation now appears obvious, discovering exactly what goes on was a long, complicated process. Even what might seem to be the most obvious step in generation – the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy in humans – is really quite difficult to demonstrate. Part of the problem is that the clear signs of pregnancy do not immediately follow the sexual act. Even menstruation does not necessarily appear to be directly linked to pregnancy: although women stop menstruating when they are pregnant, some women always have irregular periods, while teenage girls can get pregnant without ever having menstruated. The link between sex and generation is so unobvious that in the 20th-century the Trobriand Islanders in the Pacific Ocean were said to be very surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two. All around the world, folktales of conception taking place in the most astonishing ways, such as by eating fruit (mango, lemon, apple, orange, peach ..), accidentally swallowing crane dung, or, more politically, being touched by the rays of a dragon.

The late 17th century, however, was the period in Europe when most of this confusion was cleared up, at least in the so-called developed world, thanks mainly to the work of four gifteded individuals, Francesco Redi (1626-97), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Nicolas Steno (1638-86) and Reinier de Graaf (1641-1673). Much of this work took place in the Netherlands, a major progressive and scientific nation in this period, backed by massive profits from the spice and slave trades. Of course another power of the period was England, and one of the most important figures in researching ‘generation’, as the problem of sorting out the reproductive process was then called, was William Harvey, famous mostly for working out the role of the heart in circulating the blood. Harvey was a pioneering experimentalist, and his approach to the issues was essentially correct, and quite revolutionary, but he lacked the necessary to work out the detail of generation. In particular, he lacked a microscope. His late work, de generatione animalium (1651), though mostly a restatement of Aristotelian doctrine, was inspirational in that he emphasised, through experiment, the importance of the egg in generation, regardless of species. Without a microscope, however, this claim couldn’t be fully verified. Microscopes, or magnifiers of various kinds, had been used since antiquity, but their full development came only after the invention of the telescope. Galileo built his own compound microscope in the 1620s but they remained largely a novelty until later in the 17th century, with the founding of scientific societies and academies, and the sharing of scientific experiments and tools. 

The four above-mentioned intellectuals (the word scientist didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century) – one Italian and three Dutch – were friends, colleagues, and sometimes frenemies at a time when being first with scientific breakthroughs was even more important than during the covid19 era. There were no professional researchers of course, so you had to publish to get recognition and encourage patronage (and you often needed patronage to get published).

Francesco Redi, who combined a more rigorous experimentalism than was common at the time with the wit and urbanity that made him a mainstay at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, to whom he acted as physician among other things, carried out careful research on insects which proved that they weren’t generated spontaneously in rotting foodstuff or anything else. His interest in the subject was inspired by Steno who had come to Tuscany from his studies in Leiden, via Paris, with a reputation as an expert in dissection and cutting-edge experimentation. Steno was in turn influenced by the greater mathematical rigour of the intellectuals at Ferdinando’s court. The two worked together on fossils and geology as well as animal anatomy. Steno was interested in the difference between viviparous and oviparous reproduction – that’s to say, between creatures who produce live young and those who lay eggs – and stumbled on a new, decisive insight, that female ‘testicles’, at the time believed to be internalised versions of male testicles, were in fact ovaries, a housing for the female’s eggs. This was an insight from observation, rather than experiment, but it was of course correct, and revolutionary.

Steno, Swammerdam and de Graaf had all met in Leiden where they engaged in their first adult studies (Leiden University in the mid 17th century had more student enrolments than Cambridge and was one of the most progressive learning institutes in Europe), and Steno and Swammerdam, being in the same year, became firm friends and collaborators there. After their Leiden studies, all three went to to France, a common destination for young Dutch intellectuals. Swammerdam and Steno were attracted there by an extraordinary French polymath, Melchisédech Thévenot, who had visited Leiden during their studies there, and who was head of a private academy in Paris, which eventually morphed into the Académie Royale des Sciences. 

But I’m getting bogged down in fascinating detail. Read Cobb’s The egg & sperm race for the story of how these individuals, and others, sorted out the story of ovaries, testes, semen and the equal contribution of males and females to offspring production. It’s a story of collaboration, rivalry and the struggle for both knowledge and recognition that captures much of scientific activity, then and now. 

The point of all this is to recognise how difficult it was for even the most complex species on the planet to work out the relationship between the pleasures of sex and the rather more mixed experience of childbirth – deadly for many, including my own grandmother. 

And yet, bonobos do it for pleasure and relief, openly, and manage to avoid having endless pregnancies, unlike  Anne Stuart, queen of Great Britain (18 pregnancies, none surviving to adulthood) and Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, and many other regions (16 pregnancies, only 3 of whom died in infancy), not to mention a horde of less ’eminent’ catholic martyrs to the world’s peopling. Bonobos have between five and seven infants, on average, in a lifetime, which is certainly more than enough. I’m not sure of the survival rate of offspring, but it would probably be higher if not for human depradations. 

References

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melchisédech_Thévenot

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm

a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3324566/

 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world?:3

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Burke and Wills, leaders of a naive and disastrous expedition

 

Introduction: The small world of bonobos, continued

Another example is given In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, where he tells the tale of the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition, an attempt to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. In his generally riveting 1963 book on the expedition, Cooper’s Creek, Alan Moorehead devotes only a few lines to the Yandruhwanda, many of whom died in the 1919 flu pandemic. The last member of this once-thriving group died in 1979. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern Europeans transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

Bonobo society it seems to me, offers some interesting examples of how to improve on human society, in its most dominant ‘western’ form, and these examples can be divided, perhaps arbitrarily, into a handful of interconnected topics, such as violence, compassion, sexuality, resources, family and work. First, though, I should address the general concept of culture, and whether the social organisation of bonobos, and other intelligent highly social animals, really have it.

Chapter one – Culture

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyerdahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

References

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, Picador Books 2018

Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, Hamish Hamilton 1963

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yandruwandha_people

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking 2005

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, Pelican 2011

Jacob Bronowski, The ascent of man, BBC documentary series, 1973

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island – where giants walked – Fall of Civilizations documentary 

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV documentary

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2020 at 1:49 pm

the bonobo world 4: more on Rapa Nui

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Easter Island – truly isolated

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

The above quote is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his seventies science series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Easter Island (known to Polynesians as Rapa Nui) and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo.

The Rapa Nui population, as mentioned, seems to have reduced from its height, perhaps in the 1500s, to Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. However, there’s a more or less total lack of agreement about the extent of that reduction, and therefore, whether it could be said that the population ‘collapsed’. We do, know, however, that the increasingly frequent visits of European adventurers and traders from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth had a devastating effect on Rapa Nui’s Polynesian inhabitants.

It’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts. No sooner do I read material about the hierarchical and destructively competitive nature of the population, than I find recently researched material arguing for necessary co-operation in creating and moving their statues from one part of the island to another. As to the deforestation, some have argued they destroyed their trees for canoe-building and also for the purpose of transporting their statues, using log rollers. Others have tried to show that trees were not used for moving the statues as they were created to be transported upright, using ropes to shuffle them along on rounded bases. Others have argued that plant species on the island weren’t suitable for boat-building. It’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

In the next part, I’ll look at the Ranga Nui people’s activities in providing themselves with the necessities before the eighteenth century, the tragedy of their post-European fate, David Deutsch’s treatment of the situation and … whatever.

References

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

Collapse, by Jared Diamond, 2005

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2020 at 4:13 pm

the bonobo world 3: other cultures – Rapa Nui

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Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern ‘Europeans’ transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

So I want to look at a topic I’ve stumbled upon often in recent times to see what I, if no-one else, can learn from it. It concerns the success or failure of a culture.

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyardahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, triangular in shape, and thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through . However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse.

Jared Diamond, with the help of scientific associates, examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that:

Deforestation is more severe on:

1) dry islands than wet islands. 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands. 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it 7) low islands than high islands 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed in this book, we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. There’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, though it may have been as much as 15,000. It was reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, or so the story goes – unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I’ll have more to say on this topic, and the fate of the Rapa Nui people, in my next post.

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV, documentary video written and presented by Dr Jago Cooper

 Easter Island – Where Giants Walked: Fall of Civilisations, documentary video presented (and written?) by Paul Cooper

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2020 at 8:27 pm

Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.

References

Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://www.britannica.com/event/Boxer-Rebellion

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm

The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi

References

Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China, by Jung Chang, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Palace

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.

References

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm