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A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

References

Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859

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

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 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

21 – dolphins, bonobos, sex and pleasure

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bonobos at Jacksonville zoo

I enjoyed a little boat trip off the north-east coast of Kangaroo Island recently. The owner, our guide, bounced us up and down the shoreline east of Christmas Cove to view caves in the limestone cliffs, seabirds such as wedge-tailed eagles on the cliff-tops, and above all to search for a pod of dolphins known to be using the area as a daytime resting-place.

After a few bouts of bouncing eastward and westward we were becoming skeptical, though by no means annoyed. A year before, the island, Australia’s third largest after Tasmania and Melville Island, had been ravaged by bushfires, devastating vegetation and wildlife, and seriously damaging the island’s fragile economy, not to say ecology, and we were happy to make our tiny contribution without great expectations of sighting fabulous beasties. 

So we were delighted, on heading eastward again, to spot a few fins bobbing and dipping in the water ahead. Slowing toward them, we were told there were about 25 dolphins in this pod (the term was first used by whalers in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown). I soon gave up trying to count them as identical-looking fins appeared and disappeared and vaguely discerned bodies twisted and turned just below the surface. They seemed to form pairs now and then, breaking the surface sleekly and synchronously in elegant arcs. Dolphins, I learned, spend their days lolling about near the shore in these pods after a night of hunting out at sea. They seemed aware but unconcerned about our presence, and at one time the whole group disappeared then reappeared on the other side of our boat, bobbing and slow-twirling as before. 

I was struck by a remark by our guide that dolphins are one of the few mammals that mate for fun or pleasure. Of course I made an immediate connection with bonobos, but then I wondered, what does the verb, to mate, exactly mean? We humans never describe ourselves as mating, that’s for the birds, etc. We fuck, screw, bonk, shag, hump and bone, we more coyly sleep together, and more romantically make love (not allowed for other species), but we’re way above mating.

‘Mating’ brings up two internet definitions, the action of animals coming together to breed, and copulation. So dolphins, and bonobos and humans, often come together to breed – but actually not to breed. As for copulation, that’s rarely used for humans, just as fornication is rarely used for non-humans. The latter is, of course, a term of mostly religious disapproval, and non-humans are too lowly to be worthy of moral judgment. 

Of course we do apply mating to humans with a pinch of irony, as in the mating game, and this blurs the line between humans and others, but not enough for me. The point is that dolphins and bonobos use sex, which may not be the full rumpy-pumpy (dolphins don’t even have rumps to speak of), to bond with each other, to ease tension, to have fun, as our guide said. But then, don’t all species have sex purely for pleasure, or at least because driven to do so, by sensation? Do cats, dogs, birds and flies have sex with the intention of reproducing? I don’t think so. 

Human sex is pleasurable, so I’ve heard, and I expect bonobo sex is too. Fly sex probably not, or so I thought, but I’m probably wrong. Researchers have found that male fruit flies enjoy ejaculating, and tend to consume alcohol when denied sex. I know exactly how they feel. Anyway, fruit flies have long been favourites for biological research, and more recently they’ve found that ‘a protein present in the ejaculate of male fruit flies activates long-term memory formation in the brains of their female partners’. It rather makes me wonder what effect this kind of research has on the researchers themselves, but I’m sure it’s all for the best. 

One thing is certain, cats and dogs, and I’ve had a few, feel pleasure. Cats are appallingly sensual, and I’ve probably had more sexual advances from dogs than from humans, though whether they involved pleasure I can’t be sure. Generally our understanding of non-human sex has expanded in recent decades, as our sense of our specialness in everything has receded. It’s also true that we’ve tended to look at other species with a scientific instrumentalism, that’s to say from the viewpoint of evolution, breeding, genetics and other forms of categorisation, rather from an emotional or sensory viewpoint.

When I was very young I read a book by Ernest Thompson Seton called The biography of a grizzly. This story of Wahb, a male grizzly whose family was wiped out by hunters, and who survived to become the most powerful bear in the region, before inevitable decline and death, had an unforgettable emotional impact. I’m glad I read it though, as, sentimentalised though it might’ve been, it inoculated me against the scientific tendency, now changing, to see any animal as an it, rather than he or she or dad or mum or brother or sister. So this idea of putting oneself in the paws of a grizzly or the feet of a bonobo has long been perfectly legitimate to me. 

In 2014 Jason Goldman wrote an article entitled Do animals have sex for pleasure?, in which he cited many instances of other species – bonobos of course heading the list – engaging in oral and penetrative sex ‘out of season’, when pregnancy is precluded. They include capuchin monkeys, macaques, spotted hyenas, bears, lions and fruit bats. It stands to reason that the physiological, whole-of body pleasure we derive from sex is shared by other species, and is indulged by them, and this includes what we call homosex, and masturbation. Australia’s premier science magazine, Cosmos, claimed a few years ago that some 6000 species (or was it 600?) have been observed engaging in homosexual activity, which does sound funny when talking about what we would habitually call lower life forms. 

All of these findings have had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of loosening our uptight attitudes toward sex, as well as upending our notions of human specialness. But the behaviour of bonobos, who at times look strikingly like us, is more immediately impactful than anything fruit flies or fruit bats might do. Just the other day I watched a video of bonobos in Jacksonville zoo, Florida. Two of them were lying on the ground close together, and kissing each other, on the lips, again and again. Were they male? female? one of each? Who knows, it was so beautiful to watch.  

References

Ernest Thompson Seton, The biography of a grizzly, 1900. 

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/male-fruit-flies-take-pleasure-in-having-sex-30867

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/sex-promotes-lasting-memories-in-female-flies-66763

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3324566/

 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 10 – the clothed ape

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Michel de Montaigne, aka Monty, endlessly honest, curious, humane and inspiring – to whom I dedicate my work, such as it is

I’ve observed that some humans don’t like being reminded that they are apes. They become scornful and dismissive, even while admitting that this might be so. I presume they consider it irrelevant. We’ve fallen far from the monkey puzzle tree after all. 

Of course we’ve built universities and particle accelerators and space stations, and ribbonworks of roads and rails connecting city to blazing city, but on sports fields we inflate ourselves and bump chests and chew cud and suck on straws and huddle together like a few other primates I know. So I often like to undress people, so to speak, in pubs and restaurants and classrooms and city streets, picturing them naked and never-shaven, with wobbly and dangly bits, flabby or skeletal, greying or balding, or pre-pubescently hairless, exposed, vulnerable, yet still humanly savvy. 

Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay, On the custom of wearing clothes, which I was keen to read in my twenties, both as a fanboy of Monty and as someone who’d long wondered about this custom myself. As children we come at some stage to the liberating realisation that we can question everything in the great sanctuary of our heads, where nobody else can trespass. At least, this happened to me. So I enjoyed this question – why do we wear clothes? And of course, I rehearsed the typical adult answer. We wear them for warmth, comfort and protection. But on a warm day, on the front lawn where we always run barefoot anyway? Or indoors, where there were no thistles, three corner jacks or rusty nails? And I knew that these were mostly bogus reasons, that there was a tabu about exposing ourselves – ‘Quick, we’re having visitors, go to your room and make yourself decent’. To be naked, or even half-naked, was indecent. Why? Of course as I grew older I realised it had much, perhaps everything, to do with sex. Sex was naughty, diabolically naughty, I knew that even before I knew what it was. It certainly involved the private parts, for decency was all about hiding those parts. Wearing a swimsuit was fine, at the beach and other appropriate places, and girls could wear bikinis, even though they actually accentuated the parts that we weren’t supposed to think about, but revealing or displaying those parts in public was verboten as verboten could be. 

And so I learned that sex was private, and perhaps rare.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people walked around naked in public, and had sex in public too? Presumably, that would be the end of civilisation. We would become like animals. But then, we are animals.

I really felt that I’d hit upon something profound, if perhaps a bit too obvious to be really profound. Could it be that the whole of civilisation depended on us wearing clothes, or at least covering up our supposedly naughty bits? And yet it was about more than just the naughty bits. Teachers didn’t teach us in their underwear after all. But could it be that adults wore full, formal outfits to teach classes or to work in offices or department stores, to disguise the fact that they were really just hiding their naughty bits? I mean, were those bits really so dangerously naughty? Bonobos seem not to think so.

Montaigne’s clothes essay, though as fascinating as any other of his other essays, is more titillating in its title than its contents (I’m easily titillated), which are mostly about weather conditions, class, and the best kits for warfare. A lot of modern essays on the topic, however, fare no better in addressing the clothing-and-sex issue. Of course it’s true that clothing would’ve been protective against bugs as well as animal bites – attacking and scavenging animals tend to go for the dangly bits – and that over time clothing would have had important decorative purposes, associated with in-group hierarchy as well as raising humans in their own eyes above their ape and animal nature. We’ve been doing this for at least 100,000 years. 

So human clothing has become habitual and near-universal over time. It’s embarrassing to be different, not only in going naked – which is also illegal, and the term indecent exposure is more revealing than anything that’s exposed – but in wearing the wrong outfit. Clothing has become extremely complex in that regard. I’ve lived long enough to observe my slight elders from the early seventies, with fabulous flowing locks and dazzlingly vibrant embroidered shirts, scarves and flares, gradually transforming into besuited computer techies and company directors, with children kitted out in Edwardian beards and long-suits, which somehow lack the sparkle of sexual spontaneity. 

And yet, we did undergo a sexual revolution, allegedly, which coincided with second-wave feminism, if I’m not mistaken. Widely available contraception helped, presumably, to allow women as much or little philandering as males. All-female sex parties have become fashionable, as have orgy-style sex parties with male strippers and female perps, victims and happy-clapping onlookers. But these are very much niche scenes, somewhat ritualised and behind closed doors, nothing like the bonobo world of spontaneous, open, all-community based sexual healing that is but one characteristic of a caring and sharing environment. The closest I’ve seen to this bonobo world is observing young women out on the town in supportive gangs, arms linked, laughing and chatting, rosy and cuddling. Males form their own groups, loving or at least appreciating each other in their own noli me tangere way. Not quite so inspiring. 

The problem of returning to our naked original state is, of course, the problem of returning the omelette back to the state of the uncracked egg. It ain’t gonna happen, and it’s arguable that this is a good thing. But that won’t stop me dreaming about a bonobo world, unclothed or otherwise, and finding and encouraging instances of bonobo behaviour among humans anywhere. And also trying to identify and critique trends that militate (good word) against the bonobo lifestyle, such as extreme libertariansm, macho-thug political leaders, zero-sum nationalism and divisive religious zealotry. Altogether, with of course many notable exceptions, there are encouraging signs. We are family, after all.   

References

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/210885

https://www.popsugar.com.au/love/What-Like-All-Female-Sex-Party-43589464

http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/custom_of_wearing_clothes/

Written by stewart henderson

November 12, 2020 at 4:51 pm

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 1

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bonobo togetherness – who are the girls and who are the boys?

 

I’ve decided to focus on this very broad topic, and to write a book. Here’s my first (and in parts my second) draught

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

In these few introductory pages, I’ll be writing a little about myself, after which I’ll (try to) leave me behind. At least as a topic. Of course, I’m on every page, as is Max Tegmark in Our Mathematical Universe, or David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, or Johann Noah Harari in Homo Deus, or any writer of any other book of ideas, but in this opening I want to admit the lifelong passion I have for the set of ideas, or really feelings, I wish to explore here. They’re vital feelings, and big ideas, though they may come out as inchoate, or incoherent, in the telling. I probably feel most passionate about them because they seem so knocked about and pushed aside by the world I find myself in – though that world is always in flux and there are moments of inspiration.

 

It was in the mid 1980s that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I would have been in my late twenties, just beginning an arts degree as a ‘mature-age student’ at Adelaide University. I was living in a chaotic share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. Due to difficult family circumstances I’d left school at fifteen, and I’d fantasised for a while about being a complete auto-didact, the smartest fellow without a tertiary degree on the planet, or at least on the street, but I was frankly embarrassed at my poverty and my string of unpleasant and failed jobs in factories, offices, restaurants, and briefly, a hospital. My great solace, my way of maintaining pride in myself, was writing. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the books I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, reflections on the women I came into contact with – admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 13 years or so before I could buy my first computer.

 

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all despised 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 in these matters. 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 airways condition – bronchiectasis – that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, 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 disinterest. 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 perfectly,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

 

In fact I was obsessed to what I considered an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to pre-adolescence, when I imagined doing it, whatever it might be, with every attractive girl, and boy, 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 with my classmates, looking up and down the class 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 yes I did have one or two) 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, and  a great motivator. But 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 lifestyle and 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!’

 

So the following is an exploration of a world that seems worthy of study both for itself and for ourselves. We’re now the overwelmingly dominant species on the planet, and this is having strange contrasting effects, of hubris and despair. It’s also the case that we’re not one thing – our species is composed of cultures that seem to have little connection with each other, and multiculturalism is seen as having enriching as well as disastrous consequences. In such complex and dynamic circumstances, what do bonobos really have to teach us? The following is an attempt to answer that question in the most positive light.

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 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

Reading matters 4

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Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, bit-part actor, theatrical investor and obsessive quill-pusher

content hints
– exotic locations, harsh laws and lax enforcement, whores and virgins, pre-marital sex, dubious disguises, a puppet-master duke, wise retainers, kind-hearted gaolers, a mean-spirited newbie, a much-married madam, justice v mercy, letter v spirit, high life v low life, capital punishment, malapropisms avant la lettre, gadabouts, spurned women, sunken dowries, a woman finds her voice, a man is bent by lust, the shoals of desire, fraternal betrayal, an absurd assignation, a head in a bag, from nunnery to marriage bed, sex in the dark, silent women, revealings and unmaskings, a triple coupling, a questionable ending?

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2020 at 10:21 am

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!

Cixi

 

on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon

 

on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm

on the long hard road to femocracy

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Recently, a list of Australia’s 200 richest people was published. It’s been widely reported that of those 200, only 22 were women; just over 10% – a figure that has apparently held good for some years. But while this is a useful first indication of wealth imbalance along gender lines, it would pay to look more closely at the figures, though this is hard to do, given the secrecy surrounding the wealth of some, and the complexities surrounding and conditioning the wealth of others. Quite a few of these wealthy women appear to be heiresses or ‘sleeping partners’ (in a business sense, but who knows?) rather than active business types, and even leaving this aside, I’m pretty sure that if I could do the maths on all these fortunes, the figure for women would amount to considerably less than 10% of the whole.

These are the Australian figures. Would anybody dare to suggest that the figures for female wealth in China, say, would be any better? (information on wealth in China, like just about any other information from China, is virtually impossible to obtain). Or in Russia – currently rated (by New World Wealth) as the nation with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world? Just as a guess, I’d expect, or at least hope, that the US and some European nations might be ahead of Australia in terms of female wealth, but if so it surely wouldn’t be by much. Ask a group of students who’s the richest man in the world and you’d get a few unsurprising answers, enthusiastically proclaimed. Ask them about the richest woman, and you’d get puzzled looks as they wonder why you asked such a question.

I’m no economist, and wealth per se isn’t an interest of mine, and I’m much more concerned to get women into leadership positions in science and politics, but clearly having 95% or more of the world’s wealth in the hands of the more fucked-up gender is a big problem, and a huge obstacle to the dethronement of patriarchy.

While I’m not pretending this might happen in the near future, it seems to me that the ultimate solution lies in women’s best weapon – collaboration, or ganging up. The pooling of resources – financial, intellectual, practical, even sexual. I’m not talking about war here, but I am talking about a struggle for power, a slow, persevering struggle built of connections and networks, transcendent of nation, culture, class and age. A struggle not against men but against patriarchy. A struggle which, with ultimate success, will leave all of us winners. You may say I’m a dreamer, but why is a world dominated by woman so absurd when a world dominated by men, the fucked-up world we have now, is apparently not?

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/01/russia-is-the-most-unequal-major-country-in-the-world-study.html

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4687204/rich-list-2017-reveals-australia-has-more-billionaires-than-ever/?cs=2452

Written by stewart henderson

May 28, 2017 at 7:42 pm