an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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a bonobo world: sex, at last

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Japanese women discuss exploitation in the sex industry

Decades ago I was attending a session at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, a discussion with the author of a fairly sexually explicit and popular novel. During question time, someone came out, in ‘a voice peppered with petulance’ (a favourite phrase of an old friend), with this query: Why this modern obsession with sex? After all, he opined, the sexual act is trivial and perfunctory, it’s over in minutes, it’s of no greater significance and of probably lesser value than teeth-cleaning. Why not focus on more important matters?

The author and other panellists seemed non-plussed, to say the least, and certainly didn’t find any memorable rejoinder to this attack upon the source of all animal life. I myself was both amused and enraged – amused, because I’d immediately recognised the questioner as a history lecturer at the nearby University of Adelaide, where I was then a student. As it happened, a friend of mine had been dating the lecturer’s daughter, but he’d given up on her, telling me that she was the most sexually indifferent person he’d ever met. A chip off the old bloke, apparently. 

But I was angered and a little shocked at the panellists’ meek reaction to this – misunderstanding? – of the sex act. This obliviousness? This lifelessness? This lack of imagination? My mind spluttered to comprehend such a different mind. I spent the next few days thinking up a series of responses. ‘Well, if you’d care to read Jared Diamond’s pleasant little book Why Is Sex Fun? you might …’ (actually that book hadn’t been written then). ‘Have you never heard of The Joy of Sex? We had that book kicking around our house in the seventies, how about yours?’ ‘Well sex may be perfunctory for you, but many species put a helluva lot of energy into having it – far more than into keeping their teeth clean. Australia’s little antechinuses actually fuck to death when the time is ripe. And what about octopuses?….’

Anyway, trying to convince the odd oddity of the pleasures of rumpy-pumpy is probably a waste of time. Today there’s a massive sex industry catering for the converted and perverted, and it doesn’t seem to have led to the fall of civilisation. At least, not yet. 

Today’s online sex video industry (I eschew the term ‘pornography’) is clouded in myth and misinformation. For example, just how exploitative/life-affirming is it, compared to say, other service jobs such as bar or barista work? What does it mean for the status of women? And of course – just how ‘big’ is it? In the following posts, I’ll explore this minefield as best I can. 

First, let’s look at the question of the bigness of the business. As anybody who has ‘looked into it’ knows, anyone, young or old, with an electronic device, can access more sex video material than they could consume in a lifetime for absolutely free, to the point that one would have to question the sanity of anyone who would bother paying for the stuff. So my first question would have to be – how do these businesses make any money at all? 

From what I can gather, the sex video industry (which for brevity’s sake, I’ll call the SVI) is mostly divided into two spheres of production, Euro-American and Japanese. At least those are the two areas I’ll be focusing on – I suppose anyone, in any country, can put their own videos online, as long as they don’t have a heavy-handed government to deal with. 

I note that most articles I’ve looked at use the term AVI – for adult videos – bur as a teacher for many years of NESB young people, and also as a former foster carer, I can categorically state that non-adults are accessing sex videos online in large numbers. These sites used to ask viewers about their age, a kind of autumnal fig leaf, but this has since died of shame. Of course, there is the question of SVI performers, and the concern that young people, whether above or below the 18-year-old divide, are really giving free consent to have their bodies and antics gawked at. This is a vital issue given the given the rise of child sexual exploitation via social media in recent times.

But to return to the mainstream SVI, I’m not so much interested in how lucrative, or not, it is, as in how popular it is. First, I want to look at the Japanese industry, which, it strikes me, is less extreme, more accepted by the community, and generally more story-driven and certainly more eccentric and comedic than its Euro-American counterpart. This isn’t to say there aren’t disturbing elements, including a lot of fake-rape scenes, in a nation where rape stats are only one twenty-seventh those of the USA. In fact, reported cases of rape in Japan reduced by some 50% in the decade between 2003 and 2014, though they have increased slightly since then, probably due to a widening of the legal definition of rape in 2017.  

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get reliable data on the Japanese SVI. One website, for example, claims that about 14,000 sex videos are produced annually in Japan, compared to about 2000 in the USA, but provides no references. Still, it’s pretty clear that Japan has a massive sex video market, probably the biggest market in the world – certainly for its size.

To me, the most interesting feature of the Japanese SVI is that it appears to be less hidden, more mainstream than the Euro-American. It’s more ‘ordinary’, with scenes taking place in basic homes and hotel rooms rather than in the ‘palatial’ seaside residences of, presumably, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Many of the young women look like any attractive youngsters you might find in any shopping mall, and don’t feel the need to be tizzied up with ‘pornstar fingernails’ or revealing outfits. In fact, some are also in J-pop bands or mainstream movies. The atmosphere in these videos seems collegial, with a lot of beforehand-chit-chat and laughter. Yet, there are signs throughout of a male-dominated society, not so much in the role-playing – the female stars are often teachers or office managers, as well as ‘schoolgirls’ or bewhiskered cosplay cuties – as in certain giveaway behaviours, such as putting their hand in front of their mouths and giggling shyly when, presumably, asked a sexual question in interviews (I don’t understand Japanese). This may seem a minor thing, but in fact it’s endemic in Japanese SVs, and not found in other cultures. The noise they often make during intercourse  – squealing like a stuck pig, if I may be so blunt – is also something of a problem. It just doesn’t happen with Euro-American performers, and it’s surely not a sign of empowerment. It also tends not to be such a feature with veterans of the industry. 

The story-lines of Japanese sex videos are mostly absurd and somewhat formulaic. There’s the time-stop vids, the bus or train frottage leading to full-blown sex vids, the classroom-rape vids (whether of teacher or student), the vids of the kids having sex on the sofa while the family is chatting, oblivious, at the dining table in the same room, and so on. All good dirty fun, no doubt, but though the Japanese SVI world is almost mainstream, it still involves the compartmentalism that bedevils the human approach to sexuality, where there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. Is this compartmenting, or closeting, of sex, absolutely necessary to human civilisation? Opening the closet would surely reduce the exploitative aspect of the business – and allow us to examine just how exploitative it is, compared to say, the gig economy that many young (and older) people have to negotiate today. That’s an issue worth exploring.  

References

https://www.statista.com/statistics/864883/japan-reported-cases-rape-and-forcible-indecencies/

https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Japan-have-such-a-big-porn-industry

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

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/japan-porn-industry-preys-young-women-113928029.html?_fsig=agO9hQSFSs0hFQMNGJpBIw–&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALzI-DHcjFzVb52FKmkx_tAu21KNRP60E0o6Dy3BWkf5IYShInY8XWZDAVbzL7z1vHXkT7LeHtbOLJhDlGNtAykE7h2zbTCWFM9ceEVoW0d-zArmS6W2Zyiv06ZtKO9Wx092okhIV5CAP3UTpP8GBXjNfOnpLPByie1afoWV5V15

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2021 at 6:51 pm

a bonobo world 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.

References

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

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29187881

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

https://www.upworthy.com/female-bonobos-shut-down-violent-males-heres-what-humans-can-learn-from-them

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm

a bonobo world 60?: sex, gender and other species

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matriarchs in a complex society

Jacinta: So we need to talk about sex. Though of course bonobos never talk about it.

Canto: Yes, bonobos appear to have sex to calm each other down, and perhaps just for fun or because they’re bored.

Jacinta: I prefer to read books. It’s all about sublimation, they say.

Canto: Ahh sublimation. We had a lot of Freudian stuff around the house when I was a lad. So eros and thanatos, the superego and the id, polymorphous perversity and the Oedipus complex, these were some of the first smart-alecky terms I ever learned. And sublimation was a big favourite. The idea that all our creative and scientific activities were just a way of channelling or subverting the massive force of our sex drive seemed perfectly coherent to a horny teenager. I thought I’d found the secret of life – just stop channelling and subverting, get our perversity back to being unimorphous, and the life of sexual bliss would be ours.

Jacinta: Yeah – I don’t know where to begin. Humans have created effective theories about the universe, about species diversity, about nanoscale quantum behaviour and whatnot – I mean, would we ever have developed the means to have this conversation if we’d never managed to separate our brains from our genitals?

Canto: Okay, back to bonobos. Of course sex doesn’t completely dominate their lives, but what makes them so attractive to many of is the fact that they’re so relaxed about it. I blame religion.

Jacinta: Hmmm, but it’s entirely possible to have a religion that’s pretty relaxed about sex.

Canto: Okay, I blame those religions that are not relaxed about sex – that’s to say, most religions that have dominated our species, at least recently.

Jacinta: Well, my question is, can we as a species ever evolve to be as relaxed about sex as bonobos, without giving up on fully understanding or exploring life, the universe and everything?

Canto: Ah but, though it might be true that we are but one species, we’re tremendously diverse. There are doubtless many individual humans that are just as relaxed and free about sex as bonobos, and even the odd sub-culture that takes sex far further than any bonobo ever would.

Jacinta: Well, no doubt, but they tend to be underground – in dungeons with leather, chains and whips. Weekend fun, and then back to the office on Monday. We tend to cut sexual play off from the rest of our activities, if we engage in it at all. That’s not the bonobo way.

Canto: Well, even bonobos probably recognise there’s a time for every purpose, under heaven. But apart from the problems of sex in the workplace and the school playground, there’s also the interesting question of the relationship between bonobo sexual activity and the prominent role of females. Presumably that’s not coincidental. Do you think our sexual sides will get more airplay with the coming matriarchy?

Jacinta: Well, male societies seem to be more aggressively controlling. And more hierarchical. Controlling the females would’ve been a priority from the start. Making them feel inferior and dirty during menses, taking advantage of their reduced capacity during late pregnancy and the postpartum period, when they’d be reduced to ‘menial chores’, which would gradually – since they performed them so well – be seen as the chores they were designed for. And so the division of labour would result in more hierarchy.

Canto: And with bonobos female supremacy, if that’s not too strong a word, seems to have been the result of female-female bonding. Hard to know how that got started, but I imagine that the move, in humans, to separate unit housing and nuclear families would’ve militated against such bonding. And with bonobo promiscuity, males wouldn’t know which children were theirs, if any. One of the major purposes of human monogamy, I presume, would be to ensure that males would know who their children were, for patrilineal purposes, among others.

Jacinta: Yes, and certainly monogamy is still very much the norm, though it has become slightly less patriarchal in the wealthier economies. I do think the key to women getting on top is sisterhood, but not an exclusive sisterhood. We need to encourage men to realise that it’s in their interest to join us, and do what we tell them to do. But really we’ve got a long way to go. Men have been dominant for a very long time, and they still are.

Canto: There’s also the blowback from feminism. Men with guns, proud boys, oath keepers and shitkickers. And men who have been ‘stiffed’, according to the book by Susan Faludi.

Jacinta: Yes, men who feel their purpose in life has been shattered because their kids’ school principal is a woman. It depresses me to think about the enormity of the challenge, when female leadership seems so obviously superior by and large, and yet this superiority is so regularly denied.

Canto: This is an interesting question. Women generally talk about gender equality, while men – some men – worry about women taking over, as if we’re anywhere near that happening. But actually gender equality isn’t a thing among our primate cousins – that’s to say, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utangs and gibbons. They’re either female-dominant, like bonobos, or male-dominant, like more or less all the rest. And if you look at the multifarious human cultures, its probably the same thing – 99% patriarchal, 1% matriarchal, 0% gender-equal. It’s a bit like a see-saw, the guys at each end are virtually never exactly the same weight, so the see-saw has almost zero chance of being equally balanced.

Jacinta: So, might as well be honest and go for female supremacy. But maybe we should look more closely at your claim, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to primate examples. Take dolphins, for example. We’ve had huge difficulties in studying them, gender-wise, because it’s so hard to tell the sexes apart. All they’ve been able to find is that male dolphins tend to range more widely from the pod than females, which doesn’t appear to say anything about dominance.

Canto: Hmmm. Isn’t that the same with cats – I mean the domesticated types? The males range more widely at night, presumably for sexual purposes.

Jacinta: Males chase, females choose? It’s a thought. Anyway, elephants are essentially matriarchal, and as to birds, some species of which are now regarded as having smarts that are up there with the smartest monkeys, many of them seem to fit the bill for gender equality, but they’re maybe too far removed from us to provide us with too much guidance.

Canto: Well, hang on a minute. Corvids are a super-social lot, with a lot of extended family support in bringing up chicks, warning of danger and so on.

Jacinta: Yes but elephants are at least mammals, and they also live in extended families, and what with the obesity epidemic, we’re beginning to look more like them.

Canto: Okay, so next time we’ll talk about gender roles in other species, particularly primates, at least for starters. That’ll allow us to avoid the sticky subject of sex for a while longer.

References

https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html

9 of the Biggest Lies Christianity Tells Us About Sex and Marriage

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The betrayal of the modern man, 1999

https://phys.org/news/2016-06-world-dolphin-gender.html

https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-sense-a-sociality-4/elephants-are-socially-complex.html

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2021 at 2:35 pm

bonobos, community and our good selves…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

http://www.bbc.com/earth/world

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

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2019.00230/full

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2021 at 9:08 pm

on love and hormones

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The subversive family, a book written by Ferdinand Mount some 40 years ago, argues that the basic family unit, with two or, more rarely, three generations housed together, is indeed more basic than a great many critics allow, and that marriage based on mutual attraction has been more common throughout human history than many historians claim. However that may be, he makes no mention of prehistory, by which I mean the long period of human, and early hominid, existence, before the invention of writing.

What interests me is the nature of sexual relationships during that period, and that nature is hardly likely to have been static. Clearly, marrying is a ceremonial act, which requires a certain level of sophistication. It is apparently intended to ‘tie the knot’, to formalise two persons’ commitment to each other, a commitment expected to be lifelong. Ideally, this commitment is based on love.

It’s interesting that many bird species are monogamous. They stay together, with only the occasional bit on the side, build nests together, share the feeding and teaching of the kids and so on. We talk of love-birds, we love the willow pattern tale, but do we really think these birds love each other? Probably not, because we like to reserve this state of being for humans.

This human specialness thing is eroding though. Dogs mourn their human owners. Elephants grieve over their companions and their children. The more we look at complex social species, the more we find evidence of deep feeling which we may or may not call love, though to call it something other than love would seem insensitive.

But marriage, freely entered into, is about romantic love, and that, some say, is singularly human. Others, of course, say romantic love is a myth, a mixture of hormones and psychology that doesn’t last, though the commitment might continue after the passion is spent, especially where children are involved.

This monogamous arrangement has proved effective for the raising of offspring, in humans as well as in swans, cranes and eagles, and in prairie voles, Azara’s night monkeys and a few other mammalian species. However other complex social animals, such as elephants, dolphins and chimps, are not monogamous, and in fact only about 3% of mammals practice monogamy, and they still manage to raise their young just fine. I have a special interest in bonobos, our closest living relatives, on a par with chimps. They are highly sexualised, yet manage to avoid getting pregnant more than is needful. Females dominate in spite of sexual dimorphism which favours males. Are bonobos, Pan paniscus, a more loving species than Homo sapiens? I leave aside our species’ predilection for aggression and warfare, I’m considering the comparison in times of relatively peace for both species. It is probably impossible to make such a comparison, social contexts are perhaps too different, and bonobos are an endangered species, and quite difficult to study in the wild. As to human apes, it seems that in our human history, which dates back to the development of writing as an effective information and communication tool, we have been almost universally patriarchal and monogamous. But this takes us back only a few thousand years. Our species is at most about 300,000 years old – there’s a lot of debate about this – and tracing our ancestry back to its connection with the bonobo-chimp line has been problematic. There’s also the question of the connection between monogamy and romantic, exclusivist love. For example, it has been found that monogamous prairie voles mate exclusively for life, with the first ready member of the opposite sex they encounter. Clearly this isn’t about romance or conscious decision-making. It will be argued that it is preposterous to compare humans with prairie voles, but from a biological perspective, perhaps not so much. We often talk of ‘love at first sight’ and ‘I don’t know what hit me’ (sometimes with regret). There is no doubt that this sort of immediate sexual attraction can largely be explained by biochemistry. Monogamy in general appears to involve an interplay of hormonal and cultural effects.

Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and Rutgers University, separates romantic love into three parts – lust, attraction and attachment. To summarise, doubtless too briefly, the hormonal effects here, the sex hormones testosterone and, to a lesser extent, oestrogen play a predominant role in increasing libido, or lustful sensations. The hypothalamus stimulates production of these hormones by the ovaries and testes. Testosterone, it should be emphasised, is not a ‘male’ hormone. It produces a variety of effects in both sexes. Attraction is a more complex, more conscious elaboration of lust. It may involve some weighing up of the costs and benefits of particular lustful feelings, though generally under the ‘sway’ of lust. The brain areas involved include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex. The activation of these regions tend to increase trust in the object of lust and to inhibit defensive behaviour and anxiety. The hormones dopamine and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which create a sense of euphoria, the sense of ‘being in love’, with its sleeplessness and obsessiveness, will have obviously differential effects depending on the object of attraction’s response to the person attracted. Feelings of attraction also appear to reduce serotonin levels, which help regulate appetite and mood.

Attachment, not surprisingly, is the most complex, conscious and culturally influenced of these three stages. It’s quite a bit cooler (temperature-wise) than the other two, and extends often to other connections, such as friends and family. The hormones most involved in this stage, or state, are vasopressin and oxytocin. Interestingly, those prairie voles mentioned earlier differ greatly from their promiscuous cousins, montane voles, in that they express far more of these two hormones. When these hormones are blocked by researchers, prairie voles turn promiscuous. It would of course be depressingly reductionist to describe attachment, and the other states, as well as their more negative features, such as jealousy, possessiveness and emotional dependence, in purely hormonal terms, but we need to understand, and so to positively change a world of human aggression and thuggery, so prominently displayed on the world stage today, to one a little more bonoboesque, while still preserving the best of our humanity – our inventiveness and our curiosity. Understanding how our hormones affect us is a good start.

References

https://www.ckn.org.au/content/cupid’s-chemical-addiction-–-science-love

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0265407511431055

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2021 at 8:17 pm

A bonobo world 35: what the world needs now

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If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman

Margaret Thatcher

surplus to requirements

The latest piece of macho thuggery (on a massive, international-newsworthy scale) has been the military coup in Myanmar. Before that it was the standover tactics around Hong Kong. Not much mentioned these days is the macho threat building around the eastern borders of Ukraine. And few in our faraway country are even aware of the Turkish offensive into north-east Syria, caused by Trump’s abandonment of the region. Then of course there’s the ongoing brutality in the West Bank and Gaza, the thuggery in Xinjiang, the slaughter in Syria and Yemen, and the largely political executions in China, Saudi Arabia…

It’s a man’s world. Well, not quite. According to Worldometer, Taiwan – always on tenterhooks due to the thugs looming beyond its western shores – wins the gold medal for its handling of the devastating Covid19 pandemic. It has so far recorded 11 deaths from the virus, out of a population of 24 million. Australia, with a similar population, has suffered 909 deaths,and is trumpeted as a success story. 

But perhaps the most useful comparison to make is deaths per million. Australia has suffered 35 deaths per million, a low figure by world standards. New Zealand, though, has suffered only 5 per million. Taiwan has suffered only 0.5. New Zealand and Taiwan, let me whisper, have female political leaders. Now, I should mention that Tanzania, according to Worldometer’s figures, has done better than any highly populated country, with only 0.3 deaths per million. But wait – a few minutes’ research tells me that Tanzania’s leader, one John Magafuli, a fanatical Christian, Covid-19 denier and mask refusenik, died last month, purportedly of Covid-19. Tanzania hasn’t provided any data about the virus to outsiders for almost a year. Fortunately for Tanzania, Magafuli’s successor Samia Suluhu Hassan is a woman, and apparently a very capable one. She also happens to be the only female political leader in the whole of Africa at present, which is less fortunate, but unsurprising. Hopefully we’ll get real figures from Tanzania soon – or eventually.

These Worldometer figures tell a revealing tale about female leadership, though of course there are many political and other factors determining a nation’s effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic. What is surely even more revealing, however, is the impact of male ‘I know best’ leadership. Brazil is arguably the most tragic example, and it’s very much ongoing. A million or so new cases have been identified in the last fortnight or so, just as other nations are seeing reductions, and the death-rate is at an all-time high. Altogether, Brazil has suffered the second-highest number of Covid-19 fatalities, behind the USA, but again the deaths per million is most revealing. Brazil currently has a death per million figure of 1661, fractionally behind the USA, but that figure is rising more rapidly and will soon push ahead of the USA’s. It should be noted that such prominent Western European nations as Italy and the UK have even higher death per million figures, and worse still are a number of Eastern European nations, such as Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only Slovakia has female political leadership, but the problems in these and other countries cannot of course be sheeted home to gender. For example, Belgium has become an increasingly balkanised nation in recent times, and this lack of centralised co-ordination appears to have cost them dearly. Nevertheless, Germany is doing considerably better than its neighbours, and the lengthy leadership of Angela Merkel, as well as the German people’s famous/notorious capacity for organisation, is surely a major factor. Doesn’t this attest to women’s capacity for organisation and co-operation in general, especially in times of health and welfare crises? I firmly believe so.

Of course I’m talking in general, or statistical terms. The general tendency of women to be more co-operative and collaborative is one of the arguments driving the push towards more women in the military, as the military becomes, in western nations, a less offensive and more defensive, peace-keeping force. Young women today are advised to go out nightclubbing or partying in groups, and to me this connects with bonobos having evolved to form female bonds to control male sexuality, and to more freely express their own. The next step is for females to dominate the space, not only for sexual encounters, but for a host of other transactions, political, economic and technological. Women today are more dominant in the arena of human or community services – though I notice, having worked in the area, that senior management tends still to be male-heavy. On the one hand I recognise the slow pace of change – and remember that only a century ago women couldn’t attend university – but on the other hand, as we try to recover from a pandemic, male pig-headedness and in-the-wayness has highlighted our need for more rapid sociopolitical transformation, to a bonobo world with human benefits.

There are many aspects to this transformation. One is financial. It’s often noted that wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It’s less often noted that those hands are almost all male. I remember, many years ago, hearing a talk in which the speaker used the mantra ‘money is energy’. I recall thinking at first that this was a bit crass, but then, reflecting on my own life, its pits of poverty and bumps of relative richesse, I recognised that there was enough truth in the phrase to adopt it as my own mantra for a few weeks. It didn’t make me any richer however.

According to the Statista website, 11.9% of the world’s billionaires – the superenergised – are women (as of 2019). None are in the top ten. According to Forbes, the world’s richest woman is L’Oreal’s ‘Francoise Bettencourt Meyers & family’, surely a revealing description. She’s described on Wikipedia as ‘an heiress’, and a strict Catholic known for her bible commentaries. Not exactly my idea of a go-getting role model.

Of course, counting individual billionaires doesn’t tell us how much of the world’s wealth – a disputable term, but for now I’m thinking in terms of filthy lucre – is in the hands of women. That would be difficult to calculate, but it would surely be far less than 11.9%. But maybe, I’m being overly pessimistic. The Boston Consulting Group website claims that 32% of global wealth is owned by women, but how they come by that figure is a mystery. In any case, female wealth ownership is surely greater now, percentage-wise, than it has ever been before, while being nowhere near enough.

Calculations of these kinds are fraught, of course. Women tend to spread wealth – and power, and love – around, so the more they gain in these frangible assets, the better it will be for us all. 

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56437852

https://www.statista.com/topics/2229/billionaires-around-the-world/

https://www.forbes.com/real-time-billionaires/#5f3fa3c23d78

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

https://www.bcg.com/en-au/publications/2020/managing-next-decade-women-wealth

Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2021 at 8:42 am

Posted in bonobos, feminism, power, sex, wealth

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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