an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘monogamy’ Category

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

bonobos, community and our good selves…

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owl monkeys just happen to be highly monogamous, and very cute. Photo by Kevin Schafer

I’ve been quite exercised recently by Ferdinand Mount’s 1981 book The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, which is a defence of marriage and the nuclear family, but not quite from a conservative perspective. I’m particularly interested in chapter 11, ‘The dilution of fraternity’, which critiques attempts to replace an institution seen as ‘selfish and inward-looking’, the family, with something more universal, or at least broad – the community, the tribe, the flock, and so forth. For some reason Charles Manson’s alternative ‘family’ keeps coming to mind, but that’s an aberration.

Mount describes these seekers after a better alternative as ‘fraternalists’, which seems immediately problematic, though he is certainly not anti-feminist. The idea of fraternity is old, but Mount argues that it’s as problematic as the other legs of the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity triad. I prefer to use the term community, and I won’t be looking at the old-guard quasi-communist ‘brotherhood of man’ notion that negatively dominates Mount’s thinking on the matter. I’m thinking more of the bonds that unite a pod of dolphins, a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves or hyenas, and a community (the agreed-upon term) of chimps or bonobos.

Mount makes the claim that human attempts at fraternity – in cults (or religious associations), communes, social movements and the like, have tended to run out of steam, as they require a discipline to maintain them, a discipline that is unnatural to us, especially as compared to the maintenance of the family. There is a feeling of enforcement about them which often makes the individual member uneasy or skeptical. A true sense of intimacy is difficult to maintain, and is sometimes replaced by a kind of fake heartiness.

There is some truth in all this, and it often seems that humanity is moving in the other direction, towards a sort of atomistic individualism, in spite of the popularity of political rallies and social media movements. The trouble with libertarians though, is that they seem not to realise that humans didn’t get to reach a population of nearly 8 billion, and to dominate the planet, for better or worse, by means of individual liberty. We achieved this by being the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and this social construct, in recent millennia, goes by the name of civilisation, or the state. It seems that the state – very tyrannical and hierarchical at its outset, becoming somewhat more egalitarian over time – has been the victim of its own success, creating a population of individuals convinced that all its achievements – in trade, education, infrastructure, technological development and the like, are somehow their own.

Returning to marriage, monogamy and the nuclear family, Mount wishes to claim that it is natural, though he’s somewhat hesitant about it. The basis of this claim is that it has withstood all attacks and critiques, first by the Church, which in earlier times preferred asceticism and celibacy, and later sought to regulate it almost out of existence, with dire restrictions on adultery and divorce, and second by Marxists, anarchists and various cults, who criticised marriage as bourgeois, selfish, inward-facing and imprisoning in various ways. It’s interesting that, in the forty years since The subversive family was published, marriage has gained further strength and legitimacy from a somewhat unexpected source (to me at least), in the demand for same-sex marriage, a demand that has been acceded to in many democratic nations. So marriage and monogamy is the majority human option for the foreseeable future.

This provides no proof that marriage is natural, however. Of course, in one obvious sense it is purely cultural, as marriage refers to a ceremony. The question really is whether monogamy is natural, for humans. Of course monogamy is natural for many species, but humans are the species that mess up the ‘natural’ concept, by building cities, sending spaceships out to beyond our solar system and calculating the age of the universe. And by conducting experiments, mostly failed, in alternative lifestyles.

Humanity, in any case, has never lived in a ‘state of nature’ as vaguely conceived, in virtually opposite ways, by Hobbes and Rousseau. In its gradual spread out of Africa it has created a multitude of cultures – monogamous, polyandrous and polygynous – with exceptions to general rules often making clear classification difficult. However, the situation as it stands today is clear enough in some respects. In a recent review of contemporary societies to answer the question ‘Are We Monogamous’, anthropologists Ryan Schacht and Karen Kramer wrote:

… we conclude that while there are many ethnographic examples of variation across human societies in terms of marriage patterns, extramarital affairs, the stability of relationships, and the ways in which fathers invest, the pair-bond is a ubiquitous feature of human mating relationships. This may be expressed through polygyny and/or polyandry but is most commonly observed in the form of serial monogamy.

I have no argument with this conclusion, but I have two questions. Was it ever thus? Will/must it always be thus? For the past, I look to bonobos, and for the future, I look to ‘the beginning of infinity’ – our extraordinary ability to transform ourselves and our world.

Bonobos and chimps split from each other between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, probably due to the formation of the Congo River. The question I’m interested in – and, as Milan Kundera once pointed out, the best questions are those we can’t answer, at least not easily – is, what was this species like before the split? Was it more like bonobos – female-dominated, gentle and sexual – or more like chimps – male-dominated and aggressive? These are relative terms, of course, as chimps too have their caring and sharing side, as much recent research has revealed. Another question we will probably never be able to answer is this. How did our common ancestor with chimps and bonobos, both of which (or should that be whom) ‘live in multi-male and multi-female communities, promiscuously mating with each other’ (BBC earth), come to be predominantly monogamous or pair-bonding?

I’ll look at what the research says about this – if anything – next time.


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1981

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2021 at 9:08 pm

A bonobo world 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

Jacinta: Why did Homo floresiensis go extinct? What happened to Homo neanderthalensis? What about mastodons, Australia’s megafauna, thylacines, dodos, stegodonts, mammoths, passenger pigeons, aurochs, great auks, quaggas, moas, and maybe hundreds more dead species?

Canto: Well humans are accused of being the direct cause, though no doubt there are lawyers out there with ingenious arguments to the contrary, or at least in mitigation. It might be argued for example that the rise to supremacy of H sapiens is a good thing, at least for H sapiens, and it could never have occurred without a bit of damage. I mean, there are plenty of species left, and more will come as nature selects them. And besides, we’re so smart we could bring many of those species back to life, if it’s not too inconvenient.

Jacinta: Hmmm, the issue of de-extinction aside, modern humanity is actually good at learning from its mistakes, and re-appraising our relationships with other species, and with other cultures within our own. That’s why I’m obsessing over bonobos and our own overly macho culture. We need an overhaul and more and more humans are becoming aware of it.

Canto: So I know you’re talking about that world-turned-upside down idea again, what with a large majority of our political leaders being men, surrounded by mostly male advisers and government ministers, dealing with overwhelmingly male business leaders and public intellectuals, male military brass, a male judiciary and scientific community…

Jacinta: Male billionaires, male mass-shooters, male sports stars, mostly… why are we so invisible in the public sphere?

Canto: The times they are-a-changin mate. Okay, forget that. It really is interesting to think what our world would be like if the men were in the position the women are now. And of course we can’t seriously turn to bonobos to find out. Can we?

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

Canto: Anyway, crazy as it might be, our current situation has a long history…

Jacinta: Yeah, like astrology and traditional Chinese medicine, which is mostly horseshit.

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

Jacinta: The point isn’t to understand our world historically, but to change it.

Canto: Yes, but in order to change gears, you need to know how a gearshift works.

Jacinta: ??

Canto: We need to know, I mean it would be helpful to know how we got into this lopsided mess, so we can extricate ourselves…

Jacinta: Yes, and sexual dimorphism isn’t the reason, because bonobos. Division of labour is more likely. Hunting and gathering. Both activities require getting out and about, far from GHQ, whatever that was in early hunter-gatherer days – makeshift constructions, caves. But the hunters would’ve travelled much further afield. Hunting trips may have lasted days.

Canto: But I think we need to be careful about that hunter-gatherer term. It’s surely too neat. I’m getting the impression, for example that the Australian Aboriginal survival life was much more complex, with fish traps, organised burnings and the like. A lot of accumulated knowledge to enable them to gain more foodstuff with less output. A bit like us really.

Jacinta: Yeah they knew how to store their food for a rainy day – but then so do tons of bird species. Anyway, let’s move on to the age of agriculture. Fixed dwellings. And remember it was the women who had the children.

Canto: Really?

Jacinta: They might carry the newborns out to the fields, but once they became pesky toddlers they were too much of a hindrance…

Canto: Yes, and more… Imagine this conversation: ‘Now Wilma you need to keep the little one home, she’s impossible to keep an eye on here, and you know how dangerous it is with those big flaming birds…’ ‘Oh don’t remind me again Fred..’ ‘Well I will – that big bloody bird took the neighbour’s little one, flew off with him, dropped him on that rock, and Bam Bam, that was the end of him’. ‘Dear god of our harvest, you’re a bastard, Fred’. ‘Bam bam, you should’ve seen the mess. Anyway you need to keep her home, keep her occupied, make some pretty jewellery…’ ‘I’m sick of being home, how many times have I told you…’ ‘Yeah but look – hey are you preggers again? Is that one mine, or has that Barney been creeping around? I know he wants another Bam-Bam, but I’ll Bam Bam him….’

Jacinta: Yes, thought-provoking. And Fred would stick his arm out and say  ‘Feel that muscle? That tells you I can do enough work for two. So you just stay home and prepare some of that great brain food you’re so good at. All those omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and trace elements and such, they’re just doing my head in they’re so good. A man sure needs a maid and you sure is the best’.

Canto: This is getting overly speculative I think. I mean, you’re assuming monogamy at this stage, which is perhaps reasonable but not certain. So this scenario is from around 10,000 years ago? That’s when they say agriculture got started, at the earliest. And we know that most primates are non-monogamous. I’m thinking of the connection between monogamy and division of labour. And there’s also the idea of wives – but not husbands – as property, which is a feature of the Old Testament.

Jacinta: Well to be fair husbands could often be treated that way, as in ‘stop trying to steal my man or I’ll rip your eyes out’, but mostly it was the husband who carried the club, now replaced by the Kalishnikov AK-47 among others. I think monogamy goes back a long way. Ferdinand Mount, in his book The subversive family, argues that monogamous romantically-based relations are a permanent feature of humanity, but by ‘permanent’ he really means as far back as written records, and not even that, as his examples mostly go back some hundreds of years. I’m prepared to accept that monogamy goes back as far as agriculture and the establishment of fixed dwellings, and more restricted notions of property…

Canto: So do you think that if we did have a world-turned upside down we’d be less monogamous?

Jacinta: Uhhh, hesitantly I’d say yes, but in such a way that the offspring wouldn’t suffer. I mean you can see the trend in developed countries – with the rise of women’s rights came the new appreciation of children and their rights and value. ‘A woman’s place is in the home’, and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, those clichés went together in blighted Victorian England.

Canto: Funny that, considering that Victoria was a woman, I’ve heard. But that was Irony Age England for you.

Jacinta: Again, with bonobos and other less male-dominated primate societies, infanticide is virtually non-existent. It’s quite prevalent in other primate societies. Female promiscuity is used as a strategy to keep males from killing the kids. ‘Oh shit, that one was mine, I think. Now I feel such a fool’.

Canto: Well I’m okay with female promiscuity personally.

Jacinta: Yeah and it also happens to be fun – variety’s the spice of life and all. Of course monogamy can be defined in various ways, for example as a tendency rather than a strict rule. But the tendency toward monogamy might’ve evolved as a response to environmental stresses – stresses that generally no longer exist for us. And so we see a rise in single-parent families, because they can manage now, albeit with difficulty, which they could barely do in previous centuries. Genetic studies, by the way, place human monogamy as having evolved between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. But I’m sure that’ll be endlessly disputed.

Canto: So have we worked out how we got into this lop-sided mess?

Jacinta: Well, sort of, and I think we’re slowly extricating ourselves. Less aggression, more collaboration, in an extremely uneven way from a global perspective, and in a two steps forward, one step back, Steven Pinker-type sense. Which requires work, community-building work to bring us all together out of the stresses that plague too many of us. We’re mostly in a post-industrial society, but exploitation proceeds apace. We need to call that out, in government, in business, and between nations. Anyone would think we’re not just one species, the way some people carry on.


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Barbujani G (2003). “A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity”. J Mol Evol. 57 (1): 85–97.




Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

a bonobo world 38: bonobos aren’t monogamous

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You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus  20:17 New International Version



As to humans and monogamy, it would be absurd to try to cover the subject in one book, let alone an essay, but absurdism has its appeal. Ferdinand Mount has many interesting things to say on the topic in his 1982 book The subversive family, which is not so much a defence of the nuclear family as an account of its endurance against attacks from religious organisations, communists and free-love advocates, among others. More recently, the same-sex marriage push throughout the developed world has been met with surprise rather than serious pushback from those of us not particularly committed to the institution, heterosexual or otherwise.

Advocates of monogamy generally focus on one positive attribute as central: loyalty. Of course it has variants – commitment, constancy, dedication and devotion -terms which are also used to promote nationalism.

It follows that those not committed to monogamy are described as fickle, selfish, shallow, or worse – decadent and degenerate. Top-down, ultra-controlling governments such as those of present-day Russia and China seek to prescribe the traditional values of their people in contrast to the decadence of the US and Western Europe, citing, with due exaggeration, the breakdown of families and the rise of homosexuality and other decadent practices, but they’re fighting a losing battle in an increasingly interactive human world. In fact, as Mount points out, until recently all states felt they had a right to control the rates and terms of divorce:

… it is remarkable how long even Western governments have clung on to their power over marriage. The most striking example is the state control of divorce – which in England was only transferred to the State from the Church courts in the mid-nineteenth century against severe opposition from Gladstone and other high churchmen. The real relaxation in the laws of divorce did not reach England – and many other countries – until well after the Second World War.

But the fact is that, if monogamy is on the decline, it’s a very slow one. We appear to be a jealous lot, ever on the lookout for betrayal and boundary-crossing. This doesn’t seem to be the bonobo way, and few would think to describe bonobos (or dolphins or elephants) as degenerate.

Monogamy is defended, promoted and celebrated in other ways too – in the form of true love. Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Héloïse and Abelard, Bogart and Bacall, these couplings with their happy or sad endings have been presented, imitated and played upon in infinite varieties in novels, films and other media, while another view of this estate, more pragmatic or ‘realistic’, has an almost businesslike feel to it. You meet, you partner up, it’s all hormonal and feel-good for the first months or years, during which offspring come along, then come the disagreements and irritants, followed by a resolution of sorts, an appreciation of the good, a minimising of the rest, and another kind of love supposedly supervenes, a co-dependence which you’re never quite sure is unadventurous laziness or something like maturity. It helps that being part of a couple is highly approved of in a taken-for-granted way, and you don’t have to buy an interactive toy to keep you company in your twilight years.

However, defended or not, monogamy is certainly under some pressure, with the religious culture, which has emphasised the eternal nature of pair-bonding – ‘as long as ye both shall live’ – being very much in decline in Australia and similar nations. The developments of globalism and multiculturalism have encouraged us to look more broadly at human mating patterns, both culturally and historically. We generally find that, even in purportedly polygynous societies, monogamy is the norm – though serial monogamy is increasingly common. Think of the experimental teens – having any more than one boyfriend/girlfriend at a time is full of headaches, and because this is always about more than mating, rivalries, personality clashes and power struggles are bound to abound.

And yet, bonobos and other intelligent social animals are not classified as monogamous, serial or otherwise. Is this classification correct, and if so, how do they do it?

One obvious difference between them and us, is that they hang around together in large groups more or less all the time, whereas we spend much of our time in largely sealed off nuclear family units. We have homes, millions and millions of them. This separateness is built upon as we distinguish our homes from our neighbours’, and develop a private sphere within them. Private ownership extends to all the objects within the home’s perimeter, living or non-living. In some unmentionable countries, we even have private arsenals to protect our own from the potential incursions of ‘fellow’ humans. Compare, say, dolphins, who live in pods, for the protection, resource provision and welfare of all members. And yet, we know that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe our domination precisely to this fact. And we don’t, many of us, find anything odd about this paradoxical scenario.

So it seems that bonobos have evolved a mentality of sharing, of food, of space, and of each others’ bodies. This isn’t likely total, they surely experience greed, jealousy, spite and other such primal emotions, but it’s more like a spectrum and we’re tending, with affluence, to drift to one end of it, to what’s mine is mine, and what a depressing failure you are.

I recall, as autonomous (and electric) vehicles looked like they might be ‘five years away’, as the cliche had it, claims that they would not only solve the problem of petrol emissions, but also of traffic congestion, since we could not only dispense with drivers, but also with owners. Vehicles could be owned communally, and so be put to regular use as technological slaves, instead of hanging around idly in driveways and carparks. The libertarian reaction was swift and predictable. ‘I worked hard to get my bright shiny badge of a Tesla – daddy didn’t help me, honest – and I’m damned if I’m going to share it with any freeloading riff-raff etc etc’.

There are, of course, people pushing back against this libertarian drift. Most of them are women, it seems to me. People who support community banking, ethical investments and resource sharing. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth fighting, because the alternative is, I feel, pretty horrible to contemplate.


The subversive family, by Ferdinand Mount, 1982


Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2021 at 10:51 am

a bonobo world 26: boys and girls at work and play

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, brilliant women with great dress sense

In her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote this: 

.. the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.

A whole book could easily be written – some already have – to expand on this apparently mundane observation. Today in the west, or the developed world, or Anglo-American or Euro-American society (I never know quite what to call it), there are no set rules, of course, about how people should dress, or behave, or work or play, gender-wise, but there are conventions and social pressures, and I’ve noted encouraging developments, as well as their opposite.

A close female friend expressed a certain despair/disdain the other day in telling me that Dr Jill Biden, aged 69, wore stilettos for her husband’s confirmation as US President. I share that friend’s conviction that stilettos should only be used as murder weapons. In any case men only wear stilettos when in drag, which is all too rare. 

On clothing and accessories, while today’s variety is inspiring and liberating for both sexes, one still sees frustrating gender-based tendencies everywhere. Frills and furbelows have long been all the go for female formal attire, while tuxes or frock-coats are de rigueur for males, compleat with ties, bowed or straight. These traditions tend to emphasise gender differences you’d never notice in bonobos, though there is a welcome playfulness of gender-swapping attire among the elites, seldom replicated in your local bar or restaurant. 

What has constantly surprised me, as a person who spent his youth in the sixties and seventies, when déclassé jeans and t-shirts, in colourful variety, were common and pleasantly informal, is that those decades didn’t establish a trend of ambisexual dress – just as I’ve been surprised that traditional marriage didn’t get thrown out as seemed to be on the cards in those days. Marriage today appears to represent much of human ambiguity – a commitment to monogamous ideals even while recognising their limitations, even their absurdity. Conservatives argue that loyalty is a much undervalued value, but it’s always been possible to have more than one loyal friend, with benefits. Bonobos manage to have a bunch of them. Bonobos aren’t being rad, they’re just being bonobos. Which raises the question, what is it, to be humans?

David Deutsch, in The beginning of infinity, celebrates and encourages our infinite possibilities, to find solutions, to expand our outlooks, to achieve outrageously amazing things. He writes of the value of optimism over pessimism, and progress over stasis. I’m largely in agreement, but with some reservations. He has nothing to say about community, for example. Community, it seems to me, has become ever more important as change has become more rapid. As Deutsch and others have pointed out, during the many thousands of years when humans lived the hunter-gatherer life, with no doubt many variations, life simply didn’t change from generation to generation. And as long as that life was sustainable, there was little need for new developments, new hunting or grinding implements, new forms of shelter or clothing. So, nobody was out of date or old-fashioned, there were no old fuddy-duddies you wouldn’t be seen dead with. In fact, quite the opposite – the elders would have been more expert at the latest technology, developed in the previous aeon, than the youngsters, who would marvel at how those old guys’ boomerangs always came back (okay, they were never actually intended to). Given this relatively static society, it’s hardly surprising that elders were more respected, for their skills, experience and store of communal lore, than today’s nursing home denizens. And, as always, I’m aware of the multifarious nature of modern human societies, static and otherwise, to which I have little access, beyond book-larnin. Most of these societies or cultures, though, are today forced to interact with others, creating identity confusions and divided loyalties by the brainload.

Anyway, sticking with the White Anglo-Saxon ex-Protestant culture I’m familiar with, I’m a bit shocked that, despite two or more waves of feminism in the last century or so, women are still earning less than men and paying more for what I would deem unnecessary accoutrements, including hairstyles, bling, fancy tattoos, make-up and the aforementioned frills and furbelows. I recently bought a ‘men’s’ stick deodorant, which seemed to me nothing more than an anti-perspirant, and which was identical to that of my female partner, only bigger, and cheaper! These are ‘first-world issues’, of course, but they reflect, in little, an exploitation of the feminine worldwide, which seems a hard nut to crack.  

There’s of course a thing about eternal youth, in regard to women, that should be addressed. Men in their fifties don’t wear make-up, at least not the ones I know. Quite a few women I know, in their fifties, and older, also don’t wear make-up, but let’s face it, most of them do – with all the expense, as well as the time and effort, this involves. They do it, presumably, to hide the effects of gravity, though gravity always wins, as Radiohead informs us. With men, apparently, gravity lends gravitas.

I’ve often – in fact, ever since adolescence  – imagined myself as female. Mostly lesbian female, though I did have an early period of male-male attraction. So, if I did turn out female, how would I behave, appearance-wise, now that I’m in my sixties? Would I wear an op-shop jacket, t-shirt (usually with some thought-bubble printing) and chino-type trousers, as I do now? I hope so. It’s a kind of unisex outfit for academic and sciencey people, the types I’ve always aspired to be. But unfortunately, feminists have recently written of the pink/blue divide in children’s clothing that’s stronger than ever, as well as the divide in toys – fighting, racing and danger versus dancing, cuddling and beauty. This appears to be driven by manufacturers and advertisers, who, like social media moguls, seem to derive a benefit from driving their customers down wormholes of like-mindedness. Not surprisingly, social psychologists find that children benefit from being more unisex in these choices – not a matter of turning them into their opposites, but seeing dolls and trucks as others see them, and generally being more colourful. And slowly, all too slowly, we’re following this advice, and seeing more male nurses and female truck-drivers than previously. Not to mention female white supremacists sporting submachine guns – but that’s only in the US, they do things differently there. And more males working in child-care? That’s another nut to crack.


Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), new translation 2009.


Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm