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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

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility: part 1

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To say that culture is an important part of our lives doesn’t do the word justice. Culture is not a part of our life. We are a part of it.

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh.

bonobos refusing to physically distance at San Diego zoo – what are they planning?

I plan to turn the following into a book.

I think it was 1984, some 36 years ago now, that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I was living in just another share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. I wasn’t a student myself, in the formal sense. I was a sometime kitchen-hand with a patchy history of work in factories, offices, restaurants, and, briefly, a hospital. My favourite activity, my daily need in fact, was to write. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the things I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, elusive, admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable women. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 15 years or so before I bought my first computer.

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all hated or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy vis-a-vis the opposite sex. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic chest or airways condition that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, and which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterestedness. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you down to the ground,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

In fact I was obsessed to what I felt was an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to childhood, or adolescence, when I imagined doing it with every attractive girl within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly in a line with my classmates, looking up and down the line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and I had few) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way! And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, but then – a change is as good as a haircut. What if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

Since then, my thoughts, my reading and my writings have taken a more scientific and historical turn, perhaps as something of an escape from the tribulations and disappointments of the self, and the bonobo world has always been a touchstone. Of course I don’t want to be a bonobo, anymore than the researcher-reporter on the Science Show really would’ve happily exchanged his amazing human brain for that of a rather less intelligent mammal eking out a threatened existence on the banks of the Congo River, but I have no doubt that we can learn from this remarkable species, and that it would be to our great benefit to do so.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2020 at 12:07 pm

the male and female brain, revisited

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Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An article, ‘Do women and men have different brains?’, from Mysteries of the human brain, in the New Scientist ‘Collection’ series, has persuaded me to return to this issue – or perhaps non-issue. It convincingly argues, to me, that it’s largely a non-issue, and largely due to the problem of framing.

The above-mentioned article doesn’t go much into the neurology that I described in my piece written nearly 7 years ago, but it raises points that I largely neglected. For example, in noting differences in the amygdalae, and between white and grey matter, I failed to significantly emphasise that these were averages. The differences among women in these and other statistics is greater than the differences between women and men. Perhaps more importantly, we need to question, in these studies, who the female and male subjects were. Were they randomly selected, and what does that mean? What lives did they lead? We know more now about the plasticity of the brain, and it’s likely that our neurological activity and wiring has much more to do with our focus, and what we’ve been taught or encouraged to focus on from our earliest years, than our gender. 

And this takes me back to framing. Studies designed to ‘seek out’ differences between male and female brains are in an important sense compromised from the start, as they tend to rule out the differences among men and among women due to a host of other variables. They also lead researchers to make too much of what might be quite minor statistical differences. To quote from the New Scientist article, written by Gina Rippon, author of the somewhat controversial book The gendered brain:

Revisiting the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than they are different. In 2015, a review of more than 20,000 studies into behavioural differences, comprising data from over 12 million people, found that, overall, the differences between men and women on a wide range of characteristics such as impulsivity, cooperativeness and emotionality were vanishingly small.

What all the research seems more and more to be pointing to is that there’s no such thing as a male or a female brain, and that our brains are much more what we make of them than previously thought. Stereotyping, as the article points out, has led to ‘stereotype threat’ – the fact that we tend to conform to stereotypes if that’s what’s expected of us. And all this fuels my long-standing annoyance at the stereotyped advertising and sales directed at each gender, but especially girls and women, which, as some feminists have pointed out, has paradoxically become more crass and extreme since the advent of second-wave feminism.

And yet – there are ways of looking at ‘natural’ differences between males and females that might be enlightening. That is, are there informative neurological differences between male and female rats? Male and female wolves? Are there any such differences between male and female bonobos, and male and female chimps, that can inform us about why our two closest living relatives are so socially and behaviourally different from each other? These sorts of studies might help to isolate ‘real’, biological differences in the brains of male and female humans, as distinct from differences due to social and cultural stereotyping and reinforcement. Then again, biology is surely not destiny these days. 

Not destiny, but not entirely to be discounted. In the same New Scientist collection there’s another article, ‘The real baby brain’, which looks at a so-called condition known as ‘mummy brain’ or ‘baby brain’, a supposed mild cognitive impairment due to pregnancy. I know of at least one woman who’s sure this is real (I don’t know many people), but up until recently it has been little more than an untested meme. There is, apparently, a slight, temporary shrinkage in the brain of a woman during pregnancy, but this hasn’t been found to correlate with any behavioural changes, and some think it has to do with streamlining. In fact, as one researcher, Craig Kinsley, explained, his skepticism about the claim was raised in watching his partner handling the many new tasks of motherhood with great efficiency while still maintaining a working life. So Kinsley and his team looked at rat behaviour to see what they could find:

In his years of studying the neurobiology underlying social behaviours in rats, his animals had never shown any evidence of baby brain. Quite the opposite, actually. Although rats in the final phase of their pregnancy show a slight dip in spacial ability, after their pups are born they surpass non-mothers at remembering the location of food in complex mazes. Mother rats are also much faster at catching prey. In one study in Kinsley’s lab the non-mothers took nearly 270 seconds on average to hunt down a cricket hidden in an enclosure, whereas the mothers took just over 50 seconds.

It’s true that human mothers don’t have to negotiate physical mazes or find tasty crickets (rat mothers, unlike humans, are solely responsible for raising offspring), but it’s also clear that they, like all mammalian mothers, have to be more alert than usual to any signs and dangers when they have someone very precious and fragile to nurture and attend to. In rats, this shows up in neurological and hormonal changes – lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and less activity in brain regions such as the amygdalae, which regulate fear and anxiety. Other hormones, such as oestradiol and oxytocin, soar to multiple times more than normal levels, priming rapid responses to sensory stimuli from offspring. Many more connections between neurons are forged in late pregnancy and its immediate aftermath.

Okay, but we’re not rats – nothing like. But how about monkeys? Owl monkeys, like most humans, share the responsibilities of child-rearing, but research has found that mothers are better at finding and gaining access to stores of food than non-mothers. Different behaviours will be reflected in different neural connections.

So, while it’s certainly worth exploring how the female brain functions during an experience unique to females, most of the time women and men engage in the same activities – working, playing, studying, socialising and so forth. Our brain processes will reflect the particular patterns of our lives, often determined at an early age, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study has shown. Gender, and how gender is treated in the culture in which we’re embedded, is just one of many factors that will affect those processes.

References

New Scientist – The Collection, Mysteries of the human brain, 2019

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

https://ussromantics.com/2013/10/06/what-do-we-currently-know-about-the-differences-between-male-and-female-brains-in-humans/

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2020 at 10:50 pm

reading matters 2

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The beginning of infinity by David Deutsch (quantum physicist and philosopher, as nerdy as he looks)

Content hints

  • science as explanations with most reach, conjecture as origin of knowledge, fallibilism, the solubility of problems, the open-endedness of explanation, inspiration is human but perspiration can be automated, all explanations give birth to new problems, emergent phenomena provide clues about other emergent phenomena, the jump to universality as systems converge and cross-fertilise, AI and the essential problem of creativity, don’t be afraid of infinity and the unlimited growth of knowledge, optimism is the needful option, better Athens than Sparta any day, there is a multiverse, the Copenhagen interpretation and positivism as bad philosophy, political institutions need to create new options, maybe beauty really is objective, static societies use anti-rational memes (e.g gods) while dynamic societies develop richer, critically valuable ones, creativity has enabled us to transcend biological evolution and to attain new estates of knowledge, Jacob Bronowski The Ascent of Man and Karl Popper as inspirations, the beginning….

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2020 at 11:46 pm

the male violence thing: why deny it?

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I’ve written a few pieces on women, power and such things, from a position of frustration that there haven’t been enough women in power, and that women, and men, have suffered too much from male abuses of power – and that of course includes violence. At the beginning of last year I attended a vigil of sorts on the steps of our state parliament, which involved a solemn roll call of all the women who died violently in Australia (not including those who died in vehicle accidents, of which more later), and the sad circumstances of their passing. I noted that not all the women were victims of male violence – only 90-95% from memory – but clearly male violence was the principal problem. I was also aware, from research, that most victims of male violence are other males.

Around 95% of all victims of violence, whether women or men, experience that violence from a male perpetrator.

White Ribbon Australia, citing the Australian Bureau of Statistics

So I was a bit disconcerted when, some time ago, I brought up the obvious issue of male violence, in the context of sport (as opposed to the relative lack of violence, on and off the field, or court etc, in female sports) and I received pushback, as the Yanks say, from someone who more less completely denied that there was any imbalance. In fact he appeared to argue that women were just as violent as men, in every way.

So, to be clear, this is a question of fact, not of opinion, and in order to be factual we need to define violence precisely. I’m defining it as an act which results in death or physical injury, to the self and/or others. This isn’t to deny that psychological or emotional violence exists, of course it does, but it’s virtually impossible to measure. Any conversation between two people could be seen as profoundly coercive by one, totally benign by the other, or anything between these extremes by observers. It’s very subjective. Nor am I denying that psychological violence can be totally life-destroying. It just isn’t measurable in any clear way, unlike physical violence. And it was physical violence that our conversation was about.

Reliable statistical data on this topic is available everywhere on the internet. It tells us a sad, but fairly obvious truth. Men are more violent than women in every country and in every culture on the planet, without exception. And men have been more violent than women in every age of which we have record, since the appearance of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.

Looking at the matter historically, there’s a certain amount of controversy, due to the patchy evidence as to whether hunter-gatherers were more ‘prone to violence’ than humans in a more ‘civilised’ state. Certainly it’s true that after the establishment of expansionist states, war was more often than not a central component of politics, and war was carried out by men, generally young men from their late teens into their late twenties. This state of affairs was the norm for centuries, and one could reasonably argue that warfare as policy was only abandoned when weaponry became so devastating that it was too costly for each state to engage in it, though I think Enlightenment values, a more scientific understanding of universal human nature and the subsequent development of trans-national treaties and organisations have all played a role.

But even in hunter-gathering societies the pattern of male violence was set. The hunters were of course more or less exclusively male, and, with rewards going to the best hunters, fierce competition was bound to arise within hunter-gathering tribes. It’s quite likely that the most successful competitors would have high status, even chieftain status, within the group. And with the division into groups, or tribes, with their more or less self-appointed hunting territories, rivalry and competition between groups would have arisen, the precursors of later, more destructive forms of aggression. We see exactly this pattern, of course, in our closest living relatives, chimps – battles between males of different groups over territory and resources, and battles between males within groups over hierarchy and access to females.

It might be argued that the modern world is quite different. But there’s a pattern in modern society that needs to be accounted for, though it’s not exactly a modern pattern, even if it’s given a modern spin. Men – and boys -tend to join gangs. Of course, not all young men do this, but a substantial proportion do. Women tend not to do so, or not nearly to the same extent. I’m talking about street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, ‘football hooligan’ gangs, bikie gangs, neo-nazi gangs, white supremacist gangs etc. I even joined one myself as a teenager, and we roamed the streets looking for trouble but rarely managing to find it.

not my gang

What drives this behaviour amongst this section of the male population (from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties, roughly speaking)? Hormones appear to play a primary role, and it’s no coincidence that exactly the same aggressive, show-offy group behaviour is to be found in the young males of other complex, highly social mammals, including chimps, dolphins and elephants. I have mixed feelings for those who scoff at all comparisons between homo sapiens and other mammals, because of course science has taught us about our profoundly mammalian nature, while our development of scientific explanations and understandings is precisely what marks us off from other mammals, and provides us with the potential to transcend our mammalian nature. Biology doesn’t have to be destiny.

The preponderance of male violence in our society is a problem for which we need to find solutions. But first we need to admit that there’s a problem. Let me give one compelling statistic as proof. The major cause of violent death and injury in peaceful countries – those not engaged in internal or external warfare – are males between the ages of approximately 17 and 25 behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. On a per capita basis, males cause 1.5 to 2 times more vehicle accidents than females, regardless of country, and it’s entirely that 17-25 age group that causes the disparity. It’s of course no coincidence that this is the same age that young males join gangs or the military. It’s the hormonal age.

In presenting this brief account of male risk-taking, aggression and violence, I’m not pretending that females are passive victims of all this. Of course the picture is enormously complex (in humans and in other mammals). In the cyber-age, female teenage bullying has become a serious problem – and of course it was a problem in the schoolyard before that. People in general can be brutal and malicious to their neighbours in times of stress, but we’ve emerged from, or are trying to emerge from, a highly patriarchal culture in which being a physically tough male is still a source of respect – in my own schoolyard, everyone knew who the toughest kid was, the ‘best fighter’, not the ‘brainiest’.

So, to return to my conversation, which was about sport and violence, and the claim that men are no more violent on and around sporting arenas than women. It amazes me that, given all the evidence about male violence, someone would think that sporting arenas would be an exception to the well-attested facts about male violence, in comparison to that of women. The sport I follow most by far is soccer, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the rise in women’s soccer in the last few years. It’s of course fiercely competitive, full of rough and tumble, with plenty of pushing and shoving at corners and free kicks, but having watched a lot of female matches over the years, I’ve rarely seen an example of the face-to-face, ‘I’m tougher than you’ behaviour shown at the top of this post, which is very common in the male game. The image prompts more or less amusing comparisons with wildlife programs, with rival males competing to be the pack leader. Men are too often like that, but of course not all men, and with the broad societal changes that have occurred in recent decades and centuries, there’s no need for men to think and act like this today – though the profound inequality that persists still sanctions and rewards this behaviour in poorly resourced, embattled parts of the world.

Where I see most progress and feel most hopeful is, again, the enterprise of science. In reading, for example, Venki Ramakrishnan’s book The gene machine and Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race, I find the mix of competition and collaboration in fields of research to be favourable to both genders (or should I say all genders these days), and its success will hopefully flow on to politics, sports and other aspects of life.

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2020 at 2:03 pm

gods, science and explanation

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If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: ‘Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.’ Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept.

Sam Harris, Letter to a christian nation

Reading David Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity, together with a collection of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, Dinosaur in a haystack, has reminded me of my critique of Gould’s bad NOMA argument, which I reread lately. So here’s a revisiting and a development of that critique.
Put very simply, Gould argued that religion was about moral and spiritual matters, and that science was about causes and effects in the natural world, and that these spheres of interest didn’t overlap, so co-existence was not only entirely possible but mutually beneficial.

In his argument, I noted, Gould generally avoided mentioning gods, or God. It seems to me now, that this is more of a problem than I thought at the time, because religions are all about gods. While I don’t want to be hard and fast about this, religions really don’t exist without gods. In that sense, you might call Buddhism a spiritual belief system or worldview or discipline, but it isn’t a religion. It doesn’t use gods to explain stuff. And Confucianism even less so. Certainly in earlier times, in a more god-besotted world, Buddhism and even Confucianism were associated with or could be easily assimilated with local deities in China, Korea and Japan, and the world of morality was generally associated with portents and god-induced ‘disasters’, but that was to be expected in a pre-scientific climate, which prevailed globally for most of human history.

This is the point. For century upon century, gods, their behaviour, powers and attitudes or natures, were the explanations for war, famine, disease and the everyday accidents that humans suffered from. Even as some medical and other knowledge developed, the will of the gods was always there as a background explanation for the otherwise inexplicable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising, in a world teeming with god-explanations, that the pioneers of more earthly, measurable and testable explanations for phenomena still clung to this background of god-explanations for so much of what they saw around them – the birds in the sky, the food that sprang from the ground or hung from the trees, the life-giving rain, the failed harvests, the floods, the plagues, the invasions and so on.

Nowadays, what we call science can provide better explanations in every area we can think of than do god-explanations, and this is a major blow to religion and its relevance in the modern world. I would describe it as a death-blow. Indeed gods aren’t just bad explanations, they’re not really explanations at all. Why gods, after all? What are they, and where do they come from? No coherent explanation can be offered for them. Of course the obvious answer is that they come from the human imagination, as is evidenced by the human qualities they display – the beauty of the love-goddess, the long-bearded father-god, the thunderous dyspepsia of the war-god and so forth – but such an explanation is anathema to religion, as it collapses the house of cards. So an attempt is made to divert attention from inquiring into the ineluctable mystery of the god’s existence – sometimes by making such inquiries a kind of sacrilegious abomination – and to focus more on the god’s commandments. This is a move made by many a staunch Catholic.

I’ve heard such people say that the ten commandments of the Old Testament are clearly the basis of all our laws and morality. I’d like to have a look at them, particularly in terms of explanation. As young children, we’re often given commands – do this, don’t do that – by our parents. These commands generally have an explanation supporting them, which we learn later. But the explanations are essential, and commands without effective explanations to support them are surely a form of tyranny – at least that’s how I see it.
So let’s have a look at these commandments, which are so essential to ‘western’ or ‘civilised’ morality, according to some. I’ve put them in my own words.

  • 1. I’m your god, you mustn’t have other gods before me.
    This has nothing whatever to do with morality as far as I can see. This god says elsewhere that he’s a jealous god, and this is further proof. Catholics gloss this commandment as a commandment against idolatry, but that’s highly problematic because it makes the enormous assumption that the god called God is not an idol. If he’s saying ‘I’m the true god, all the others are fake’, he needs to provide proof. He doesn’t – and presumably makes the arrogant claim that he doesn’t need to.
  • 2. You mustn’t take my name in vain.
    So what is this god’s name? God, apparently. It’s like a marketing ploy, as if MacDonalds got to change their name to Hamburger and could take action against anyone else who used the name. In reality the god now called God was an amalgam of Hittite and Armenian gods, forged into a monotheistic being by elites of the region somewhere around the 7th century BCE. The idea of the commandment is that you should speak his name respectfully. Why? Because he’s God. The only way to avoid a circular argument here is to provide proof of this god’s existence, which hasn’t been done and can’t be done. There’s no morality on display here.
  • 3. The sabbath day should be kept holy.
  • This is fairly arbitrary, the word coming from the Hebrew sabbat, meaning rest, and it’s based on God’s rest day, as he created the universe or multiverse or whatever in six days and rested on the Saturday, according to Judaic tradition, but Christians arbitrarily changed the day to Sunday. Of course no educated person today thinks the world, universe, or whatever, was created in a week, whatever you define a week as, by an ethereal being. Again, this could only have moral effect if you believe in this creation story and the god at the centre of it (and if you believe the god is egotistical enough to want to be eternally remembered and acknowledged in this way).
  • 4. Honour your parents.
  • As a heuristic, this makes sense, but it is not a given. Some parents kill their children, others do irreparable damage to them. The vast majority, of course, don’t. This is a matter of individual cases and analyses. The complexity of parent-child relations is dealt with most profoundly by Andrew Solomon in his great book Far from the tree. I would refer everyone to that book as a response to the fourth commandment.
  • 5. You mustn’t kill.
  • This again is too vague, as it doesn’t deal with self-defence and other exculpating circumstances. It’s also fairly commonplace, and common-sense. It’s easy to find supporting explanations. Nobody needed this commandment to create laws regarding murder and unlawful death.
  • 6. You mustn’t commit adultery.
  • A lot can be said here. At the time that these commandments first appeared, and for a long time afterwards, women and girls were treated as chattels and very often married off against their will, sometimes as children, to men twice or thrice their age. Considering such a context, and considering that contraception was essentially non-existent in those days, adultery was generally treated differently depending on wealth, social status and gender. There might have been an explanation for the law of adultery, but it probably had more to do with property and the status of offspring than morality per se.
  • 7. Don’t steal
  • The concept of private property would have emerged slowly, and would have been interdependent on other cultural developments in the move from horizontally to more vertically based cultural systems. Even so, it’s unlikely that a prohibition on stealing would’ve been novel when this commandment was formulated.
  • 8. Don’t lie
  • the telling of lies to advantage oneself and disadvantage others would have been a problem at least since effective languages developed, and we have little evidence as to how long ago that happened. We certainly know it was long before the 6th or 7th centuries BCE, so there’s nothing new here. Again, though, the commandment is too vague to be particularly effective.
  • 9. Don’t covet (lust after) your neighbour’s wife
  • These last two commandments are about thoughts, which makes them particularly ineffectual. They might be interpreted as advice, which would leave us with fewer commandments to criticise, but even as advice they seem like so much pissing into the wind. And of course the fact that wives and not husbands are singled out is an indication of the particularism of the patriarchal society this commandment addresses.
  • 10. Don’t covet (hanker after) your neighbour’s goods.
  • Again, hardly a profound or memorable commandment, and barely relevant to today’s society. If you’re impressed by your neighbour’s car, for example, you might ask her about it, check out its performance and decide to get something similar yourself. What’s the big deal?

I’ve spent too much time on this, but I simply wanted to point out that, while gods are what religion is all about, they are, or were, also used as explanations. That’s in fact what they were for. And a ‘commandment’ is simply an explanation once removed, because they represent the god’s will. The explanation, therefore, for bad tidings or bad karma or whatever, becomes failure to follow the will and the commandments of some particular god or other.

Nowadays we have better explanations, based on what we know of human psychology and neurophysiology, and of how we work together in societies, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. We also know much more about how the physical world works, which has resulted in technological developments of increasing reach and sophistication. The idea that knowing so much more about what we are has no relationship to what we should do – the moral sphere – has always struck me as preposterous. This old is-ought separation was key to Gould’s NOMA thesis. But it’s not only that science’s increasingly far-reaching accounts of ourselves and the universe we live in is essential to our decisions about what we should do. It’s also true that religion keeps trying to tell us what we are. And its account s just don’t stack up, from the broadest scientific perspective. It just fails comprehensively as an explanation.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2020 at 2:58 pm