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Archive for the ‘hormones’ Category

less testosterone? – such a worry

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the Chinese Testosterone Party – ‘let’s wear boring western outfits and shit on “western values” – that’ll fix em’

Okay, so back to the real stuff, testosterone. The inimitable Sabine Hossenfelder, of the dry humour and sexy German accent, has explored its supposed reduction among humans and how it is deplored among the wannabe macho fraternity.

So first of all I must go straight to bonobos, our more or less female-dominant cousins. There’s precious little data on bonobos and testosterone, but see my previous piece, referenced below. A 2005 study of wild bonobos found, unsurprisingly, that ‘the alpha male had the highest circulating levels of T’, though a comparison with chimp T levels would have been useful. And when I say ‘little data’ I should qualify that – there’s not much data that can be made sense of (by me), it’s so complicated. For example, testosterone levels in female bonobos are just as important as in males, and they vary with age and circumstances. What seems to be the case, which I suspected all along, is that testosterone levels follow rather than lead social aggression and lifestyle patterns, which is why I’ve always been interested in the social development of humans along bonobo lines, so to speak, without worrying about hormones too much.

Now, returning to Sabine, who does a great job of summarising the pros and cons of having too much or too little T. Her most important point, which is well-known but can hardly be stressed enough, is that testosterone levels drop when males are holding or playing with a child (or maybe even thinking of doing so, or having pregnancy fantasies, or just wearing his favourite little black dress…), and they rise after divorce – which may help to explain some restraining orders. But these effects are relatively small for most males.

The evidence is clear, though, that T levels really are falling (oh frabjous day!). Sabine provides graphic, heartening evidence, at least to this dweeb. But there are downsides – both men and women are becoming physically weaker, slower and fatter, especially in the WEIRD world. High protein diets are more common than ever before, and weight gain lowers T, which in turn results in weight gain. And even the abandonment of cigarettes reduces T somewhat – another pleasant, if bizarre, surprise. Of course, as Sabine points out, all this is far from pleasant to some, such as the perennial dweeb who would be otherwise, Tucker Carlson, but others, such as myself, call it progress. Sabine winds her piece up with a most excellent quote from the sadly missed Carl Sagan which I’ll set down here for my own delight:

Why is the half of humanity with a special sensitivity to the preciousness of life, the half untainted by testosterone poisoning, almost wholly unrepresented in defence establishments and peace negotiations worldwide?…. Testosterone also causes the kind of aggression needed to defend against predators and without it we’d all be dead….  Testosterone is there for a reason. It’s not an evolutionary mistake.

Testosterone won’t disappear, in humans or bonobos. If we have more need of it in the future, it’ll probably mean bad news, as Sabine points out. Meanwhile we have the near-apoplectic Mr Poo-tin (a sobriquet for which I’m most grateful) and the Chinese Testosterone Party as ongoing examples of the downside of T.

So while T isn’t an evolutionary mistake, evolution doesn’t stand still. Indeed social evolution is a more accelerated version of earlier forms. It took a couple of million years, at most, for bonobos to depart from chimps in terms of their happy, sharing-and-caring lifestyles. Humans, so much smarter and quicker off the mark once they’ve grasped the benefits (think Deutsche’s The beginning of infinity), have just started to move towards a more female-empowered society in the last century or so, at least in the WEIRD world. And it’s largely females in collaboration that have made it happen, just as occurred, I’m sure, in bonobo society. Of course, this is still too slow for those of us growing older and more impatient. However, horrible as this is to admit, super-macho events such as the ‘great wars’ of the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s half-century of brutal slaughter and rape in the East, and now Poo-tin’s crime against Ukraine, lead to a quickening of positive responses – the United Nations, international monitoring agencies, defensive alliances, and the like. Global human-caused problems are leading to globally-negotiated attempts at solutions, and the lure of global trade dollars also has its benefits.

We need also to learn from previous mis-steps. Here in Australia we commemorate Anzac Day every year, and we hear kids saying ‘they died to save our country’ or ‘…that we can be free’. In the USA we hear praise of Vietnam vets, who fought ‘to defend our country’ or ‘our values’. Against the Vietnamese? It’s such arrant bullshit. The US was in Vietnam first at the behest of the French, who decided to quit their overlordship because it wasn’t delivering enough benefits – to the French. And of course it was impossible for the locals to govern themselves, in spite of having inhabited the region for millennia. It’s just another story of the powerful against the powerless, stories that go back to the dawn of civilisations. As to the ANZACs, fighting the Turks on the other side of the world, what was that about? Certainly nothing to do with Australian freedom. Australia just happened to be much more closely linked to Britain in 1914 than it is now, and two imperialisms, Britain with its quite vast empire, and Germany, the late-comers, spoiling for more power and influence, and a great muddle of other countries trying to work out which side would best suit their interests, came to blows in much the same way as two troupes of chimps have been known to do, but with much more horrific consequences. And blind patriotism, and its fanatical encouragement, didn’t help matters. The ‘Great War’ was an avoidable catastrophe and all our remembrance should surely be focussed on this avoidability.

To accentuate the positive, we are getting better. Yes, there’s the horrors in Ukraine, Iran, Burma and a number of African nations, which have diverse roots. Often it’s to do with the powerless rising up against their disempowerment, having virtually nothing to lose. Such conflicts have been going on for millennia, but we shouldn’t turn our backs o them. None of us get to choose whether we’re born in a rich or poor country, or a rich or poor sub-section of that country. We need to always bear this in mind. Of course it’s hard. It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 50,000 bonobos left in the wild. Humans number 8 billion. Even if we turned our backs on 99% of them, that would leave us with millions to worry about. And we all have our own problems… but sympathy and sharing seem to do us all a power of good. Vive les bonobos!


more on hormones, bonobos and humans


Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2022 at 11:09 am

more on hormones, bonobos and humans

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So having recently read Carole Hooven’s Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, an extremely informative and well-argued book that was basically a necessary read for me, considering my obsession with a more bonobo-like world for humans, I’m left with – what to do? How can I incorporate all this hormonal stuff into my ‘bonobo world and other impossibilities’ essays? I know I’ve mentioned hormones here and there, but never in any detail. Basically I’ve noted, along with Steven Pinker and others, that ‘we’re getting better’. Less violent, more caring of our children, more appreciative of our ‘feminine’ side, more questioning of the nature of gender, a little less male-dominant, at least in the WEIRD world. And since this doesn’t seem to have involved hormones, at least on the face of it, the testosterone issue was never so much front and centre in my dreams of human transformation as was the example, largely ignored by the human world, as it seems to me, of bonobo society.

Sadly, Hooven hardly mentions bonobos, so I need to do some bonobo-testosterone research myself. Here are my initial thoughts. Since bonobos, along with chimps, are our closest rellies, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re hormonally very similar (research required). So how did they evolve into the make-love-not-war apes (yes, an over-simplifying cliché), and why did we evolve more along the chimp line (yes, with great diversity, but very few cultures that ‘aped’ bonobos)?

Again, before I start looking at research abstracts, I can surmise a little. Chimps eat more meat than bonobos, which means more hunting and killing. Testosterone helps with that. The males are more into it so they gang together, leaving the women – sorry, the females – behind. There will be teamwork but also show-offy competition and a muscular hierarchy within the team. And the excitement of the hunt will boost testosterone all the more, which will be worked off on the females afterwards. Bonobos on the other hand spend more time in the trees, in a relatively nutrient-rich part of the DRC rainforest, eating mostly fruit and nuts. Not the sort of stuff you have to chase around and bash to death. And they hang around together, so the males might spend more time entertaining the kids, more or less by default.

And there are mysteries. The male bonobos are bigger than the females, by about the same proportion as humans. The females keep control by female-female bonding, often sexualised, but since ‘sexual healing’ goes on in every possible combination, why don’t the males gain control by the same means? Or why haven’t they? (It wouldn’t be a matter of deciding to do so, more an evolved thing, which didn’t happen). Also dominant females appear to have favoured male offspring, who might serve as their captain-at-arms, in a sense. But now I’m starting to speculate more wildly.

So, the research: in 2010, a paper was published in PNAS (pronounced ‘penis’ by the cognoscenti), entitled ‘Differential changes in steroid hormones before competition in bonobos and chimpanzees’. It described an experiment conducted on male pairs of chimps and bonobos (chimp with chimp, bonobo with bonobo). The pairs were tested for hormonal changes before and after two different food-sharing settings:

We found that in both species, males showed an anticipatory decrease (relative to baseline) in steroids when placed with a partner in a situation in which the two individuals shared food, and an anticipatory increase when placed with a partner in a situation in which the dominant individual obtained more food.

However, these ‘endocrine shifts’ occurred in cortisol for bonobos, and testosterone for chimps, which was more or less as predicted by the researchers. And why did they predict this?

Given that chimpanzees and bonobos differ markedly in their food-sharing behavior, we predicted that they would differ in their rapid endocrine shifts.

Cortisol is generally regarded as a stress hormone, or the fight or flight hormone. I used to get one of those ‘shifts’ (which sent me to the toilet) before teaching a new class. I haven’t asked female teachers if they ‘suffered’ similarly.

Because competition for overt markers of status and mating opportunities is more relevant to males, these effects are less consistent in females.

I’m not sure I was concerned about mating opportunities when starting a new class – could get me into a spot of bother – but status, maybe. But what interests me is that hormone shifts follow social behavioural patterns. That’s to say, shifts in testosterone will be rapid in all-male groups such as male gangs (which I experienced as a young person), in which the pecking order is constantly under challenge, all the way down the line. Cortisol too, I suppose, but gangs are all about ‘proving manhood’, which didn’t at the time seem to be all about sex, but in a not-so-roundabout way, it was.

Chimps, as mentioned, tend to hang together in these sorts of tight hierarchical groups, and so show a stronger ‘power motive’, a term used in human competition research. Bonobos are more co-operative, to the point of becoming stressed when food isn’t easily shared:

Because bonobo conflicts rarely escalate to severe aggression, we might classify bonobos as possessing a passive coping style…

That sounds like me, especially in my youth – considering that, all through my school years, I was one of the two or three smallest kids in the class, male or female, what other coping style could I have? But unfortunately, in the human world, too many blokes have an active coping style, together with a power motive, making misérables of the rest of us.

So, I’ve focused only on this one piece of research for this little essay, and I’ll have a look at more in the future. What it tells me is that we can, indeed, and should, shape our society to become more bonoboesque in the future, for the good of us all. It is heading that way anyway (again with that WEIRD world caveat), in spite of the Trumps and their epigones (dear, the idea that Old Shitmouth could bring forth epigones is grossly disturbing). One last quote from the researchers:

These findings suggest that independent mechanisms govern the sensitivity of testosterone and cortisol to competition, and that distinct factors may affect anticipatory vs. response shifts in apes and humans. Future species comparisons can continue to illuminate how ecology has shaped species differences in behavioral endocrinology, including the selection pressures acting in human evolution.
And of course human evolution continues…

can’t get enough of bonobo bonding


Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021


Written by stewart henderson

November 1, 2022 at 10:52 pm

Evolutionary biology, testosterone and bonobos

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this is the first of a 22-part slide show on the topic – hormones don’t rate a mention!

Canto: So I think we need to get back to another obsession of ours – bonobos and how we can harness a bit more bonoboism for human purposes. We’re currently observing, horrified, as Russia’s alpha male chimp flips out on his own testosterone, perhaps….

Jacinta: Yes, it could well read like something out of Jane Goodall – a long-term alpha male, who has done reasonably well in holding his troupe together by inordinate bullying, random slaughter and regular breast-beating, and by smart alliances, suddenly endangers everything in attempting to take over another troupe…

Canto: And having read three books on the trot, referenced below, on China and its all-male thugocracy, it’s more than tempting to cast that thugocracy in chimpian terms – alpha male after alpha male after alpha male. 

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve long considered how best to rename the soi-disant Chinese Communist Party (CCP), arguably the most absurd misnomer in the known universe. I considered the Chinese Fascist Party, but that seems a bit ‘trendy’, and to call it simply The Party seems too bland, neutral, and even festive. But to call it the Chinese Testosterone Party – that fits the bill perfectly. I really really want that to catch on in the WEIRD world. So anyway, with the evidence mounting that female leadership leads to better outcomes, politically, socially and, I hope, sexually – though we’ve been a bit nervous about that tediously sensitive issue – how can we speed up the trend towards human bonoboism?

Canto: It’s hard, especially when all these macho shenanigans bring out my own most bloodthirsty revenge fantasies. But I’ve been wondering about hormones: Are there any hormonal differences between chimps and bonobos that might help to explain the bonobo turn towards female-female bonding and control of males – and the freewheeling sexual play within bonobo society?

Jacinta: You mean – could we control and transform our human world through some kind of hormone replacement therapy? Sounds promising. 

Canto: We’ll here’s some food for thought re males versus females, and not just in humans:

Empathy is our ability to understand how others are feeling, and men are less able to do this than women, across cultures. This is a widely replicated and consistent finding, and it’s not true just of human males and females. In chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, elephants, dogs and wolves, researchers have observed that males engage in lower rates of behaviours related to empathy, like caregiving, cooperating, helping and comforting.

Carole Hooven, Testosterone, p159.

Jacinta: So the question is – is there a hormone we can take for that? Sadly, it’s never that simple. 

Canto: Sure, but anyway, let’s ask Dr Google. Hmmm, top of the page:

There is some evidence that high levels of estradiol and progesterone are associated with low levels of aggression 

Jacinta: That’s enough for me. Compulsory high-level doses for all males. Overdoses in fact. They either die or shut the fuck up. 

Canto: So there’s a university textbook, Principles of social psychology, which has a section, the biological and emotional causes of aggression, and of course Hooven writes a lot about aggression and testosterone in humans and other animals. There’s just so much to dig into here. For example, pair-bonding male birds and other animals, such as bonobos, who have more of a share in child-rearing, have lower testosterone levels than those in social situations where there is a greater separation between males and females. Arguably that is the case in agricultural societies as opposed to hunter-gatherers. 

Jacinta: So much easier to change hormone levels by just stuffing them into people’s bodies than by changing behaviour, though, surely. Can’t you just add them to the water supply?

Canto: That might be possible, especially if we lived in a thugocracy. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, it gets more and more confusing. 

Canto: What’s interesting about the findings is the chicken-egg issue. Does the gradual social evolution of male caring – if that’s what’s happening – reduce hormone levels or vice versa? I would hypothesise that it’s the caring that’s affecting the hormone levels, but how to test this?

Jacinta: Seriously, testosterone plays a huge role in our development, physiologically to take it to its most basic level. It makes for more athleticism, and probably for more of the competitive urge that leads to that obsessive athleticism, and bodybuilding claptrap. Somehow it makes me think of Mr Pudding, and his caricaturish experience of first being bullied by Charles Atlas types, and then learning a few martial arts-type skills to get revenge, with the end result of controlling a whole nation, and leading a military to rape and murder women and blow kids to bits in Ukraine. Testosterone has a lot to answer for. 

Canto: And yet. Look at bonobos. Look at Scandinavia. The beast has been tamed, in a few pockets of our universe. 

Jacinta: Do aliens have hormones, there’s a question. 

Canto: Yeah we first have to answer the earthling question – are there aliens in the universe?

Jacinta: But haven’t quite a few humans been kidnapped by aliens? 

Canto: Ha, oh yes, the ones who escaped…. but all the missing persons…

Jacinta: Returning to Earth, the hormone issue, and possibly even the neurophysiology issue, these raise the questions of masculinity and femininity – which Hooven explores from an endocrinological perspective – does a woman with a high testosterone level have a disqualifying advantage over another ‘normal’ woman, in running, jumping, throwing and lifting?

 Canto: Hilariously – depending on your perspective – this has become a minefield in the world of sport and athletics. Hooven cites an athlete, Caster Semenya (and I know v little about this topic) who had a habit of blitzing the field in running events a decade ago –  in fact from 2009 to 2018. Unsurprisingly, I would say, she had ‘suspiciously’ high testosterone levels (which of course would never have been measured before the 21st century), so complaints were made. Was this woman really a man? Which raises obvious masculinity and femininity questions…

Jacinta: Which, just as obviously, should be quashed by – fuck, she’s fast, that’s so fantastic! Go, girl! 

Canto: But I suppose there’s a legitimate question – do abnormal levels of x give you an advantage?

Jacinta: Yeah, like long legs, in running? Shouldn’t leg length be subject to restrictions? 

Canto: It’s a good point. We want to think maleness and femaleness are distinct, but we tend to think in terms of averages – the average female is 80% of the mass of the average male, the average male produces x more testosterone than the average female, etc, but there’s enormous variation within each gender, and that’s genderbendingly problematic for more than just athletics officials. 

Jacinta: Anyway, just how important is endocrinology for a future bonobo world? Should we be focussing on promoting estradiol and progesterone rather than femaledom? Should we be screening politicians for the best hormonal balance rather than the best policies?

Canto: Ah but if my previously mentioned hypothesis is correct, we should be screening potential ‘leaders’ for their caring and sharing, which will lead to a greater expression of the ‘good’ hormones. 

Jacinta: Yes, good for a society in which aggression has more serious consequences than it had in the past, what with WMDs and the like – the slaughter of women for their ‘contemptuous’ flouting of dress codes, the slaughter of ethic communities for their insistence on a modicum of independence. Aggression with a massive state apparatus behind it, and more effective weaponry than ever before. But how do we rid ourselves of these aggressive states without aggression? How do we even defend ourselves against them without aggression?

Canto: Maybe we’re just wanting too much too soon. I note that we’re getting more female political leaders than in the past, though they tend so far to be countries with relatively small populations – Scotland (our birth country), Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Baltic States… and, as with bonobos, it’s not just the alpha females, it’s the status of the whole female sex that makes the difference. 

Jacinta: Yes, if we had but world enough, and time….


Jane Goodall, Through a window, 1990

Trevor Watson & Melissa Roberts, ed. The Beijing bureau, 2021

David Brophy, China panic, 2021

Bill Birtles, The truth about China, 2021

Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the story of the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021

Nicky Hayes (?), Principles of social psychology, c2015?


Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2022 at 3:03 pm

more oxytocin fantasies: an interminable conversation 3

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not sure if this measures a significant difference


Canto: So, as it turns out, the bonobo-oxytocin connection is all the rage on the internet. I mean, there are at least two articles on it. Here’s a quote from a PubMed article called ‘Divergent effects of oxytocin on eye contact in bonobos and chimpanzees’:

Previous studies have shown that bonobos and chimpanzees, humans’ two closest relatives, demonstrate considerable behavioral differences, including that bonobos look more at others’ eyes than chimpanzees. Oxytocin is known to increase attention to another’s eyes in many mammalian species (e.g. dogs, monkeys, and humans), yet this effect has not been tested in any nonhuman great ape species.

Jacinta: Hmm, so how do they know this? Presumably they’ve dosed subjects with oxytocin and measured their eye contact against controls?

Canto: No no, they know that bonobos have more eye contact than chimps, simply from observation. So they might infer from this that bonobos produce more oxytocin naturally than chimps…

Jacinta: So do women produce more oxytocin than men I wonder? I presume women make more eye contact than men.

Canto: Well in this study they dosed both bonobos and chimps with oxytocin, and the effect – more eye contact – was greater in bonobos than chimps. In fact, chimps even tended to avoid eye contact when shown images of conspecifics.

Jacinta: So, it’s a matter of interplay between this hormone/neurotransmitter and social conditioning?

Canto: Maybe, but you’d think that an increase in this supposedly touchy-feely hormone would act against social conditioning. Isn’t this the point of that drug, ecstacy? That it reduces social inhibitions…  But presumably nothing is ever so simple. Being poor, I only have access to the abstract of this paper, but another abstract, which looks at the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on chimps, describes them as neuropeptides, just to confuse matters. The abstract also refers to about a dozen brain regions, as well as specific oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, so it gets pretty complicated.

Jacinta: Okay, vasopressin… from Wikipedia:

Human vasopressin, also called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), arginine vasopressin (AVP), or argipressin, is a hormone synthesised from the AVP gene as a peptide prohormone in neurons in the hypothalamus, and is converted to AVP. It then travels down the axon terminating in the posterior pituitary, and is released from vesicles into the circulation in response to extracellular hypertonicity (hyperosmolality). AVP has two major functions… etc etc

Canto: Okay thanks for that, let’s stick with oxytocin for now. It’s produced in the hypothalamus, a smallish region buried deep within the brain, just below the larger thalamus and above the even smaller amygdala. It releases and manages a variety of hormones. Brain signals are sent to the hypothalamus, exciting it to release oxytocin and other hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland….

Jacinta: Can you tell me what oxytocin is actually made of? Its structure? The term ‘hormone’ is just a black box to me.

Canto: Okay, here’s a diagram of oxytocin to try and make sense of:

It’s a polypeptide. A peptide is basically an amino acid chain. FYI:

An amino acid is an organic molecule that is made up of a basic amino group (−NH2), an acidic carboxyl group (−COOH), and an organic R group (or side chain) that is unique to each amino acid. The term amino acid is short for α-amino [alpha-amino] carboxylic acid.

Jacinta: So these are coded for, ultimately, by genes?

Canto: Yes, we’re heading backwards here, but each amino acid is encoded by a sequence of three of the four base pairs in our DNA. Anyway oxytocin, among other things is sometimes given to women while in labour. It helps with the contractions apparently. I’ve also heard that the recreational drug ‘ecstasy’, or MDMA, works essentially by releasing oxytocin.

Jacinta: It just so happens I’ve found an interesting 2014 paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology, my new favourite journal, called ‘Effects of MDMA and Intranasal Oxytocin on Social and Emotional Processing’, and here’s a quote from the abstract:

Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.

Canto: That is interesting. If that finding can be replicated, I’d say forget the MDMA, dose people with oxytocin. A small but significant increase in feelings of sociability might just be enough to transform our human world.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Small but significant – that sounds a mite contradictory.

Canto: Not the same as significantly small. That slightly significant dose, administered to Messrs Pudding and Pingpong and their enablers, might’ve saved the lives of many Ukrainians, Uyghurs and advocates of multiculturalism, democracy, feminism and other wild and woolly notions. And it doesn’t really transform characters, it just softens their edges.

Jacinta: Yes it’s a nice fantasy – more productive than butchering the butchers, a fantasy I occasionally indulge in. But not workable really.

Canto: Why not? We dosed petrol with lead, and look at how that worked out. It certainly had an effect. In Japan they still use radium baths (at very low levels) for health purposes, even claiming it as a cure for cancer. I’m not sure if oxytocin baths can ever be a thing, but if so I’m sure there will be early adopters.

Jacinta: Well, it’s good to think positively. Oxytocin is often thought of as a bonding hormone between mother and child. The key would be to ensure it facilitates a more general bonding: to cause Mr Pingpong, for example, to see Uyghur, Tibetan, Yi, Limi, and all the other non-Han ethnicities in China as his sisters – or lovers even, revolting as that would be to those peoples.

Canto: Better than being their oppressors and exterminators.

Jacinta: Slightly. But I wonder, quite seriously, if, assuming such a dose of bonding could be effectuated, we could still function as the sometimes rational, problem-solving, highly creative species we indubitably are. Would there be a price to pay for all that oxytocin? And how would this affect all those other hormones and neurotransmitters and all their myriad effects? Humans are notorious for causing extra problems with their solutions, e.g lead, DDT, etc etc.

Canto: Well, there’s no need to worry about the fallout from this solution as yet. I just googled Putin and oxytocin together and came up empty. Obviously we’re way ahead of the curve.

Jacinta: Haha, it’s not a curve these days, it’s a pivot. Get with the program!



Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2022 at 10:38 pm

leadership, thugs, hormones, bonobos, oxytocin and the future: an interminable conversation 2

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

Jacinta: So, in pointing out that, according to the democracy index, female leadership and some of the best democracies go together, I didn’t mention the fairly obvious chicken-and-egg issue. Does quality governance lead to more female leadership, or does female leadership lead to better quality governance?

Canto: Isn’t this called a synergistic effect? So it’s not quite chicken-and-egg. Or is it?

Jacinta: No matter, you’re right. The term’s generally used in science – here’s an overly-complicating definition from one scientific paper:

Synergistic effects are nonlinear cumulative effects of two active ingredients with similar or related outcomes of their different activities, or active ingredients with sequential or supplemental activities.

You need to learn that – it’ll be in the test.

Canto: The idea being that female leadership and good governance result in more than the sum of the two parts.

Jacinta: Well, when I wrote about the democracy index, I found that the countries near the top of that index, the best democracies, were top-heavy with female leadership, by which I meant Prime Ministers and Presidents, but I didn’t look more closely at the social make-up of those countries – the predominance of female business leaders, scientific team leaders, the percentage of women in other political or governmental posts and so forth. I made the perhaps reasonable assumption that those countries are also leading the world in every kind of leadership position for women.

Canto: To be fair, researching all those things for each country would be quite a job. We don’t get paid for this shit. I think we can at least assume that those Nordic gals are pretty formidable. Northern European countries feature heavily in the top twenty. Even the UK gets in there.

Jacinta: Australia squeezes into the top ten. And will only improve with the new diversity in government after the recent election. And the most women in our parliamentary history.

Canto: So, as this female empowerment continues apace, at least in the WEIRD world, what will this human world look like, in the 22nd century?

Jacinta: Well, it could be – and this wouldn’t surprise me – that the macho world, run by Mr Pudding, Mr Pingpong and their enablers, and possibly their successors, will do catastrophic things before the turn for the better, because out of catastrophes – the two world wars of the twentieth century, the holocausts in Europe and Africa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – come rude awakenings and changes for the better – the United Nations and a whole host of NGOs such as Amnesty International (1961), Médecins Sans Frontières (1971) and Human Rights Watch (1978), as well as various international defence and common interest groupings.

Canto: Yes, China and Russia – that’s to say their governments – are the scary ones, simply because they can do the most damage globally, though dog knows many African, Middle Eastern and Asian thugocracies are doing terrible things today.

Jacinta: Getting more female leadership into those countries that everybody pays most attention to – such as those with the greatest destructive ability (the USA, Russia and China) – that would be absolutely key.

Canto: The three countries most fond of interfering with other countries. Funny that.

Jacinta: What’s the point of having all that power if you can’t use it to push others around? Old Drivelmouth in the USA is a perfect example. Not to mention the Taliban, etc etc etc.

Canto: So you want female empowerment so you can push blokes around?

Jacinta: Ah, touché. Yes, there’s some truth to that – after all, we’ve had millennia of being pushed around by blokes. But I don’t want to resurrect the Society for Cutting Up Men, though I must say I’m glad that manifesto was written.

Canto: We need extremists so we can feel superior to them?

Jacinta: Haha well we can just about get rid of men, once we’ve drained them of sperm. Think of black widow spiders and such. There’s a strong argument that the basis of all life is female – turning Aristotle’s views upside-down. Anyway, we’re a long way from taking over the world, unfortunately.

Canto: And such a possible world makes me think of bonobos again, where the male life isn’t too bad at all. If you accept your place.

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

Canto: Well, no I wouldn’t be happy to be a bonobo after my life as a human, I’d want to do all the human things – sex of course, but also exploring where we came from, what makes us tick, how the self-animating came from inanimate matter, how the universe came to be, how we can solve all the problems we create for ourselves, and enjoying all the beautiful and amazing things, like birds and bushes, music, the sea breeze, the tastes of various cheeses, a good whisky, laughs with friends and so on. As long as my female overlords allow me these joys – and I know they would – I’d be happy as a bonobo with a perpetual hard-on.

Jacinta: Haha, I’m not sure if that’s the best definition of happiness. The spicy variety is more like it. And of course you’re right, human life is potentially much more varied and complex than bonobo life. The real point is that the potential is more likely to be realised, for more people, with less macho thuggery and more female-led community. And here’s another point: hierarchy isn’t a bad thing, or rather, it’s an unavoidable thing, because we’ll never be equal in skills and knowledge, due to age, experience and upbringing. And there will always be challenges to existing hierarchies, and changes to them. It’s a matter of how we manage those changes, and females are generally better at that. As to why, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s hormonal. In any case, that’s a generalisation, which admits of exceptions.

Canto: But those hierarchies are much harder to shift in those complex communities called nations, where there are entrenched classes, such as the Party in China, or the Military in Burma, or the Theocracy in Iran, or the Billionaire CEOs in the USA. These people tend to live as far from the great unwashed as possible, often in gated communities or their equivalents, even on physically Higher Ground, as Robert Sapolsky and others have noted.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. I was thinking recently of Nixon and his crimes, and of the USA’s ludicrous and shocking Presidential pardoning system, exposed even more in recent times. Nixon was merely ‘persuaded’ to resign, and would have spent his retirement in one of those gated communities, full of backslapping commiserators, and I have few expectations of Trump experiencing anything worse. Anyway, what we need is a society, and a political system, in which this kind of scum doesn’t rise to the top in the first place. I wonder if there have ever been any brutish alpha females in the bonobo world. It’s unlikely, but there may have been the odd one-off.

Canto: You mentioned hormones. You know, I’ve never really understood what they are. I recall Sapolsky warning us against over-simplifying – assuming that testosterone is the male hormone or the aggression hormone, and that serotonin is the relaxing hormone, mostly associated with females…

Jacinta: Serotonin’s a neurotransmitter. You might be thinking of oxytocin, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, apparently. Or, more likely, oestrogen?

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard of them all, but I don’t know what basket to put them in. Is a neurotransmitter a wave or a particle? Are hormones like cells, or molecules of some kind? Amino acid chains, like so much else in the body? We should do a whole self-educating conversation on that topic.

Jacinta; Absolutely. Anyway, we need more of an oxytocin-soaked society – without the downsides of drug induction, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sciencey rationality too much. Here’s something from a typical popular medical website about oxytocin:

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems.

Canto: Hmmm, doesn’t it just immediately make you think of bonobos? I bet they have no problems with their intestines.

Jacinta: Well it does make me fantasise about a touch of biochemical engineering, just to help the feminising process along. Whadya reckon?

Canto: Interesting. That’s for a future conversation.


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

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

on love and hormones

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The subversive family, a book written by Ferdinand Mount some 40 years ago, argues that the basic family unit, with two or, more rarely, three generations housed together, is indeed more basic than a great many critics allow, and that marriage based on mutual attraction has been more common throughout human history than many historians claim. However that may be, he makes no mention of prehistory, by which I mean the long period of human, and early hominid, existence, before the invention of writing.

What interests me is the nature of sexual relationships during that period, and that nature is hardly likely to have been static. Clearly, marrying is a ceremonial act, which requires a certain level of sophistication. It is apparently intended to ‘tie the knot’, to formalise two persons’ commitment to each other, a commitment expected to be lifelong. Ideally, this commitment is based on love.

It’s interesting that many bird species are monogamous. They stay together, with only the occasional bit on the side, build nests together, share the feeding and teaching of the kids and so on. We talk of love-birds, we love the willow pattern tale, but do we really think these birds love each other? Probably not, because we like to reserve this state of being for humans.

This human specialness thing is eroding though. Dogs mourn their human owners. Elephants grieve over their companions and their children. The more we look at complex social species, the more we find evidence of deep feeling which we may or may not call love, though to call it something other than love would seem insensitive.

But marriage, freely entered into, is about romantic love, and that, some say, is singularly human. Others, of course, say romantic love is a myth, a mixture of hormones and psychology that doesn’t last, though the commitment might continue after the passion is spent, especially where children are involved.

This monogamous arrangement has proved effective for the raising of offspring, in humans as well as in swans, cranes and eagles, and in prairie voles, Azara’s night monkeys and a few other mammalian species. However other complex social animals, such as elephants, dolphins and chimps, are not monogamous, and in fact only about 3% of mammals practice monogamy, and they still manage to raise their young just fine. I have a special interest in bonobos, our closest living relatives, on a par with chimps. They are highly sexualised, yet manage to avoid getting pregnant more than is needful. Females dominate in spite of sexual dimorphism which favours males. Are bonobos, Pan paniscus, a more loving species than Homo sapiens? I leave aside our species’ predilection for aggression and warfare, I’m considering the comparison in times of relatively peace for both species. It is probably impossible to make such a comparison, social contexts are perhaps too different, and bonobos are an endangered species, and quite difficult to study in the wild. As to human apes, it seems that in our human history, which dates back to the development of writing as an effective information and communication tool, we have been almost universally patriarchal and monogamous. But this takes us back only a few thousand years. Our species is at most about 300,000 years old – there’s a lot of debate about this – and tracing our ancestry back to its connection with the bonobo-chimp line has been problematic. There’s also the question of the connection between monogamy and romantic, exclusivist love. For example, it has been found that monogamous prairie voles mate exclusively for life, with the first ready member of the opposite sex they encounter. Clearly this isn’t about romance or conscious decision-making. It will be argued that it is preposterous to compare humans with prairie voles, but from a biological perspective, perhaps not so much. We often talk of ‘love at first sight’ and ‘I don’t know what hit me’ (sometimes with regret). There is no doubt that this sort of immediate sexual attraction can largely be explained by biochemistry. Monogamy in general appears to involve an interplay of hormonal and cultural effects.

Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and Rutgers University, separates romantic love into three parts – lust, attraction and attachment. To summarise, doubtless too briefly, the hormonal effects here, the sex hormones testosterone and, to a lesser extent, oestrogen play a predominant role in increasing libido, or lustful sensations. The hypothalamus stimulates production of these hormones by the ovaries and testes. Testosterone, it should be emphasised, is not a ‘male’ hormone. It produces a variety of effects in both sexes. Attraction is a more complex, more conscious elaboration of lust. It may involve some weighing up of the costs and benefits of particular lustful feelings, though generally under the ‘sway’ of lust. The brain areas involved include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex. The activation of these regions tend to increase trust in the object of lust and to inhibit defensive behaviour and anxiety. The hormones dopamine and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which create a sense of euphoria, the sense of ‘being in love’, with its sleeplessness and obsessiveness, will have obviously differential effects depending on the object of attraction’s response to the person attracted. Feelings of attraction also appear to reduce serotonin levels, which help regulate appetite and mood.

Attachment, not surprisingly, is the most complex, conscious and culturally influenced of these three stages. It’s quite a bit cooler (temperature-wise) than the other two, and extends often to other connections, such as friends and family. The hormones most involved in this stage, or state, are vasopressin and oxytocin. Interestingly, those prairie voles mentioned earlier differ greatly from their promiscuous cousins, montane voles, in that they express far more of these two hormones. When these hormones are blocked by researchers, prairie voles turn promiscuous. It would of course be depressingly reductionist to describe attachment, and the other states, as well as their more negative features, such as jealousy, possessiveness and emotional dependence, in purely hormonal terms, but we need to understand, and so to positively change a world of human aggression and thuggery, so prominently displayed on the world stage today, to one a little more bonoboesque, while still preserving the best of our humanity – our inventiveness and our curiosity. Understanding how our hormones affect us is a good start.


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2021 at 8:17 pm