a bonobo humanity?

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

Archive for the ‘migration’ Category

global warming worries

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Gaia Vince strikes me as a positive type, as opposed to an optimist. An optimist, as I see it, is someone who just feels that the future will be better than the past – that ‘something will turn up’ – while a positivist (not of the logical type) explores and promotes solutions, generally with the requisite realism – nary a solution that doesn’t entail its own problems.

Nomad Century is a remarkable book, which tries to pack as many possible solutions to the global warming situation as possible in a couple of hundred pages, while recognising that the situation is already serious enough to warrant collaborative international action to support the most vulnerable, who are also largely the most innocent in terms of creating the crisis. In this post I’ll try to summarise these ideas and solutions, principally for my own referential purposes.

  1. Migration

Our history is all about migration. I’m a migrant. Nations, borders, passports and visas are ultra-modern phenomena. Migration has brought helpful genetic input to receiving populations. Clearly we will not bring global warming to less than 1.5c before 2050, probably not even close. We have a responsibility to help those who will increasingly suffer from drought, flooding and fire in coming decades. And while migration is generally a benefit to all, in spite of xenophobic attitudes, planned migration will be much more successful. The United Nations, and other international organisations that have some heft in the world, need to step up as the situation worsens. We need to recall that global society is entirely reliant on movement – of goods. Australia was once a hub of manufacturing. I know, it provided me with employment for much of my youth. Now those goods, including motor vehicles, are pretty much entirely imported, while we rely on exports, mostly of iron ore, coal and gas, to China, Japan and other Asian countries. International trade has expanded muchly in recent decades, creating levels of interdependence never before seen, and yet we tend to be obsessed with guarding our borders. To quote Vince:

As humanity faces its greatest environmental challenge – a population of 10 billion people, resource limitations, and a demographic crisis – we should not be handicapping ourselves by limiting our most important survival tool. We will only meet our global challenges through planned and extensive human movement and redistribution…. we need lawful, safe, planned and facilitated migration.

2. Population

I recall as a kid reading, probably in an out-of-date textbook, that our human population was around 3 billion. In fact we got to one billion early in the 19th century, after some 300,000 years of existence. The World Population Clock now has it at a little over 8 billion, and it will certainly be over 9 billion by mid-century. However, in most WEIRD nations the growth is slow or negative, while nations such as Niger and South Sudan have much higher birth rates. This raises issues around ageing populations, which could be balanced by immigration.

In 2008 the world population became officially more urban than rural, and internal migration to cities continues apace. Cities and their governance and future planning are thus becoming an increasingly vital factor in climate change mitigation. With effective collaboration within and between urban centres, solutions to urban problems re pollution and carbon emissions can be multiplied and shared. The greening of cities is often seen as a benefit in itself, which citizens of differing ideologies can get behind. Environmentalist writer Ihni Jon quotes city planners in Darwin:

We’re trying to create a more pleasant environment in the city for people to roam around and hang out more, which could help the economy of our city. ‘Creating a pleasant condition’, or ‘creating a destination’, has become the motivator for planners to be engaged more with nature and the environment in general.

Then again, the question needs to be asked – how bearable will the environment be in a city like Darwin in the second half of this century? Today is the first official day of spring in Australia, and it has just been announced that the winter just completed was the warmest since records have been kept. And so it goes.

3. Decarbonisation

Everybody is talking about this, but fossil fuel emissions continue to increase. As Vaclav Smil tells us clearly in How the world really works, we’re far from finding ‘replacement’ energy for air travel, shipping and agriculture. Our agriculture industry has been revolutionised since the early 1900s by the mass-production of ammonia (NH3), As the Climate Portal puts it:

…ammonia has to be made at a high pressure under high temperatures—meaning it takes a lot of energy to manufacture. Most of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and methane gas, which give off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change.

CO2 emissions from ammonia production make up between 1% and 2% of the whole. Emissions from agriculture in general make up around 12%, while a little over 14% comes from transportation. Arguably the sector that can most ‘easily’ be transformed is the ‘general energy’ sector – households and businesses using fossil fuel-based electricity, and gas, for heating, cooling and multitudinous appliances. But we’re a long way from making inroads even in this sector, and we’ve only just managed, more or less, to convince the general population that global warming is a real thing with serious consequences for the biosphere.

With the human population very much on the rise, and the ongoing quest to raise living standards for all, the pressure is on to find solutions. Nuclear fission is an option, and it’s disappointing to note the degree of misinformation around this technology. Australia would be a better location than most, but there seems little public appetite here, perhaps because our climate and open spaces are so well suited to solar. Much has been reported about small modular reactors (SMRs):

The term SMR refers to the size, capacity and modular construction only, not to the reactor type and the nuclear process which is applied. Designs range from scaled down versions of existing designs to generation IV designs. Both thermal-neutron reactors and fast-neutron reactors have been proposed, along with molten salt and gas cooled reactor models.

Again, the appetite just doesn’t seem to be there, and nuclear fusion, which I’ve recently written about, looks to be far into the future still.

Lifestyle change, in terms of what we eat, how we build or refit our homes, and how we recycle our waste, will help, but not enough. A sense of urgency is rising among the cognoscenti, but with the world so divided in other areas (Russia, China, Iran, the USA, etc), it may take a real kick up the biospheric arse (a devastating El Niño?) to wake us up to truly collective action. Meanwhile, we may need to loosen our cherished borders a bit to help those already affected by global warming.

There are some interesting techno-solutions I’ve half-learned about through reading Nomad Century, and I’ll try to learn more about them via a future post.


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Ihni Jon, Cities in the Anthropocene, 2021


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2023 at 8:50 pm

how can we learn from bonobos?

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Today I’ve decided to change my blog title, and to drop the conversational form of writing, though all my writing is a kind of internal conversation (channelling Adam Smith), informed by various external media.

I really want to get into this patriarchy thing more, because, in spite of all the changes that have occurred since the days of the suffragettes – and it has to be admitted that that was only a little over a century ago, in a human history that goes back 300,000 years, and a few thousand years in terms of states and ‘civilisation’ – it’s still very much a man’s world, with massive male dominance in terms of political leadership and wealth. The exceptions only tend to prove the rule.

Outside of the so-called WEIRD world, and on the fringes of it, we have Xi and his Chinese Testosterone Party, the Putinland thugocracy, little Donny Trumpet and his band of (mostly) male white mice, molto-macho politics in Burma, Tanzania, Latin America, New Guinea, Cuba, the Middle East, much of eastern Europe, and so on. Australia might like to see itself as an island of gender-equal WEIRD sanity, but it’s worth noting where the wealth lies, because there has always lain power. It’s true that Australia’s richest person is a woman, Gina Rinehart (at one time the richest woman in the world), but she began with wealth inherited from her father Lang Hancock, a fact that, unsurprisingly, she’s extremely sensitive about. Hancock was an ebullient and very racist operator, much beloved by his daughter (Hancock produced no sons), who was clearly much influenced by his style and politics. We need of course to recognise that, male or female, we’re hugely influenced by our background, and much of our character is set by our earliest years, as the Dunedin longitudinal development study has shown. Of course, that study, particularly the ‘personality’ aspects of it, is very WEIRD. In non-WEIRD cultures, most of which are highly patriarchal, female power is essentially covert, and even today, in the WEIRD world, Rinehart’s situation is highly unusual.

Outside of Rinehart and family, the top 20 richest Australians include only one woman (Fiona Geminder, daughter of the late billionaire Richard Pratt), at number 19. And as is to be expected, those at the top of these rich lists are exponentially wealthier than those at the bottom.

Of course, not all of the super-rich are interested in political power and influence in the manner of Murdoch, Trump et al, and many women, in particular, who inherit wealth through family or marital connections, have an interest in using it benefit the health and welfare of others. A Forbes article from 2018 claimed that, statistically, ‘women give almost twice as much of their wealth away as men (3.5% vs. 1.8%)’. It’s a most bonoboesque trait, as is their tendency to ‘be more co-operative in work teams’ (also from Forbes).

Developing more co-operative political environments is becoming more essential than many realise. Generally speaking, the Covid-19 pandemic would surely have been more devastating without the global co-operation managed in terms of accurate messaging and fast-paced biochemical development. And would’ve been less devastating if we’d had more of it. I recall some years ago reading about wealthy philanthropists providing interest-free loans to women in ‘third-world’ countries, because they were seen as better money managers, and less selfish in that management, than males. A quick internet search shows that this approach is still in play, though some of the sites advocating and supporting micro-loans seem out of date, and there’s a worry that this may just have been a passing trend. In any case it’s a far cry from women having their hands on the global purse-strings.

I think the WEIRD world needs to set the example here, as it is less constrained by patrilineal kin affiliations and patriarchal religio-spiritual beliefs, and has been motivated in recent decades by a lot of female empowerment rhetoric. My expectation for the future, however distant, is that female dominance will come from large-scale female-female bonoboesque bonding (with or without the sex).

Which takes me back to the bonobo world. How did their female-dominated culture come to be? How did the chimp-bonobo common ancestors live, communally? I’ve been wondering about this for some time, but all the experts I’ve read on bonobos, including Frans De Waals, confine themselves to description, as well as pointing out how their society overturns ideas of inevitable human patriarchy. We need to work out the evolution of their society, if we can, in order to effectively take advantage of it for our own sakes, for if ever there has been a time for female leadership in the human world, it’s now.

One key is to promote the kind of female-female bonding we know bonobos engage in, and we know women are capable of, given half the chance. Angela Saini, author of Inferor, an examination of patriarchy and the scientific treatment of women, provides echoing sentiments from Amy Parish, a leading expert on bonobos:

“Certainly I think when we only had chimps in the model, it seemed like patriarchy was cemented in our evolutionary heritage for the last five to six million years,” Parish says. “Now that we have an equally close living relative with a different pattern, it opens up the possibilities for imagining that in our ancestry that females could bond in the absence of kinship, that matriarchies can exist, that females can have the upper hand, that societies can be more peacefully run.”

And observing bonobos can offer inspiration to those who want to carve out a different future. “For me as a feminist,” says Parish, “it’s really interesting. Because the goal of the feminist movement is to behave with other females as though they are your sisters”.

I note that, among younger generations of women, going out in more or less large groups ‘for fun’ has become more common. This has been exploited in the sex video world with the ‘party hardcore’ set of videos, in which a disco/hotel room full of drinking and dancing women get to ‘take advantage’ of a handful of male strippers distributed around the space, for sexual purposes. Female-female sex is also featured, but, rather revealingly (so to speak), no male-male stuff. That’s apparently a step too far for us benighted humans.

The sexual side of all this is always going to be a touchy topic however. We’re the only animal to wear clothes, and to use complex language, with which we tell our kids that we have naughty private bits, and our adults that public nakedness is indecent. We create religions that tell us that sex outside of ceremonially anointed relationships is forbidden, and that reference to the sexual act and the body parts related to that act should be spoken of as rarely as humanly possible. And of course how could we engage together in scientific research, business conferencing, artistic projects or goat-herding with all our dangly stuff showing?

We don’t need to go that far, though, at least not in the short term. After all, it’s already clear that women are more touchy-feely than men. How often have we been at gatherings of friends, at the end of which the women have parted with hugs and the men with handshakes? In this we’re more like bonobos than we know. And as in bonobos this kind of sensual closeness leads to food-sharing and other forms of co-operation, and a reduction of aggression in general, it would seem to me that female leadership, and the encouragement of the female side of male humanity, is what is most needed for a human future that no longer relies on brute strength, or purely physical skills, but more and more on working together, finding common solutions, helping and caring – and not just for our fellow humans.

In the WEIRD world we have largely left behind patriarchal tribal values and the veiled, secreted women that greatly predate Islamic societies. Of course our societies are more blended than ever before (though DNA and historic research assisted by genetics has made us aware that we moved and mixed in the past more than we’d ever thought possible), and this may hinder the inevitable transition to female supremacy, but in the long run it will happen, as needs must. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, and I’m not talking about some ‘hidden hand’ theory, I just feel that for us to survive, and with us as much of the biosphere that can be saved, female supremacy, or feminisation of the human population, will be essential, and a good.






Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2023 at 9:24 pm

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.





Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.


A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

The over-population clock

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a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

Canto: From time to time I’ve shown my students the world population clock (WPC), because I’ve brought my discourse round to it for some reason, and they’ve been mostly fascinated. And I’ve usually told them that the world’s population will level out at about 9.5 billion by mid-century, because I’ve read or heard that somewhere, or in a few places, but is that really true?

Jacinta: So you’re wanting to investigate some modelling?

Canto: Well yes maybe. I was looking at the WPC the other day, and was shocked at how births are outnumbering deaths currently. What’s actually being done to stem this tide?

Jacinta: Looking at the WPC website, there’s a lot more data there that might enlighten you and calm your fears a bit – if it can be trusted. Ok we went past 7.4 billion this year and you can see that so far there’s 70 milliom births compared to around 29 million deaths, and that looks worrying, but you need to look at long-term trends. The fact is that we’ve added a little over 40 million so far this year, with a current growth rate of about 1.13%. That figure means little by itself, but it’s important to note that it’s less than half of what the growth rate was at its peak, at 2.19% in 1963. The rate has been decelerating ever since. Of course the worry is that this deceleration may slow or stop, but there’s not much sign of that if we look at more recent trends.

Canto: Okay I’m looking at the figures now, and at current trends the projection is 10 billion by 2056, by which time the growth rate is projected to be less than 0.5%, but still a fair way from ZPG. The population, by the way, was two point something billion when I was born. That’s a mind-boggling change.

Jacinta: And yet, leaving aside the damage we’ve done and are doing to other species, we’re doing all right for ourselves, with humanity’s average calorie intake actually increasing over that time, if that indicates anything.

Canto: Averages can carpet over a multitude of sins.

Jacinta: Very quotable. But the most interesting factoid I’ve found here is that the current growth rate of 1.13% is well down on last year’s 1.18%, and the biggest drop in one year ever recorded. In 2010 the growth rate was 2.23%, so the deceleration is accelerating, so to speak. It’s also interesting that this deceleration correlates with increasing urbanisation. We’re now at 54.3% and rising. I know correlation isn’t causation, but it stands to reason that with movement to the city, with higher overheads in terms of housing, and with space being at a premium, but greater individual opportunities, smaller families are a better bet.


Canto: You bet, cities are homogenously heterogenous, all tending to favour smaller but more diverse families it seems to me. That’s why I’m not so concerned about the Brexit phenomenon, from a long-term perspective, though we shouldn’t be complacent about it. We need to maintain opportunities for trade and exchange, co-operative innovation, so that cities don’t evolve into pockets of isolation. Ghettoisation. Younger people get that, but the worry is that they won’t stay young, they won’t maintain that openness to a broader experience.

Jacinta: Well the whole EU thing is another can of worms, and I wonder why it is that so many Brits were so pissed off with it, or were they duped by populist nationalists, or are they genuinely suffering under European tyranny, I’m too far removed to judge.

Canto: Well, if there were too many alienating regulations, as some were suggesting, this should have and surely could have been subject to negotiation. Maybe it’s a lesson for the EU, but you’re right, we’re too far removed to sensibly comment. Just looking at the WPC now – and it’s changing all the time – it has daily birth/death rates which shows that the birth rate today far exceeds the death rate – by more than two to one. How can you possibly extrapolate that to a growth rate of only 1.13%?

Jacinta: Ah well that’s a mathematical question, and I’m no mathematician but obviously if you have a birth rate the same as the death rate you’ll have ZPG, no matter what the current population, where as if you have a disparity between births and deaths, the percentage of population increase (or decrease) will depend on the starting population and the end-population, as a factor of time – whether you measure is annually or daily or whatever.


Canto: Right so let’s practice our mathematics with a simple example and then work out a formula. Say you start with 10, that’s your start population at the beginning of the day. And 24 hours later you end up with 20. That’s a 100% growth rate? But of course that could be with 1000 additional births over the day, and 990 deaths. Or 10 more births and no deaths.

Jacinta: Right, which indicates that the total number of births and deaths is irrelevant, it’s the difference between them that counts, so to speak. So let’s call this difference d, which could be positive or negative.

Canto: But to determine whether this value is positive or negative, or what the figure is, you need to know the value of births (B) and deaths (D).

Jacinta: Right, so d = B – D. And let’s set aside for now whether it’s per diem or per annum or whatever. What we’re wanting to find out is the rate of increase, which we’ll call r. If you have a start population (S) of 10 and d is 10, then the end population (E) will be 20, giving a birth rate r of 100%, which is a doubling. I think that’s right.

Canto: So the formula will be: r = S – E… Fuck it, I don’t get formulae very well, let’s work from actual figures to get the formula. It’s actually useful that we’re almost exactly mid-year, and the figure for d (population growth) is currently a little under 42 million. That’s for a half-year, so I’ll project out to 83 million for 2016.

Jacinta: So d now means annual population growth.

Canto: right. Now if we remove this year’s growth figure from the current overall population we get as our figure for S = 7,391,500,000 and that’s an approximation, not too far off. And we can calculate E as 7,474,500, approximately.

Jacinta: But I don’t think we need to know E, we just need S and d in order to calculate r. r is given as a percentage, but as a fraction it must be d/S. And this can be worked out with any handy calculator. My calculation comes out at 6.6% growth rate.

Canto: Wrong.

Jacinta: Yes, wrong, ok, a quick confab with Dr Google provides this formula. d = ((E – S)/S).100. But we already have that? E-S is 83 million. Divided by S (7,391,500,000), and then multiplying by 100 gives a growth rate annually of 1.1229%, or 1.12% to two decimal places, which is not far off, but significantly less than, the WPC figure of 1.3%. I must have stuffed up the earlier calculation, because I think I used the same basic formula.

Canto: Excellent, so you’re right, my fears are allayed somewhat. Recent figures seem to be showing the growth rate declining faster than expected, but let’s have another look at the end of the year. Could it be that the growth figures are higher in the second half of the year, and the pundits are aware of this and make allowances for it, or are we actually ahead of the game?

Jacinta: We’ll have a look at it again at the end of the year. Remember we did a bit of rounding, but I doubt that it would’ve made that much difference.

Some current national annual population growth rates (approx):

Afghanistan 3.02%

Australia 1.57%

Bangladesh 1.20%

Brazil 0.91%

Canada 1.04%

China 0.52%

India 1.26%

Iran 1.27%

Germany 0.06%

Morocco 1.37%

Nigeria 2.67%

Pakistan 2.11%

South Africa 1.08%

United Kingdom 0.63%

(These are not, of course, calculated solely by births minus deaths, as migration plays a substantial role – certainly in Australia. Some surprises here. The highest growth rate on the full list of countries: Oman, 8.45%. The lowest is Andorra with -3.61%, though Syria, with -2.27% on these figures, has probably surged ahead by now).


Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm