a bonobo humanity?

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

Archive for the ‘masculinity’ Category

the big issue: monogamy, polygyny and bonoboism

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I think it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me. That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be…

Jacob Brackman/Carly Simon

And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When I was a young boy, my Mama said to me, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti’

Reckless Eric

glory days

Just the other day, a young woman very close to me was in a quandary about her boyfriend – though ‘quandary’ is too mild a word. She was very upset about what might be a permanent break-up. As part of their intimate chit-chat, he responded, presumably to her love declaration, with this remark: ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’.

Of course this response can hardly cover the whole nature of their relationship, but the fact that it was seen as less than satisfactory, indeed jeopardising the relationship’s future, has given me much food for thought – or rather, it has brought to mind issues that have obsessed me for a lifetime, an obsession that helps to explain my excitement at discovering, nearly four decades ago, bonobo culture.

I’m referring here to monogamy, and romantic love, modes of life and feeling that are essentially foreign to my favourite, and very loving, primate cousins.

It’s fascinatingly coincidental that, just as I found myself to be a sounding-board for my young friend, whom I dearly love, I’ve been reading Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, which deals with the cultural processes that broke down kinship connections and marriages (sororate and levirate), including polygynous marriages for elite males, in different global regions. This dissolution of long-standing kinship traditions was effected, not necessarily deliberately, through the edicts of the Church (Catholic) over many centuries in Western Europe, and was replaced by connections, including marriages, based on individual choice, shared interests and psychological compatibility. Other influences in other regions, such as China, had similar kinship-dissolving effects, though intensities have differed.

All of these transformations and modifications, though, have been within male-dominated societies. And, in the history we know most about, from the beginnings of agricultural society, there have been precious few female-dominated ones. And monogamy has been the norm, even if hedged around by clan and kinship expectations. Henrich puts it this way, while incidentally making perhaps the only reference to bonobos in his book:

From among our closest evolutionary relatives – apes and monkeys – guess how many species both live in large groups like Homo sapiens and have only monogamous pair bonding?

That’s right, zero. No group-living primates have the non-cultural equivalent of monogamous marriage. Based on the sex lives of our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, the ancestor we share with these apes was probably highly promiscuous and likely didn’t form pair bonds at all, let alone enduring, monogamous pair bonds. Nevertheless, since we diverged from our ape cousins, our species has evolved a specialised psychological suite – our pair-bonding psychology – that can foster strong emotional bonds between mates that remain stable for long enough to encourage men to invest in their mate’s children. This pair bonding psychology provides the innate anchor for marital institutions. However the nature of this anchor biases marital institutions toward polygynous pair bonding. In contrast, our innate mating psychology doesn’t usually favour widespread polyandrous mean marriage – that’s one wife with multiple husbands – although there are good evolutionary reasons to expect this to pop up at low frequencies in societies lacking prohibitions against it.

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, pp 258-9

Now, I’m a wee bit miffed here that bonobos etc are described as ‘non-cultural’, though of course they don’t have marriage, or language, or religion, quite. But the emergence of patriarchy, or possibly its intensifying as we trace our ancestry back to the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor) is still something of a mystery. Henrich’s analysis really only takes us back several millennia, at the very most. Bonobos are, in a sense, hunter-gatherers, and their diet has never included large game, so the relatively rare hunting events would’ve involved speed and dexterity more than brute strength. Bonobo matriarchy, if that’s what it is, appears to be an outcome of the female-female bonding that arguably comes more naturally to human females than to males.

The concept of property is key here. Think of the commandment – don’t covet your neighbour’s wife, or any other property belonging to him. Property emerged from the depths of time as very much a male thing – and so, polygyny as a status symbol. Henrich has an argument as to why polyandry never became much of a thing:

Our ‘polygyny bias’ arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his ‘fitness’. By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own foetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair bond with the most capable, resource full, and highest status man she could find by making clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could ‘run in parallel’ by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be ‘working’ on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 259

Henrich goes on to argue for the unsustainability of polygyny due to the lack of wives or breeding partners for low-status males in an increasingly hierarchical social system, but I should note here that bonobos have managed to develop a female-dominant culture despite all the issues of mothering, or most of the issues, faced by humans. Of course, they don’t have to worry about clothing, and shelter is less of a problem. ‘Cultural know-how’ is of course matched to species complexity – how to survive and thrive in their particular social world. In a talk given at Harvard, the linguist Daniel Everett defined culture thus (quoting from his own 2016 formulation):

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is only found in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviour of its members.

He also states in his talk that culture is always changing, and of course he’s talking about human culture. And this raises again the question of bonobo (or cetacean, or corvid) ‘culture’. We see our culture changing generationally – that’s to say, before or very eyes – but only a few centuries ago, as David Deutsch points out in The beginning of infinity, human culture, even in the WEIRD world, was much more static, and, although we don’t have clear evidence, it seems that Australian indigenous culture maintained itself largely unchanged for tens of millennia.

So, the way culture works depends a lot on context, and rapidity of change has much to do with interaction between and across cultures, due not just to immigration but, perhaps more importantly, to the rapid technological connections across the globe that have occurred since the middle of the 20th century,

Let me give you some of my personal story as an example. In the mid-sixties, as a kid of around ten, I was on a backyard swing listening to the radio blasting out, one after another, the five or so songs, all by the Beatles, that were topping the charts, in Australia and the other side of the world, at the time. I was thinking how vital and exciting those songs seemed to me in comparison to the hymns we were asked to sing at Sunday School. Over the next few years, the Beatles exchanged their matching suits and mop haircuts for long, wild hair, colourful eastern silks, beads and ‘love, man’. The ‘hippie generation’ seemed to explode into life. Free love and flower power, vaguely defined, were being spruiked everywhere, and songs referencing revolution – by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Thunderclap Newman, Barry McGuire and others – all gave the impression of a world turning upside-down. Caught up in the zeitgeist, I let my hair grow as long as it could, wore my older sister’s cast-off blouses and jackets, became a massive Bowie fan and reflected obsessively on gender-bending, marriage and monogamy.

The marriage and monogamy issues exercised me most, as my parents, it seemed, had trapped themselves in a loveless marriage which only came to an end shortly after I left home at eighteen. And because my mother was very much the head of our household, and because my sister was as strong-willed as my mother, feminism was also a major theme. We lived in a household full of books, with a library just down the road, so I was able to escape into a less fraught intellectual world. One book that greatly exercised me was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Children of the Dream, about the Jewish kibbutz system. While I was too young to understand much of the analysis, the very fact that there was a radical alternative to my form of upbringing hugely exercised me. I imagined the kibbutz system to be something like bonoboism long before I’d ever heard of those treasured apes.

Also, because our family had moved to Australia from Scotland when I was five, we’d pretty well dispensed with broader kinship connections, making us particularly WEIRD. It was all about ‘elective affinities’, as Goethe put it, and in fact I read his book of that title as a young person, probably due to the WEIRD title, though I found the content rather baffling. I was trying to tease out the differences between sexual attraction, love, and affinity, if they existed. I recall reading, I think in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, of this made-up love obsession which was enough to drive us mad. I had felt it myself of course. How could I feel so intensely about this girl I barely knew? How could a way of walking, a flicker of hands, make me feel that some force had reached into my heart and squeezed it, making me stagger and look round to see if anyone had noticed? And then later I learned of hormones – phenylethylamine and cortisol running wild, triggering the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, toxins of hope and their antidotes – all the result of unbidden thought, or something like…

Then of course, the world must be peopled, and we’ve done an all too brilliant job at that. As Henrich’s research indicates, with the agricultural revolution more or less complete in many parts of the human world around 8,000 years ago, property and its associated prestige led to an increasingly hierarchical, and patriarchal society – mostly monogamous, but then nothing displays male power more than possession of a bevy of the brightest and most beautiful as breeding partners. It’s worth noting just how extreme this ‘sexual prestige’ system became in some parts of the world. Here’s Henrich again:

In the South Pacific at the time of European contact, Tongan chiefs had a few high-ranking wives, who helped solidify alliances with other powerful families, and a few hundred secondary wives. In Africa, Ashante and Zulu kings each had 1000 or more wives. However, these are just the paramount chiefs or kings; there was usually a fleet of lesser elites who maintained smaller harems for themselves. Zande kings, for example each had more than 500 wives, but their chiefs also each maintained about 30 or 40 wives, and sometimes as many as 100. In Asia, things were even more extreme: medieval Khmer kings in Cambodia possessed five elite wives and several thousand secondary wives who were themselves graded into various classes…

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 261

And so on. However, this kind of extreme, and graded, polygyny was barely sustainable as it led to a multitude of aggrieved, partnerless males at the bottom of the pyramid, ripening for rebellion. The ‘European contact’ Henrich mentions here would’ve added to the pressures on this ultra-polygynous situation. These European colonisers, or conquerors, would’ve been keen to impose the True Religion wherever they went, and with it the proto-WEIRD values of the time. Today, in post-colonial Africa and Asia, there is a fluctuating and often awkward and barely workable mix of WEIRD and clan-based values and lifestyles, which likely contribute to the political instability we often find in these regions.

Meanwhile, in more established WEIRD nations, nothing is static. Only a little over a century ago, no woman could vote in any ‘democratic’ country, of which there were very few in any case. Female political leaders are still rare, though a little less rare in the last fifty years than the previous fifty. Perhaps the biggest change in relatively recent times has been in female education and employment, which is slowly changing the scientific, legal and business landscape. Arguably women, by and large (there are plenty of exceptions), are less interested in hierarchical than collaborative enterprises, and their growing input will lead to a gradual improvement in political decision-making, international relations and less adversarial approaches to business and the law…

And as for monogamy – okay, ‘free love’ hasn’t taken off as I thought it might, but at the same time, things aren’t as they were in the fifties and before. Single parenthood has been on the rise for decades in the WEIRD world, for males as well as for females, and though the supports available aren’t quite as nurturing as those available for bonobos, they’re enough to enable a ‘normal’, stigma-free childhood. The concept of illegitimate children is more or less dead, and maybe one day the notion of illegitimate immigrants will go the same way. Passports and visas are a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise, and they may turn out to be fleeting in the long run, especially with the advent of climate migration in the now foreseeable future. All of this, and a recognition that we’re all in this together as a culpable species, will be better facilitated by a more caring, less combative attitude to our fellows, human and non-human.

Taken all in all, women are the better angels of our human nature. Yes, we’ve moved very very far from our bonobo cousins, and we regularly and even obsessively pat ourselves on the back for that. But all of our best instincts tell us that collaboration, mutual appreciation, and recognition of ourselves in others, including other species, are key, not to just our survival, but to our thriving in a richer, more sustainable environment.


Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020

Bruno Bettelheim,The children of the dream, 1970

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the underground, 1864

Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am

the anti-bonobo world 2: Putinland

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So what is the opposite of a ‘bonobo world’ in human terms? I’d describe it as a macho thugocracy. The chimp world, from my research, isn’t anywhere near the kind of macho thugocracy that we find in some places in the human world, in which the concentration of male power is extreme. The chimp world is certainly more aggressive and more hierarchical than the bonobo world, but alliances are constantly shifting, and females make alliances with both males and other females, to protect their young and sometimes themselves against growing males who are constantly challenging the current hierarchy.

With humans, organisation and power became more institutional, but with democracy, power tends to be more fleeting and more dependent on collaboration, promise-keeping, popularity and the like. So a more democratic region tends to lend itself to a more bonobo-like culture. There used to be a claim that democracies never make war with each other, but one should never say never. Nevertheless, with the advent of modern democracy, the WEIRD world has clearly settled down into less violent forms of exploitation. And in terms of female power and influence, the door is slowly creaking open.

Some of us are more impatient than others. I need to recall that, 100 years ago, in 1920 to be precise, women were awarded their first degrees at Oxford University. In that same year, women in the USA were granted the right to vote, after years of struggle and vitriolic resistance. Social evolution has been increasingly rapid, but it’s still too slow for many of us to bear, as the sands of one lifetime start to run out.

And there are frustrating reversals. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, written in the late forties, she described the gains made by women in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, influenced by the feminist principles of Engels and Marx as well as the mostly British suffragette movement, followed by a backlash in the 30s and 40s as Stalin established his stranglehold on power. She ended her analysis on a grim note:

… today the demands of repopulation have given rise to a different family policy: the family has become the elementary social cell and woman is both worker and housekeeper. Sexual morality is at its strictest; since the law of June 1936, reinforced by that of June 1941, abortion has been banned and divorce almost suppressed; adultery is condemned by moral standards. Strictly subordinated to the state like all workers, strictly bound to the home, but with access to political life and the dignity that productive work gives, the Russian woman is in a singular situation that would be worth studying in its singularity; circumstances unfortunately prevent me from doing this.

Stalinist Russia and its profoundly corrupt and terrorising state control heavily impeded feminine and general freedoms, a situation that largely persisted until the advent of Gorbachev in the 1980s. What followed, according to the political science academic Brian Grodsky, was an unprincipled mess of grab-bag opportunism under Boris Yeltsin and his cronies:

…. Russians watched as Yeltsin clumsily dragged the country through a decade of lawlessness, poverty and humility, all in the name of American-supported democracy. The economy plummeted while a new tiny class of ostentatious “haves” made their fortune frequently by plundering what people had built during Soviet times.

Putin, the acme of the smart, devious, unprincipled KGB operative, was able to take advantage of the situation, quite likely by contributing to the murderous chaos before presenting himself as ministering angel to the country’s plummeting economy. He used Stalin’s tactics of sowing suspicion everywhere, while managing to sell himself as a friend of the ‘common people’, a skill that was never in Stalin’s make-up.

There is no doubt, though, that Putin is a ruthless, murderous thug who hates democracy with a passion. He’s clearly obsessed with his eastern border and the democratisation of any of Russia’s neighbours or economic ‘partners’. He’s much more comfortable among fellow macho thugs, as long as he can manipulate them. Within the country he’s intent on maintaining a conservative, masculinised culture. More than any other leader before him, certainly throughout the Soviet era, he has fostered close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, the leader of which, their equivalent of the Catholic Pope, is called the Patriarch. If only this was a parody.

But the promotion of patriarchal values via conservative Christianity is only one piece of the attack on feminism. Like the Chinese thugocracy, which chortles under the exquisitely meaningless title, the Chinese Communist Party, Putinland decries feminism – a campaign to promote equal rights, opportunities and respect for women – as liberal-democratic decadence. In her 2018 essay, ‘Russian politics of masculinity and the decay of feminism’, Alexandra Orlova describes the state propagandising of opposition figures and even dissenting nations like Ukraine as weak and ‘feminine’, even resorting to video campaigns dressing such figures up as transvestites and ‘fairies’. Traditional, unchanging values are continuously promoted in an unrelenting propaganda war, which unsurprisingly connects feminism with gay freedoms under the ‘banner’ of degeneracy. State-funded video ads for the already-rigged 2018 elections presented the alternative to the status quo as an enforced de-masculinisation of Russian society presented in absurdist comic terms.

Much of this disastrous absurdity springs from the failures of the Soviet era, which, as Beauvoir and Orlova make clear, began very promisingly for feminism. Why such a failure? The answer lies, it seems to me, in the moral congealing of a top-down, anti-democratic system, as existed under patriarchal catholicism for centuries in Europe. Communist ‘values’ have never been particularly coherent, but they were soon replaced by a ‘we know best’ authoritarianism which divided the rulers from the ruled and sought to promulgate rules that would maintain a status quo which would benefit the empowered. A promotion of stasis – of traditional or eternal values. For example, as Orlova puts it, ‘by the 1930s the Soviet government claimed that women’s issues were largely solved.’ Compare this to the Beauvoir statement above, which Orlova would surely endorse. Under Putin, nothing has changed, which essentially means that Russia has gone backward compared to the WEIRD world, in which progress has been slow enough to be extremely frustrating for some.

There was, of course, a window of opportunity in the nineties before Putin consolidated his power at the end of that decade. During this period, WEIRD organisations were active in promoting feminism and other progressive values in a nation whose immediate future was uncertain. All of these initiatives have been quashed with the advent of Putinland.

Putin is, as of this writing, 69 years and 4 months old. He has dispensed with the charade of rigged elections, and so has managed, by fiat, to avoid the skirmishes that alpha male chimps and gorillas have to face in order to maintain a hegemony that nature determines will pass on to someone else, usually through further violent confrontation. He’ll leave behind a nation that’s left behind, considering how globally connected the world – especially the WEIRD  world – has become. The Russian people, though, are better than this. Its beleaguered women will bounce back. Already they can see through the propagandist bullshit of Putin’s thugocracy. Like a coiled spring, they’re waiting for release. Any day now.

Evidence of a more positive future is clear enough. Orlova focuses in her essay on two issues that exercised the Russian court system, which, like the Duma, is stacked with ‘traditional values’ conservatives, and highlighted its absurdity vis-a-vis the rest of the WEIRD world. Firstly, the Pussy Riot débâcle, and secondly the Markin v Russia case regarding military leave, which was finally taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

To take the second case first, Konstantin Markin, a single father of three children, was employed by the military as a radio operator. His request for parental leave in 2010 was rejected, due to the fact that, under Russian law, such leave could only be granted to women. Two levels of appeal under the Russian justice system were rejected, and the judicial reasoning in these cases, and in response to the European Court, which found in favour of Markin, reveal how problematic the Russian judiciary’s attitude was in the face of obvious reality. The chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, claimed that the special role of women in the raising of children was supported by contemporary psychology. Presumably, he considered this ‘fact’ to be sufficient to prohibit a male who happened to be raising children from being provided the support given to women. The children don’t appear to have been given very much consideration in the matter. What Zorkin and his ilk proposed should be done about the children in these circumstances is unknown. I would also presume that Russia, like the USA, doesn’t feel itself bound by judicial bodies beyond its boundaries. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Markin ever got his leave, but I would agree with the Strasbourg observers, linked below, that the well-being of the children in the case should have been front and centre, the first and virtually only focus of the courts in all cases.

The Pussy Riot events are, of course, better known, and the humour and deliberate outrageousness of their activities were bound to endear them to the WEIRD world that Putinland pretends to despise. Tellingly the Russian courts were most ‘outraged’ by the group’s takeover of a particularly male section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to stage a feminist performance. One section of the court’s decision indicates their attitude:

While following the ideology of feminism does not constitute a crime or another type of an offence in the Russian Federation, a number of religions, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, cannot be reconciled with the ideas of feminism. While feminism does not represent a religious ideology, the followers of feminism are interfering with such public spheres as public morals, norms of propriety, family relations, and sexual relations, all of which have been historically built on the basis of religious principles.

This is essentially the dictate of a religious institution rather than a secular one. The religious organisations mentioned have, of course, been opposed to the equal treatment of women for centuries, and are obvious and necessary targets for feminist and human rights organisations.

As of this moment of writing, the forces of Putinland are about to invade Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation. Whether or not Putin wins this battle, he has no chance of winning the war of values. Meanwhile, horrors will be inflicted and needless suffering will occur. Fighting the anti-bonobo world is going to be difficult for an increasingly bonoboesque WEIRD world that prefers to make love. I’ve no idea how we can overcome this macho push, at least in the short term, but long-term victory will definitely involve women, in vast numbers.


Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949




Written by stewart henderson

February 19, 2022 at 5:17 pm

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

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‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller


It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am