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

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democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Some people out there might not think that democracy is the best system, but I’d say that, given the crooked timber of humanity and all that, it’s probably the best we can come up with. One of its major problems, as I see it, is its adversarial, or partisan nature. Modern democracies are generally about two major parties, left and right, with power swinging on a more or less regular basis from one side to another. On the other hand, many European nations have evolved multi-party systems, with fragile coalitions always threatening to break apart, and negotiations often bogging down and ending with decisions nobody is particularly happy about, or so it seems. While this can be a problem, so can the opposite, when one party’s decisions and initiatives are swept aside holus bolus by a new government with a polar opposite ideology.

When I occasionally check out social media, I’m disheartened by the number of commentators for whom party x can do no right, and party y can do no wrong. It almost seems as if everybody wants to live in a one-party state – their party. This is a problem for a state which is diverse and necessarily interconnected. That’s to say, for any modern state. And of course there are other problems with representative democracies – generally related to wealth and power. Parliamentarians are rarely truly representative of their constituents, each vote rarely represents one value, and cronyism has always been rife.

And then there’s the maleness of it all. It’s not just that the percentage of women in parliament is always less than the percentage in the general population, but the movers and shakers in the business community, notorious for their pushy lobbying, are invariably male. And then there’s the military, an ultra-male bastion which must have its place…

So here’s a ridiculous thought experiment. Imagine a cast-iron law comes in, dropped from the heavens, that for the next 200 years, no male is allowed to be part of any government of any stripe. Women must, and will, make up every political decision-making body on the planet. Sure they can have the odd male advisor and helpmeet, but they seem to find female advice more congenial and useful. And let’s imagine that in this thought experiment, the males don’t mind their secondary roles at all. They just see it as the natural order of things. After two hundred years, from the point of our current ever-expanding technological and scientific knowledge (which women and men will continue to fully participate in), where will be in terms of war and peace, and our custodianship of the biosphere?

I told you this was ridiculous, but you don’t have to be a professional historian to realise that a more or less unspoken ban on female participation in government has existed historically in many countries for a lot more than a couple of centuries. And we’ve survived – that’s to say, those of us that have survived. Sorry about the tens of millions of Chinese that Mao starved to death in his Great Leap Forward. Sorry about the genocides of Stalin, Hitler, Leo Victor, Talaat Pasha, Pol Pot and Suharto, not to mention Genghis Khan and countless other known or unknown historical figures, again invariably male.

So returning to that thought experiment, we could take the easy option and say we don’t know how things would turn out – certainly not in any detail. But that’s surely bullshit. We know, don’t we? We know that the world, and not just the human world, would be a far far better place in the event of female leadership than it is today.

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. I haven’t looked into the details about how they make their decisions, but the criteria appear to be reasonable. The nations are divided broadly into four categories. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

In 2017, just under 10% of the world’s leaders were female. The percentage may have grown since then, but clearly not by much. We could be generous and say 13-14% at present. There are some difficulties in defining ‘nation’ as well as ‘leadership’, but let’s go with that number. So I had a look at the rankings on the Democracy Index, and the leadership of various countries on the index and what I found was very enlightening. Of the 21 countries rated as full democracies on the Democracy Index, seven of them were led by women. That’s 33%, quite out of proportion to the percentage of female leaders in general. But it gets better, or worse, depending in how you look at it. Of the top ten democracies on the list, six were led by women. Sixty percent of the top ten. Narrow it down still further, and we find that four of the top five democratic nations – which, in order, are Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, are led by women – 80 per cent. It’s almost ridiculous how successful women are at making things work.

So what about the bottom of the barrel – the Afghanistans, the Burmas, etc. Of the 59 nations characterised as authoritarian by the Democracy Index, (though I prefer to call them thugocracies), zero are led by women. That’s nothing to crow about.

So, bonobos. The females, who are as small compared to their male counterparts as female humans are, dominate through solidarity. The result is less stress, less fighting, less infanticide, less killing and rape, less territoriality, and more sharing, more togetherness, more bonding, more love, if you care to call it that.

We don’t know anything much about the last common ancestor we share equally with chimps and bonobos. We don’t know about how violent Homo erectus or Homo habilis or the Australopithecines were, within their own species. We may never know. We do know that chimp troupes have gone to war with each other, with unbridled savagery, and we have evidence, from sites such as the Pit of Bones in northern Spain, of human-on-human killing from near half a million years ago. Our supposedly great book of moral teaching, the Hebrew Bible, describes many scenes of slaughter, sometimes perpetrated by the god himself. So it seems obvious that we’ve gone the way of the chimpanzee. Our worst leaders seem determined to continue the tradition. Our best, however, are making a difference. We need to make their numbers grow. Let’s make those female leaders multiply and see what happens. It may just save our species, and many others.


A bonobo world and other impossibilities 25: women and warfare (2)

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am