an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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the evolution of reason: intellectualist v interactivist

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In The Enigma of Reason, cognitive psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber ask the question – What is reason for? I won’t go deeply into their own reasoning, I’m more interested in the implications of their conclusions, if correct – which I strongly suspect they are.

They looked at two claims about reason’s development, the intellectualist claim, which I might associate with Aristotelian and symbolic logic, premises and conclusions, and logical fallacies as pointed out by various sceptical podcasts and websites (and this can also be described as an individualist model of reasoning), and the interactionist model, in which reason is most effectively developed collectively.

In effect, the interactionist view is claiming that reason evolved in an interactionist environment. This suggests that it is language-dependent, or that it obviously couldn’t have its full flowering without language. Mercier and Sperber consider the use of reason in two forms – justificatory and argumentative. Justificatory reasoning tends to be lazy and easily satisfied, whereas it is in the realm of argument that reason comes into its own. We can see the flaws in the arguments of others much more readily than we can our own. This accords with the biblical saying about seeing motes in the eyes of others while being blind to the bricks in our own – or something like that. It also accords with our well-attested over-estimation of ourselves, in terms of our looks, our generosity, our physical abilities and so on.

I’m interested in this interactionist view because it also accords with my take on collaboration, participatory democracy and the bonobo way. Bonobos of course don’t have anything like human reason, not having language, but they do work together more collectively than chimps (and chimp-like humans) and show a feeling towards each other which some researchers have described as ‘spiritual’. For me, a better word would be ‘sympathetic’. Seeing the value in others’ arguments helps to take us outside of ourselves and to recognise the contribution others make to our thinking. We may even come to realise how much we rely on others for our personal development, and that we are, for better or worse, part of a larger, enriching whole. A kind of mildly antagonistic but ultimately fulfilling experience.

An important ingredient to the success of interactionist reasoning is the recognition of and respect for difference. That lazy kind of reasoning we engage in when left to ourselves can be exacerbated when our only interactions are with like-minded people. Nowadays we recognise this as a problem with social media and their algorithms. The feelings of solidarity we get with that kind of interaction can of course be very comforting but also stultifying, and they don’t generally lead to clear reasoning. For many, though, the comfort derived from solidarity outweighs the sense of clarity you might, hopefully, get from being made to recognise the flaws in your own arguments. This ghettoisation of reason, like other forms of ghettoisation, is by and large counter-productive. The problem is to prevent this from happening while reducing the ‘culture shock’ that this might entail. Within our own WEIRD (from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic countries) culture, where the differences aren’t so vast, being challenged by contrary arguments can be stimulating, even exhilarating. Here’s what the rich pre-industrialist Montaigne had to say on the matter:

The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas conversation teaches and exercises at once. If I converse with a strong mind and a rough disputant, he presses upon my flanks, and pricks me right and left; his imaginations stir up mine; jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself; and acquiescence is a quality altogether tedious in discourse.

Nevertheless, I’ve met people who claim to hate arguments. They’re presumably not talking about philosophical discourse, but they tend to lump all forms of discord together in a negative basket. Mercier and Sperber, however, present a range of research to show that challenges to individual thinking have an improving effect – which is a good advert for diversity.  But even the most basic interactions, for example between mother and child, show this effect. A young child might be asked why she took a toy from her sibling, and answer ‘because I want it’. Her mother will point out that the sibling wants it too, and/or had it first. The impact of this counter-argument may not be immediate, but given normal childhood development, it will be the beginning of the child’s road to developing more effective arguments through social interaction. In such an interactive world, reasons need to much more than purely selfish.

The authors give examples of how the the most celebrated intellects can go astray when insufficiently challenged, from dual Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling’s overblown claims about vitamin C to Alphonse Bertillon’s ultra-convoluted testimony in favour of Albert Dreyfus’ guilt, to Thomas Jefferson’s absurdly tendentious arguments against emancipation. They also show how the standard fallacious arguments presented in logic classes can be valid under particular circumstances. Perhaps most convincingly they present evidence of how group work in which contentious topics were discussed resulted in improvements in individual essays. Those whose essay-writing was preceded by such group discussion produced more complex arguments for both sides than did those who simply read philosophical texts on the issues.

It might seem strange that a self-professed loner like me should be so drawn to an interactionist view of reason’s development. The fact is, I’ve always seen my ‘lonerdom’ as a failing, which I’ve never tried very hard to rectify. Instead, I’ve compensated by interacting with books and, more recently, podcasts, websites and videos. They’re my ‘people’, correcting and modifying my own views thorough presenting new information and perspectives (and yes, I do sometimes argue and discuss with flesh-and-blood entities). I’ve long argued that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, but Mercier and Sperber have introduced me to a new word – hypersocial – which packs more punch. This hypersocial quality of humans has undoubtedly made us, for better or worse, the dominant species on the planet. Other species can’t present us with their viewpoints, but we can at least learn from the co-operative behaviours of bonobos, cetaceans, elephants and corvids, to name a few. That’s interaction of a sort. And increased travel and globalisation of communications means we can learn about other cultures and how they manage their environments and how they have coped, or not, with the encroachments of the dominant WEIRD culture.

When I say ‘we’ I mean we, as individuals. The authors of The enigma of reason reject the idea of reason as a ‘group-level adaptation’. The benefits of interactive reason accrue to the individual, and of course this can be passed on to other receptive individuals, but the level of receptivity varies enormously. Myside bias, the default position from our solipsistic childhood, has the useful evolutionary function of self-promotion, even survival, against the world, but our hypersocial human world requires effective interaction. That’s how Australian Aboriginal culture managed to thrive in a set of sub-optimal environments for tens of thousands of years before the WEIRDs arrived, and that’s how WEIRDs have managed to transform those environments, creating a host of problems along with solutions, in a story that continues….

Reference

H Mercier & D Sperber, The enigma of reason, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2021 at 3:28 pm

on religion and explanation

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it’s true

Jacinta: I’ve been thinking about religion as the earliest form of explanation for a while, and about when we – our species, or our ancestors – began to feel the need for explanations, about everyday regularities and irregularities, such as why the blinding white disc travels across the sky, disappears, plunging the world into darkness, then reappears on the opposite side and retraverses the sky again. And again and again. Or why these periods of light are sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler. Or why water pours from the sky from time to time. Or why, in the darkness, there are patterns of tiny white lights in the sky, together with a much larger pale white disc that seems to be slowly eaten away to nothing then replenished over a period of many ‘days’ and ‘nights’. What were these things, and why did the ‘air’ around us whizz by, sometimes with such force as to blow the trees down and blow our children off their feet and make them cry.

Canto: Hmm. Dogs and cats certainly don’t seem to wonder about such things. What about bonobos? They certainly display curiosity. I’ve seen monkeys crowd around an exotic animal, poking and prodding and jumping away when they get a reaction, just as I’ve seen the forest people of the Congo crowding around a white man, something completely new in their lives.

Jacinta: Yes isn’t the internet a grand thing for the armchair-bound. That sort of curiosity, as you say, is for new things, and it is on display in cats and dogs. And the questions for them are – can I eat it? Is it dangerous? But the queer regularities that have been with all these creatures from the beginning – night and day, warmth and cold, rain and shine, earth and sky – it seems unlikely that any dog or cat has felt curious about such things. Bonobos I’m not so sure about, but I’m doubtful. At some stage in our ancestry, and it would be obviously linked to neural development, we started asking ourselves – why is this happening?

Canto: Language. To ask these questions, even of ourselves, wouldn’t we need language?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Maybe. But imagine some highly irregular natural event, like a solar eclipse, being experienced by our pre-lingual ancestors, whether Homo erectus or an Australopithecine. They’d be shocked, scared, and they’d be hanging together, maybe huddling together, communicating their fear, and maybe their wonder.

Canto: Thinking mostly, is it dangerous? Should we hide? And even with language, with a singular event like that, they wouldn’t have an explanation.

Jacinta: Well, they might have a go at an explanation – okay, maybe you’re right, maybe some kind of language would be necessary, which is kind of the same thing as neural development. I mean, language clearly didn’t just come about, it evolved, over who knows how long. And we still don’t know if Neanderthals had it, or some rudimentary version of it, like us, 100,000 years ago or whatever. Think of fire. Once someone learned how to create and control it, and utilise it for warmth and to ward off predators, and, presumably later, to transform our food, they needed to communicate these skills. And from there, or somewhere, they might go on to communicate other things, like navigating by the stars, or how those stars crossed the sky, like human travellers crossing the land in search of food. Stories, of a kind.

Canto: So, I’ve been investigating a bit more, and there’s been some observed behaviours in chimps – and clearly they don’t have language, unless you define language very widely – that some have described as proto-ritual, such as slow-dancing in the face of fires. Fires caused by thunderstorms would be a highly irregular feature of life for chimps, living half in savannah grasslands, half in forests. And ‘dancing’, or ritual movements, might be a way of trying to placate or somehow communicate with this apparently living, dangerous force. And they’ve also been observed performing such ‘dances’ when the rain pours down.

Jacinta: Hmmm, and those movements might be meant to convey something to the fire or rain, or some other phenomenon, but also to other chimps. Something about communicating to others that there’s maybe a way to deal with these phenomena. This might hardly be in the realm of proto-proto religion, but surely the first religions were animistic – according significance and even some kind of intention to the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, lakes and streams, hills and valleys, specific trees and so on.

Canto: Yes, much fuss has been made of a tree hollow in which chimps were found placing stones, for no non-ritualistic purpose human observers could think of. If nothing else, it indicates that the more we observe other species, the more complex and multi-faceted they tend to become. Remember when we used to talk about bird-brains?

Jacinta: I also saw, on a video, that during a firestorm one of the chimps, apparently a king-pin, appeared to be raging at the fire, seeming to suggest that he – it would surely be a male, given chimp society – could, or thought he could, tame the beast, like old George slaying the dragon. Intimations of future shamanism?

Canto: Yes, or maybe he was just pissed off after a fight with the missus. Jane Goodall, on noting chimpanzees sitting for a long time staring ‘dreamily’ at a waterfall, used the term spirituality, which she roughly described as ‘the experience of appreciating magnificent, unknowable powers at work in the world beyond ourselves’. I believe Franz de Waal has used the term, in a different context, for bonobos too, but I’m not so comfortable with the term, it’s way too vague, and it drags religion behind it too emphatically. A feeling of awe, or wonder, of being overwhelmed, etc, can be described as just that.

Jacinta: And yet. A noisy, crushing, powerful waterfall, a raging, dangerous, painful fire – attributing something like intention to these things seems like a step forward. And also the desire for mastery of these forces, by somehow understanding and manipulating their intentions, that might seem an advance. But it’s hard to tell, with our smug hindsight.

Canto: And talking about hindsight, many of us consider, from the pinnacles of science, that religion is just a hangover from the days of pre-scientific explanations. Why are we here? Because the god called God created us to have dominion over the birds and bees and beasts of the field, and after a female was built from a male rib (which must’ve contained some pretty impressive pluripotent cells), and after some snakey female behaviour, we were sent forth out of Eden to multiply, and the god left us to our own devices, but when he came back from wheeling and dealing in foreign parts, he found we were wrecking everything – female trouble again, doubtless. And so he decided to drown us all, so as to Make his Arcadia Great Again, but, presumably feeling a bit tired of the creation process, he chose a human family and unspecified number of species to float about in a boat for a while, watching their friends and neighbours drowning, so as to begin it all again, but definitely for the last time, because, having discovered golf, he’d really lost interest.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s one variant, perhaps not the orthodox one, but as Mary Midgley used to say, these sorts of stories provide a far richer account of our origins than anything scientism has to offer. I mean, life from non-life in a warm puddle? Boring. 

Canto: But seriously, these creation stories, and ancilllary stories of the fruitful, deadly forests and the deserts and their oases, and the wind and the rain and storms and fevers and the patterned, watching stars and the smiling, burning sun, and the cool steadfast moon, these were as rich and comprehensive as they could possibly be, and those who remembered and told these stories best, and had the most intimate relations with all these insidious, ineluctable forces, would be precious persons indeed.

Jacinta: Mmmm. It’s a beginning.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/

 

creation stories – a critique and an appreciation

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2021 at 8:06 pm

returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.

References

Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm

A bonobo world 31: are bonobos people?

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William Damper’s Aussie disappointment


Apparently, under current US law at least, there is a clear distinction between people, or persons – that’s to say, all human animals – and everything else, with the emphasis on thing. From a legal perspective, bonobos, chimps, rats and lice are things. This of course raises questions about a human embryo or blastula or morula etc, which I won’t explore here.

Clearly bonobos, chimps and our pet birds and animals aren’t things, except in the sense that we’re all things – living things. It’s also clear that many non-human animals do many of the things people do, such as feeling angry, sad, bored, scared, tired, confused etc. With these obvious facts in mind, a US organisation called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought habeas corpus hearings in a New York State court ‘to determine whether Kiko and Tommy, two captive chimpanzees, should be considered legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty’. The chimps, who have different owners, are each kept in conditions which any reasonable person would describe as inhuman – but then, they’re not humans. According to current US law, they’re human possessions, subject no doubt to certain animal welfare laws, but arguably not to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking to strengthen their case, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought together a series of amicus curiae (friends of the court) essays by philosophers and ethicists, published in 2019 in a booklet, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosopher’s Brief. 

All of this should make us wonder what a person actually is, and whether there are degrees of personhood. On this point I want to share an anecdote. 

I was walking my young dog in the park, and she was bouncing and darting about friskily in front of me. We passed two women on a park bench, and one of them beamed at me, ‘I bet she’s a girl!’ ‘Yes, she’s a girl’, I smiled. ‘Yeah, they’re always the lively ones,’ she asserted. Being ever a contrarian, as I’ve been told, I wondered about the truth of this assertion, which led to a far more interesting question – was Mulan (the dog) still a girl? A quick calculation, using the human-to-dog years rule-of-thumb, told me that she was now in her early-mid twenties, just that age when it starts to become dodgy, PC-wise, to keep using the girl moniker.

So, this dog was a woman now?

We actually call our pets girls or boys even deep into old age. Isn’t this a form of infantilism? It goes with the word ‘pet’ of course. So what about, say, lions? Do we condescend to confer adulthood on those regal animals? Well, sort of. We use male and female, and of course him and her, and personal names if we’ve thought ones up. But the terms man and woman are only for us.

This is understandable, while at the same time it has the odour of human specialness. I imagine that zookeepers or zoologists who get friendly with wild animals might employ the term girl or boy to refer to them, a term of affection laced with superiority. We just can’t allow them to rise to our level. That’s why, with bonobos, it’s okay, and indeed very fruitful, to learn about them, but to learn from them is a step too far, is it not?

And yet. Gillian Dooley, a research fellow at Flinders University, and Danielle Clode, of the same university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, recently co-edited The first wave, a collection of writings on Europeans’ early contacts with Aboriginal cultures in Australia. The book’s cover features ‘the first known illustration of the Aboriginal people of Australia, which appeared in a rare 1698 Dutch edition of William Dampier’s 1697 New voyage around the world.’ It was only recently brought to light in the library of the University of Hawaii. The image depicts a confrontation of sorts between Dampier and his crew and the Aborigines, in which the Europeans tried to get them to carry barrels of water, perhaps in exchange for articles of clothing, as one Aborigine is depicted sporting a European jacket. It seems the Aborigines didn’t ‘get it’ and were unwilling to comply. Dampier wrote umbrageously that ‘we were forced to carry our water ourselves’.

The scene beautifully illustrates the European attitude, over many centuries, to the people of what they liked to call ‘the new world’ – which effectively meant the world beyond Eurasia. The term savage, noble or ignoble, was first applied to human apes (of a certain condition), as far as we know, by John Dryden in a 1672 play, though the idea goes back to Montaigne and beyond. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Europeans of the last few centuries, with their elaborate clothing and appurtenances, their monumental architecture, their complex religious rituals and beliefs, their technological developments and political systems, would mostly see the ‘natives’ as part of the fauna of these exotic    new lands. And history tells us that it doesn’t even take a sense of their inferior otherness to turn our fellow humans into beasts of burden or slaves. Aristotle defended slavery and believed that some people were ‘natural slaves’. Athenian soi-disant democracy was entirely dependent on slaves, who vastly outnumbered citizens. Many of the indigenous nations of the Americas had slaves before they themselves were enslaved by the Conquistadors. The feudal system that pervaded Europe for centuries was essentially a slave system. Montaigne was able to retire to his castle and write the essays that inspired me decades ago because he inherited that castle, the productive lands around it, and the people who worked the land. They were his. If he asked them to carry water for him, they would feel obliged to do so. 

I imagine that if we travelled back in time and asked Aristotle whether slaves were people, that he would come up with a long complicated discourse to the effect that there were natural slaves who were best suited to be beasts of burden, and that these natural slaves beget more natural slaves, entirely suited to serve their masters – which is essentially the basis of the feudal system. What has, of course, blown all this type of thinking away (though fragments still remain) is modern biology, especially neurophysiology and genetics. Our understanding of human connectedness has been raised by these disciplines, as has our understanding of the connectedness of all species. So we look at ‘first nation’ culture and technology and its adaptation to environment with more enlightened eyes, and we see other species more in terms of family, culture and problem-solving, even if in very different contexts from our own. But the human context is constantly changing. For seventy-odd years now, we’ve built and maintained the weaponry to destroy human and other life on a grand scale. the USA alone has over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Surely there’s nothing more to achieve on the warfare front. Our survival is assured against all comers, except of course, ourselves. The future has to be about making peace, making connections, learning how to do things more cleverly, more supportively, more sustainably for all the life forms we’re connected with. 

Which returns me to bonobos. The question, of course, isn’t whether they are people. They’re in many ways like us, as are their chimp cousins. I just happen to think they’re more worth learning from than chimps (though I must say, I always feel guilty about dissing our chimp rellies – they’re not that bad!). They know how to nip violence in the bud, they’re relaxed and open about sex (though not obsessed, either positively or negatively), they keep their menfolk – sorry, males – in line, and in all those things they do better than we human apes. If we can follow bonobos in these ways – and maintain and build on the best of what’s human – our curiosity, out ingenuity, our sympathy, and our extraordinary creative capacity – I think we’ll be around for a long time.

savages – or maybe just greeny nudists – upholding Denmark’s coat of arms

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2021 at 1:57 pm

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.

References

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

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/play/gender-typed-toys

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

22 – sex, reproduction, science, bonobos

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the act, depicted by Leonardo, along with his intriguing mirror writing

Thinking on dolphins again, I remember reading claims about sophisticated dolphin language, at a vocal range beyond human hearing, and I’ve also read scientific dismissals of such claims. I’m thinking again about these questions (the communications of some birds also comes to mind) because the communicative complexity of language would have enabled human apes to, among other things, be species-aware of the connection between sex and reproduction – though unfortunately failures in that communication still result in unwanted teenage pregnancies. 

But I don’t seriously imagine that any other species – on this planet at least – knows that the joys of rump-pumpy lead to the much-later popping out of wee human replicants. For one thing, Matthew Cobb’s book The egg & sperm race provides an account of how confused we humans were, even at the time of Leonardo, about ‘the exact relationship between male, female and offspring’. They were particularly confused with regard to non-human generation. Ideas about barnacle geese being hatched from barnacles, mice being generated from wheat and vipers from dust were entertained at the highest level, even at the Royal Society in the 17th century. The spontaneous generation of the tiniest creatures was essentially a given for millennia. But human generation was also much of a mystery until relatively recently. Here’s a little summary from Cobb:

Although the real situation now appears obvious, discovering exactly what goes on was a long, complicated process. Even what might seem to be the most obvious step in generation – the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy in humans – is really quite difficult to demonstrate. Part of the problem is that the clear signs of pregnancy do not immediately follow the sexual act. Even menstruation does not necessarily appear to be directly linked to pregnancy: although women stop menstruating when they are pregnant, some women always have irregular periods, while teenage girls can get pregnant without ever having menstruated. The link between sex and generation is so unobvious that in the 20th-century the Trobriand Islanders in the Pacific Ocean were said to be very surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two. All around the world, folktales of conception taking place in the most astonishing ways, such as by eating fruit (mango, lemon, apple, orange, peach ..), accidentally swallowing crane dung, or, more politically, being touched by the rays of a dragon.

The late 17th century, however, was the period in Europe when most of this confusion was cleared up, at least in the so-called developed world, thanks mainly to the work of four gifteded individuals, Francesco Redi (1626-97), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Nicolas Steno (1638-86) and Reinier de Graaf (1641-1673). Much of this work took place in the Netherlands, a major progressive and scientific nation in this period, backed by massive profits from the spice and slave trades. Of course another power of the period was England, and one of the most important figures in researching ‘generation’, as the problem of sorting out the reproductive process was then called, was William Harvey, famous mostly for working out the role of the heart in circulating the blood. Harvey was a pioneering experimentalist, and his approach to the issues was essentially correct, and quite revolutionary, but he lacked the necessary to work out the detail of generation. In particular, he lacked a microscope. His late work, de generatione animalium (1651), though mostly a restatement of Aristotelian doctrine, was inspirational in that he emphasised, through experiment, the importance of the egg in generation, regardless of species. Without a microscope, however, this claim couldn’t be fully verified. Microscopes, or magnifiers of various kinds, had been used since antiquity, but their full development came only after the invention of the telescope. Galileo built his own compound microscope in the 1620s but they remained largely a novelty until later in the 17th century, with the founding of scientific societies and academies, and the sharing of scientific experiments and tools. 

The four above-mentioned intellectuals (the word scientist didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century) – one Italian and three Dutch – were friends, colleagues, and sometimes frenemies at a time when being first with scientific breakthroughs was even more important than during the covid19 era. There were no professional researchers of course, so you had to publish to get recognition and encourage patronage (and you often needed patronage to get published).

Francesco Redi, who combined a more rigorous experimentalism than was common at the time with the wit and urbanity that made him a mainstay at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, to whom he acted as physician among other things, carried out careful research on insects which proved that they weren’t generated spontaneously in rotting foodstuff or anything else. His interest in the subject was inspired by Steno who had come to Tuscany from his studies in Leiden, via Paris, with a reputation as an expert in dissection and cutting-edge experimentation. Steno was in turn influenced by the greater mathematical rigour of the intellectuals at Ferdinando’s court. The two worked together on fossils and geology as well as animal anatomy. Steno was interested in the difference between viviparous and oviparous reproduction – that’s to say, between creatures who produce live young and those who lay eggs – and stumbled on a new, decisive insight, that female ‘testicles’, at the time believed to be internalised versions of male testicles, were in fact ovaries, a housing for the female’s eggs. This was an insight from observation, rather than experiment, but it was of course correct, and revolutionary.

Steno, Swammerdam and de Graaf had all met in Leiden where they engaged in their first adult studies (Leiden University in the mid 17th century had more student enrolments than Cambridge and was one of the most progressive learning institutes in Europe), and Steno and Swammerdam, being in the same year, became firm friends and collaborators there. After their Leiden studies, all three went to to France, a common destination for young Dutch intellectuals. Swammerdam and Steno were attracted there by an extraordinary French polymath, Melchisédech Thévenot, who had visited Leiden during their studies there, and who was head of a private academy in Paris, which eventually morphed into the Académie Royale des Sciences. 

But I’m getting bogged down in fascinating detail. Read Cobb’s The egg & sperm race for the story of how these individuals, and others, sorted out the story of ovaries, testes, semen and the equal contribution of males and females to offspring production. It’s a story of collaboration, rivalry and the struggle for both knowledge and recognition that captures much of scientific activity, then and now. 

The point of all this is to recognise how difficult it was for even the most complex species on the planet to work out the relationship between the pleasures of sex and the rather more mixed experience of childbirth – deadly for many, including my own grandmother. 

And yet, bonobos do it for pleasure and relief, openly, and manage to avoid having endless pregnancies, unlike  Anne Stuart, queen of Great Britain (18 pregnancies, none surviving to adulthood) and Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, and many other regions (16 pregnancies, only 3 of whom died in infancy), not to mention a horde of less ’eminent’ catholic martyrs to the world’s peopling. Bonobos have between five and seven infants, on average, in a lifetime, which is certainly more than enough. I’m not sure of the survival rate of offspring, but it would probably be higher if not for human depradations. 

References

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melchisédech_Thévenot

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm

A coronavirus update: new variants

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Everyone wearing a mask in this Tokyo airport, but still there are lots of problems, and lots of travellers

So there’s much concern about new variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus, one from the UK, now known as the Kent variant, and one from South Africa. My main source of info on this will be the SGU podcast 809, from January 6.
The Kent strain is more infectious than the original, by 50-60%, though not more deadly. However its infectiousness is fast making it the more dominant strain. The South African variant, though, is causing most concern, as virologists are uncertain about its response to the vaccines now available. It has some of the same mutations that are in the Kent variant, making it also more infectious, but it also has mutations that allow it to evade antibodies targeting previous variants. This won’t make the variant immune to the vaccine, but it will make the vaccine less effective, though exactly how much less effective is the big question currently.
Another major concern is that this new variant can infect people who’ve already contracted and recovered from the virus. As Dr Steven Novella and others on the podcast argue (and this quote is ‘tidied up’ from direct speech):

This is the result of allowing a pandemic to simmer along over time. Mutations are inevitable, though different viruses mutate at different rates. SARS-CoV2 has error-correction mechanisms when it replicates, so that’s why it mutates more slowly. But if an infection in an individual, or an epidemic, lingers long enough, you’ll still get mutations. Part of the problem is that, with so many people infected, for so long, there are a great number of opportunities for new variants to arise. There are thousands of roughly equivalent variants, which are neutral or inconsequential in effect, but now we have two variants that are more mutated, and more consequential. They have a suite of mutations that seem to have developed much faster than the background mutation rate of the virus. It’s thought that this is because in individual patients who’d had the infection for months and were being treated during that time, the increased selective pressure on the virus may have caused this suite of mutations to be formed. This kind of mutation rate has been shown in the lab with respect to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. 

The point here for the future is to get to a level of herd immunity through vaccination. Considering that new strains arise regularly, as with the flu (and we don’t yet know how regularly this will happen with SARS-CoV-2), it may be that the vaccine will have to be tweaked regularly to cover these new strains. Time will tell, and of course we don’t yet know how effective the new vaccines will be against these current major variants. In fact we don’t know for sure how long the vaccines, or the antibodies they create, will be effective, regardless of these variants. But mRNA vaccines can apparently be produced, and tweaked, quite quickly, once the variant’s RNA is sequenced.

All of this tells us that the science is generally on top of this. The major problem is political, and social. Trying to get people to do the right thing, to wear a mask, physically distance, avoid large indoor gatherings and to get vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available. This is easier in some regions of the world than in others, and the problems ranges from distrust or ignorance of modern science, to conspiratorial thinking, to rights over responsibilities, to cultures of compliance and non-compliance. Humans are delightfully diverse, or just a mess, and the WHO warns us that this may not be ‘the big one’ in pandemic terms. The year 2021 will not see the end of all this – far from it. 

Stop press – a new variant has just been found in Japan in four travellers from Brazil, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Twelve mutations have been identified, one of which is shared by the UK and South African strains, suggesting a higher infection rate. The travellers are in quarantine in Tokyo airport. Due to a steep rise in cases, a state of emergency has been declared for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. And so it goes.

Reference

https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2021 at 10:47 am

A bonobo world, etc, 18: gender and aggression in life and sport

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bonobos play-fighting

 

human apes play-fighting?

If anyone, like me, says or thinks that they’d like to be a bonobo, it’s to be presumed they don’t mean they’d like to live in trees, be covered in hair, have a shortened life-span, a brain reduced to a third of its current size, and to never concern themselves with why the sky is blue, how the Earth spins, and whether the universe is finite or infinite. What we’re really interested in is how they deal with particular matters that have bedevilled human societies in their infinite variety – namely sex, violence, effective community and the role of women, vis-a-vis these matters.

While making a broad generalisation about human society, in all its billions, might leave me open to ridicule, we seem to have followed the chimpanzee and gorilla path of male domination, infighting as regards pecking order, and group v group aggression, rising to warfare and nuclear carnage as human apes became more populous and technologically sophisticated. One interesting question is this: had we followed the bonobo path of female group bonding and controlling the larger males by means of those bonds, and of group raising of children causing reduced jealousies and infanticides, would we have reached the heights of civilisation, if that’s the word, and world domination that we have reached today?

I realise this is an impossible question to answer, and yet… Human apes, especially in post-religious societies, are recognising the power and abilities of their women more and more. Social evolution has speeded up this process, bringing about changes in single lifetimes. In 1793 Olympe de Gouges, playwright, abolitionist, political activist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was guillotined by Robespierre’s disastrous Montagnard faction, as much for being a moderate as for being a woman. Clearly a progressivist, de Gouges opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and capital punishment generally, and favoured a constitutional monarchy, a system which still operates more or less effectively in a number of European nations (it seems better than the US system, though I’m no monarchist). Today, capital punishment generally thrives only in the most brutally governed nations, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though there are unfortunate outliers such as Japan, Singapore and arguably the USA (none of those last three countries have ever had female leaders – just saying). One hundred years after de Gouges died for promoting female equality and moderation, women were still being denied a university education in every country in the world. However in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, we’ve seen dramatic changes, both in the educational and scientific fields, and in political leadership. The labours of to the Harvard computers, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and many others, working for a fraction of male pay, opened up the field of photometric astronomy and proved beyond doubt that women were a valuable and largely untapped intellectual resource. Marie Curie became the most famous female scientist of her day, and inspired women around the world to enter the scientific fray. Today, women such as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of CRISPR-Cas9 fame, and Michelle Simmons, Australia’s quantum computing wizard, are becoming more and more commonplace in their uncommon intellect and skills. And in the political arena, we’ve had female leaders in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia (okay, in the eighteenth century), China (nineteenth century), South Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Sri Lanka (the world’s first female PM), Israel, Ethiopia and Liberia, and I may have missed some. This may seem an incredible transformation, but many of these women were brief or stop-gap leaders, and were all massively outnumbered by their male counterparts and generally had to deal with male advisers and business and military heavyweights. 

So it’s a matter of rapid change but never rapid enough for our abysmally short life spans. But then, taking a leaf from the bonobo tree, we should look at the power of female co-operation, not just individual achievement. Think of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s (the term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail male to belittle the movement’s filletes), which, like the Coalition of Women for Peace (in Israel/Palestine) a century later, was a grassroots movement. They couldn’t be otherwise, as women were then, and to a large extent still are, shut out of the political process. They’re forced into other channels to effect change, which helps explain why approximately 70% of NGO positions are held by women, though the top positions are still dominated by men. 

When I think of teams, and women, and success, two more or less completely unrelated fields come to mind – science and sport. In both fields cooperation and collaboration are essential to success, and more or less friendly competition against others in the field is essential to improve quality. Womens’ team sport is as competitive as that of men but without quite the same bullish, or chimp, aggressiveness, it seems to me, and the research backs this up. Sport, clearly, is a constructed form of play, in which the stakes are sometimes very high in terms of trophies, reputations and bragging rights, but in which the aggression is generally brought to an end by the final whistle. However, those high stakes sometimes result in foul play and overly aggressive attempts to win at all costs – and the same thing can happen in science. Sporting aggression, though, is easier to assess because it’s more physical, and more publicly displayed (and more likely to be caught on camera). To take my favourite sport, soccer, the whole object for each team is to fight to get and maintain possession of the ball for the purpose of scoring goals. This battle mostly involves finesse and teamwork, but when the ball is in open play it often involves a lot of positional jostling and other forms of physicality. Personally, I’ve witnessed many an altercation in the male game, when one player gets pissed off with another’s shirt-tugging and bumping, and confronts him chest-to-chest, nature documentary-style. The female players, when faced with this and other foul play, invariably turn to the referee with a word or a gesture. Why might this be? 

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

The most striking differences in instinctive equipment consists in the strength of the fighting instinct in the male and of the nursing instinct in the female…. The out-and-out physical fighting for the sake of combat is pre-eminently a male instinct, and the resentment at mastery, the zeal to surpass, and the general joy at activity in mental as well as physical matters seem to be closely correlated with it.
Of course, much has changed since those observations. Women in OECD countries aren’t quite so into nursing, with birth rates plummeting and female work-place participation rising, but boys still like to tote guns by and large, and girls still like to dress as fairies and play with dolls. The difference is largely in degree. But my observations of soccer matches tell me that women are far less inclined to fight their own battles regardless of the rules than men, and have an ‘instinctive’ (but it’s all cultural) sense of referring to the referee, the parental figure, when aggression is wrongly applied. The thought comes to mind of a girl running to mum or dad when nasty big brother is tormenting her. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Boys, though, are still half-expected to fight their own battles.
 
References
 
https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/GougesRightsofWomen.pdf
 
 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229698542_Aggression_Gender_and_Sport_Reflections_on_Sport_as_a_Means_of_Moral_Education
 
 

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm

a bonobo world? 9 – humanism, bonoboism, doggism and science

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a caring and sharing bonoboist society – and these are all females, except maybe the kiddy

In Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes rather disparagingly of humanism. Here he goes: 

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion, namely humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas not in order to question those dogmas but rather in order to implement them.¹

And so on.

So what exactly is humanism? I should probably make the fuck-nose sign here, but let me write about my personal interaction with the concept. Of course I’d heard of humanism but hadn’t really given it much thought before entering university in my 30th year, in spite of having read a few philosophy books etc. At uni I fell in with a few eager-beavers with whom I entered into D&Ms on politics, ethics and the meaning of life. One day in the midst of an intense session, one interlocutor pulled back, gazed at me with furrowed brow and said ‘You’re such a humanist’. I could only shrug and I truly didn’t know whether he was insulting or commending me. Montaigne-like, I was ever drawn to matters pertaining to myself, especially when others appeared to express an interest. I’d noticed, in my regular browsing at the uni bookshop, a book with the title On Antihumanism or Towards Antihumanism or something similar. This was the mid-80s and post-modernism was unfortunately still thriving. It seemed the book was treading that path – Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ tweaked to ‘death of the human’, opposition to any anthropological defining of the Homo sapiens category, muddied with much Foucauldian, Derridean and Lacanian rhetoric. 

So I began to feel much sympathy for humanism, and I was drawn particularly by two negatives: it wasn’t religious and it wasn’t nationalistic.

So, religion – and what does Harari mean when he says that humanism is a religion and a dogma? Well, it seems nothing more than the bleeding obvious: that humanism replaces worship of gods with blind worship of humanity. Now, I admit that there’s an element of truth in that. Witness, again Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity (and no amount of mathematising can can obscure the connection between infinitude and godliness) and Bronowski’s heaven-bent Ascent of Man. In fact I recall, during my period of membership in a humanist organisation (I’m rarely a joiner of such groups and it rarely lasts for long), an attempt to create a kind of humanist church with cheery singalongs and happy clapping. It all sounded naff as taffy to me. 

But my own take on humanism was that it involved the realisation that we humans were on our own, and reliant on each other, for better or worse. And that we were one species, and as such needed to take collective responsibility for our damages and to build on our strengths. I also thought it was bleeding obvious that we were above all self-concerned, even self-obsessed. This strikes me as nothing more or less than a biological fact. Bonobos are the compassionate apes, so they say, but the compassion ends mostly – perhaps not entirely – with their own species. You might call this bonoboism, and it makes a lot of biological sense. My pet dog goes apeshit on spotting another dog during our walks, it never fails. She wants to get close, to sniff, to fight, to fuck, who knows? You might call this doggism, but it’s not doggy dogma. It’s funny – humans have interfered with dogs phenotypically for centuries – flattened faces, lengthened legs, bent backs, tufty tails and much nasty neotenising, but dogs never cease to recognise their own polymorphous kind. Of course they have a nose for that kind of thing, but it’s the sight of their fellow beasties that sets them off. I wonder what the science says?

Anyway humanism. Of course, we don’t have to be invested in our own species. I recently heard an interview with a softly spoken, very reasonable-sounding gentleman who is dedicated to the extinction of Homo sapiens, reckoning that the species has done far more harm than good. He’d done his bit, not by knocking off his neighbours, but by getting himself desexed. Only 7.8 billion more to go – ok, maybe only half that number, but then with sperm banks… it’s all so hard. 

There are videos around, depicting what life might be like in the future if human apes suddenly disappeared. All very verdant and lush and lovely, but they don’t dare to visualise forward for more than a few decades. How about a couple of million years hence? Not so long, geologically speaking. We’ve been a most unusual apex predator, but there’s no reason not to assume that an even more unusual and rapacious predator will evolve. So I wouldn’t give up on our species just yet. 

Still, I’ll never feel entirely comfortable with identifying as a humanist. I just don’t like isms much, they make me reach for my water pistol. 

Anyway, returning to Harari, what’s to be made of humanism’s apparent deal with science? His argument is that science is really not so much about knowledge as about power. The power to produce more answers, and more stuff. To win the race against hunger, you find ways to produce more foodstuff. To reclaim land, you find ways to produce more foodstuff using less land. To reduce toxic or climate-affecting emissions, you find, or produce, new forms of energy with fewer nasty emissions. Yes, there will be vested interests blocking production and denying problems, but science will always find a way, and we’ll always go that way, eventually. Or so the deal has it.

Of course, Harari is right. I don’t happen to agree with his definition of humanism, but that’s really a minor issue. To me, it’s a deal science makes with a certain kind of self-confident optimism. A ‘we will overcome’ jingoism, for our species. And I must say, I have mixed feelings about all this, because my view of science has a personal element, for I have something of an unrequited love affair with science. I think she’s brilliant, sexy and endlessly enthralling. To me, she’s the gift that keeps on giving. Through her machinations, unknown unknowns shift into known unknowns or unknown knowns, and in the future more unknown unknowns will begin to be known, and yet we won’t quite know what we don’t know about them, even if we know what we don’t know. And really, I don’t even know whether I know what I’m saying. 

So science, with its how questions, is a quest to give us more power, over life, the universe and everything, for knowledge is power. But we’re not going to stop travelling down that road. As many have pointed out, to have the power to create something you need to know how it works, from photosynthesis to viruses to intelligence or consciousness. And we’re working on all this stuff, for better or worse. 

Are we working on creating a more compassionate society, a bonobo society or something like? Sort of – and many are passionate about this. But I’m not sure we even know what society is, let alone how to make it better. 

  1. Y N Harari, Homo Deus, p 231

References

Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, 2016

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012 

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

a bonobo world? 8 – hunter-gatherers, the agricultural revolution, capitalism and science

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We can see that human society, various though it is, has much in common with chimp society. Throughout human history, males have dominated females to an overwhelming degree, and large groups of males have fought to the death over territory, or over which dominant male should vanquish and control the territory of the other. Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of 500 years of political intrigue, betrayal and murder in a system where succession was never based on inheritance but only on political power and skill, with the military always prominent. 

It’s generally accepted that the ancestors of modern human apes engaged in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle from at least 2 million years ago. This very successful lifestyle was dominant until the development of agriculture a mere 12,000 years ago. While there’s much debate on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, the dominant view is that they were more egalitarian than post-agricultural societies, and also chimp societies. Recent research also suggests that the success of the hunter-gatherer system, with its sexual division of labour, enabled Homo sapiens to outcompete Homo neanderthalensis as they spread across the globe. However, it’s unlikely that this lifestyle and social system was invariant across regions or time, and evidence found about one group will not stand for all. Technologies varied, as did diet and climatic conditions. In some of these societies, women joined the hunt, or hunted with other women, depending on the type of quarry being hunted and how the hunt was carried out. Kinship relationships in these early societies tended to be matrilineal, that is, descent through the female line is generally acknowledged, though this had little effect on inheritance among hunter-gatherers, as there is virtually nothing to inherit, except, perhaps, reputation. However, the gradual transition to a settled, agricultural lifestyle created a more routinised existence of digging, sowing, reaping, building and defending territory. Research has found that, in women as well as men, bones became bigger and harder during the early agricultural period. It could in many ways be described as a disastrous change in the short term, as workloads increased and diets became less varied. It certainly spelt long-term danger to other species, with deforestation, land degradation and the diversion of natural water-courses becoming increasingly widespread. The reliability of seasonal rains and sunshine became a focus, which led to the growth of religious rites and ceremonies, and to a class of religious intermediaries. As to gender roles, with the development of fixed dwellings, the males tended to do more of the field-work and the women became more home-bound, engaged in child-rearing, cereal processing and other food preparation. And naturally, with land itself becoming increasingly central, territorial conflicts and ownership hierarchies developed. The domestication of animals, together with the cultivation of fields, made these hierarchies more visible. If you laid claim to more land, you could produce more food, making others in the village more dependent upon you. We think today of wealthy people with more capital to invest or otherwise utilise, and interestingly, the word capital comes from the same Indo-European root as cattle, the first animals to be domesticated in large numbers. You might make this increase in your capital more tangible with a bigger dwelling and perhaps more ‘wives’ and dependents under your keeping. 

It certainly seems likely that the development of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle created a more patriarchal, and unequal, human society. Women spent more time ‘at home’ than they did in hunter-gathering times, and had more children. Recent research has also found that the regions which have had the longest history of an agricultural lifestyle have the most deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. 

In modern capitalist counties, inequality is obviously increasing, especially if you judge by that most capitalist of nations, the USA, which currently has the greatest income inequality in its history, and the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The gap between the super-rich and the merely rich in the USA has widened spectacularly over the past twenty-five years, and If we examine US wealth from a gender perspective we find that women own 32c for every dollar owned by men. Whether or not the gap between women and men’s wealth increases, I cannot envisage anything but an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US, as it is far more wedded to libertarian mythology than any other nation. 

It’s my belief, though, or maybe it’s a mere hope, that less atomistic societies, such as we find in Asia, may ultimately lead us to the way of the bonobo – a society with less internal strife, less rigid hierarchies and inequalities, a greater sense of togetherness and mutual concern, and even more relaxation and play. 

Science

Some years ago the philosopher A C Grayling gave a talk in Australia, which I heard on Radio National. He spoke of two visits he made in the region of Geneva, to the headquarters of the United Nations, and to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was stuck by the contrast between the genial, collaborative atmosphere at CERN, featuring scientists from over 100 nations, and the testy, zero-sum nature of negotiations at the UN. 

Science has become more collaborative over time, and far less patriarchal over the last century, though there’s still some way to go. Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to decoding the structure of the ribosome, made many interesting points about the famous prize in his book Gene Machine. He notes the increasingly collaborative nature of science, and doesn’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Many people and groups in recent years have been given the prize – which is always life-transforming because it brings their name to the generally non-scientific public in one fell swoop – for simply being the first to solve a puzzle or make a discovery that many groups or persons were on the verge of making, within an atmosphere of generally collegial competition. It’s also noteworthy that, while the early Nobel Prizes in the sciences were awarded to individuals, this has become increasingly rare. I rather enjoy the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, and on into the twenty-first, both the collective nature of science and the female contribution to it have become increasingly recognised. I would like to think that the connection between collectivity and female participation is not coincidental. 

Of course, many early breakthroughs in science and technology are anonymous, and as such, seen as collective. Who invented the plow? The Sumerians maybe, or some other Mesopotamian or Indus Valley culture. Writing? Mesopotamia again, or maybe the Indus Valley or China, or separately by different cultures, possibly even in Rapa Nui. But nowadays, we’re keen to give individual recognition for any technological or scientific developments. 

References

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/30/567332015/womens-role-in-the-european-agricultural-revolution-revealed

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/15/564376795/from-cattle-to-capital-how-agriculture-bred-ancient-inequality

https://www.jstor.org/stable/44113711?seq=1

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm