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me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half

 

I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 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 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

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

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

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

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

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

Jacinta: ??

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

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

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

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

Canto: Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-infanticide-idUSKCN0IX2BA20141113

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

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

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

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

a bonobo world 30: touching on science, and adversarial systems

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I love this quote from Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand ‘provincial’ who became one of the most brilliant experimental physicists of the turn-of-the century physics revolution:

… experiment, directed by the disciplined imagination either of an individual, or, still better, of a group of individuals of varied mental outlook, is able to achieve results which far transcend the imagination alone of the greatest philosopher.

from Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, p225

We’ve far transcended the bonobos in our experimental and tool-making skills, and in our varied mental outlooks, but it seems to me the teamwork is lacking, or at least it’s often outdone by over-competitiveness and mutual suspicion. Science, the bid to find the best explanations for our own workings and the working of the universe around us, and the best way forward for our species and all that connects with us, has long struck me as the best activity to unite us as Homo sapiens. Of course, the scientific community, being human, is driven by competition and personal glory to a large degree, but the smiles I see on the faces of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose images are all over the internet at present, would hardly strike anyone as smug or self-congratulatory, and they’re clearly happy to share the glory and to educate anyone prepared to listen about the meaning of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing breakthrough, and to give all credit where credit is due to their collaborators and precursors. 

I’m not being naive here, methinks. Having read Venki Ramakrishnan’s Gene Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, and knowing of the battles over atomic theory which may have led to Ludwig Botzman’s suicide, I’m well aware that scientific competition can be pretty fierce. However, I don’t believe it’s anywhere near as ideological as politics or law. Generally the goal of science is something all scientists have in common – that best explanation. That is not the case with many other fields of activity. Here is what I wrote in 2011 about what I call ‘macho’ adversarial systems that continue to blight human society. 

1. Politics.

Some thirty years or so ago I read a book which had as profound a political influence on me as anything I’ve ever read. It was written by the Roman historian Livy and it bore the the title The history of the Roman Republic or something like that [in fact Livy’s monumental history, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Chapters from the Foundation of the City’ covered the whole ground from the myths of Rome’s founders to the early empire under Augustus, in Livy’s own time, and the book I read was presumably a translation of the first half or so]. What astonished me about the book, much of which was made up of speeches from political leaders [a trick he clearly learned from Thucydides] was, to me, its modern relevance. It told the story of two political factions or sides, or perhaps parties, the Patricians and the Plebeians, and of how political power swung from one side to another on a regular basis. However, as is the case in modern politics, this regularity wasn’t particularly regular. Depending on the persuasiveness and charisma of particular leaders, and on external pressures [and corruption of course also had a role], one side might hold sway for an extended period. Many of the issues discussed – taxation, wealth and land ownership and/or redistribution, security and military expenditure, had a familiar ring, and some approaches struck me as profoundly socialist, some two thousand years avant la lettre. Naturally all this made me consider the modern left and the modern right from a more interesting ‘longitudinal’ perspective. But another thing that struck me was the quite viciously adversarial world Livy described. When the political pendulum inevitably swung against them, those who were ousted from power were, equally inevitably, accused of treason, corruption, and/or both, and driven into exile or, probably more often, summarily executed or forced into suicide. Yet quite often their policies were followed by their successors, in spite of much rhetoric about ‘winding things back’. It all left me wondering why anybody in their right mind would pursue a public, political career under such circumstances. It may well have been that civic virtue, or the kudos gained from serving the public in the role of consul or quaestor, was regarded so highly that the inherent dangers were swept aside, or even seen as a worthy feature of the job [think of a career in the armed forces – heroism always has its appeal].

Domestic politics isn’t quite as threatening as it once was, but it still seems sometimes pointlessly adversarial. Notably, in many of the areas where a sensible person might expect a bipartisan approach, such as immigration and climate change, the parties are most determined to be at loggerheads. Maybe it’s because they’re so close together on these issues that they can see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, and this drives them into a frenzy of acrimony. It’s true that Tony Abbott appears to be a climate change ignoramus, but he’s also a pragmatist, and he knows that, if he finally gets in, he’ll have to come up with some sort of scheme to tackle climate change, and it won’t be heaps different from Labor’s. The rest is just spoiling, and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. As for the asylum seeker issue, it should be a minor one considering the numbers involved, but the opposition has whipped and frothed it up for all it’s worth, not caring about the fact that one day they’re complaining about the government’s softness, and the next day they’re decrying government inhumanity. As long as they get to hurl abuse. I know I’m not the only one who finds all this childish and patently dishonest, but most people seem to just consider it a political game that has to be played. I wonder why? Is it so that we can feel superior to all those dishonest pollies? Or is it that this really is the best way to forge policy and to make reforms, in the teeth of vehement opposition. Maybe being collaborative makes for worse policy, I don’t know. There just seems so much expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

2. Law

Again, I’m never sure if I’m missing something, but the adversarial legal system has always struck me as weird. I felt the same way about debating clubs as a kid – I had no interest in finding clever arguments for a position I didn’t believe in, I wanted to argue for what I believed, and to listen to others and gladly concede to them if their argument went deeper and uncovered things I hadn’t thought of. Getting to the truth, or to the most convincing and evidence-backed account, that was the thing. But of course there are other serious considerations with this approach to law. Some lawyers are more skillful, experienced and convincing than others, and lawyers can be bought. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand how a lawyer can do all in his power to defend or prosecute someone whose guilt or innocence he isn’t sure of, out of a ‘professionalism’ from which all moral qualms are removed, if that’s possible. This is probably naive of me, and I know that in these matters almost everyone is compromised by vested interest – the police want to see their arrests vindicated, the victims and their families want revenge, the lawyers want to improve their win/loss ratios, the accused want to get off, etc. Only the judge [and/or jury] is expected to uphold some sort of claim to objectivity, thus becoming the target of all the persuasive powers of the defence and prosecution teams, who seek to take advantage of every quirk and tendency they might perceive in the judge or the jurors. All of which makes me feel not quite right.

I know that in some countries a non-adversarial judicial system has been adopted, but I’m completely vague on the details. I do know that it’s a system heavily criticised by the proponents of the adversarial system, on what grounds and with what legitimacy I’m not sure. I’ve also heard that it hasn’t necessarily produced better or fairer outcomes. I’m also at a loss as to how such a non-adversarial system is financed, without accused persons being able to pay top dollar for the best lawyers. However, I can’t help but intuitively feel that a non-adversarial, collaborative system, in which everybody has the same aim, to uncover the truth surrounding a particular crime or alleged crime, would in principle be a better approach.

3. Work

I presume that ever since we began to divide labour – that is, from the beginning of civilisation – work and power have been intimately related. In fact, it’s only in recent times, with the growth of the idea of universal human rights and the notion of inherent, individual human dignity, that we’ve come to see that people shouldn’t necessarily be devalued according to the type of work they do. The otherwise brilliant Aristotle notoriously wondered whether slaves were capable of consciousness, and this, I would guess, was not due to their inherent status [he knew well enough, surely, that today’s battalion commander could become tomorrow’s slave to forces victorious over him], but to the menial work he or she was forced to do. Similarly when the novelist V S Naipaul [whose work and character I’ve always loathed] recently declared himself to be a superior writer to every female who has ever taken up a pen, he based this ‘knowledge’ on female work, as he saw it. Women, or women writers, had never been estate managers or big bosses or whatever, and so could never see things from a superior male perspective.This idea that employers were inherently superior to ‘underlings’ has only gradually faded with the advent of the union movement and its ability to articulate the rights and grievances of such underlings. Mostly this has involved clashes, demonstrations and strikes, with the formation of employer groups to combat the rise of workers’ associations.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the world of work we’ve seen more positive moves towards a collaborative approach than in other areas. Work, in the west, has become more multifaceted and less rigidly specified, with a blurring of distinctions between types of work and the prestige attached to work, from parental roles and household tasks to management and other high-flying positions, and this has broken down the old us-and-them tradition to some extent. Not that there isn’t a place for good old-fashioned confrontation. Sometimes, as with the demonstration I participated in recently, the problem is that there is no clear ‘enemy’. Workers in the community welfare sector [where the percentage of women is high] are very poorly paid. Generally they’re paid by the government, which means their work is very insecure as governments and their pet projects come and go. Funding is ever a problem and it’s hardly surprising that turnover is very high. Targeting government becomes a problem when governments get turfed out and the next government hasn’t made the same commitment. The problem may well be in public relations – but I’m moving too far from my focus. The point is that, again in this area, a collaborative approach, recognising the mutual dependency of coalface workers and management [and often their inter-changeability] strikes me as inherently more productive. But maybe we’ve had to go through a certain period of mutual hostility, misunderstanding and misrepresentation to get to that stage.

 

So the above is ten years old, and the world of work – the growing gig economy, and increasing deregulation – is getting tougher for those without the right connections. A basic income provision, which might alleviate the problems caused by an increasing concentration of wealth, doesn’t seem to be supported fully by the left or the right, never mind the kind of bipartisan support required for success. But bipartisanship and collaboration is essential to face and overcome the problems we’re creating for ourselves. The thirty percent target for female involvement at all levels in these key fields is critical in creating this collaborative environment – though thirty percent isn’t enough. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2021 at 12:43 pm

a bonobo world etc 28: finding connections through difference

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some of the language and cultural groups in modern China

Our human world is divided into many nations – 195 or so according to the UN, but this all depends on how you define the term. We know that there are many peoples who see themselves as separate and distinct from the nations they happen to inhabit, and prefer to consider themselves a nation of some sort, and some have named their nation – the Uyghurs of East Turkistan, the Kurds of Kurdistan, the Catalans of Catalonia, the Basques of Cantabria (and many other names) and the Samaritans of Samaria, to name a few – while others, such as the Hazaras, the Rohingyas, the Yorubas and the Tamils, may or may not have specific named territories they would like to claim as their own. In Australia, some have spoken of hundreds of Aboriginal nations, generally associated with language groups. And since we know of about 7,000 existent languages, each associated with particular cultures, there seems to be something of a barrier to any simplistic notions of globalism and global problem-solving. 

This is the difference between human apes and other apes. We have divided into distinct groupings, which it seems, our ancestral hominins, going back to CHLCA – the chimpanzee (and bonobo)-human last common ancestor – didn’t do. But is this true? Could it be that the neanderthals and others formed separate cultural groupings within themselves? And how is it that language, which creates such barriers among peoples today, became so diversified as we went forth and multiplied? 

Clearly language is a near-unique human capacity. The neanderthals, though, are now known to have possessed a hyoid bone – a horseshoe-like bone in the neck – which may argue for speech capacity. Hyoid fossils have also been found attributed to Homo heidelbergensis and dated back half a million years. If these extinct hominins had language, was it the same language? Language is a means not only of communication but of instilling and handing down cultural praxis, so who knows? The idea of sub-dividing Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and perhaps others into distinct language and cultural groups really makes the brain spin. 

Today, with the greater ease of travel, and with the general tendency of humans, and most other species, to migrate from regions of great danger and few resources to regions of greater resources and fewer dangers, we find that the most economically successful countries are becoming increasingly multicultural, and naturally those countries seek to make a virtue out of necessity. 

There are clearly positives and negatives about multiculturalism. Minority cultures understandably seek the comfort of their familiars, leading to ghettoism. They also have vulnerabilities that are exploited by the dominant culture, taking on low-paid or under-the-counter work eschewed by others, and accepting poorer housing and other conditions. Discomfort with difference works both ways of course, and it has been the case that, going back to the days of the early slave-dependent cultures of Greece and Rome, slaves were considered something less than human even by the intelligentsia (and women in somewhat similar ways). The difference today is, or should be, that we know how nonsensical those attitudes were. And yet they persist, in muted form. 

There’s also the view, put forward for example by Sam Harris in The moral landscape and, in different form, by David Deutsch in The beginning of infinity, that some cultures are objectively superior than others, especially in terms of law, science and progress. Their general argument is that those cultures that are static or archaic in terms of lore and ideology need to ‘get with the program’ being followed by most developed countries in terms of the pursuit of deeper and richer knowledge and the tools and technologies that flow from that knowledge. And yet, paradoxically, some of that knowledge and research informs us that indigenous cultures in particular, such as existed for tens of thousands of years in Australia, developed practices and technologies over that period which allowed them to live in relative comfort in a landscape that new arrivals from Europe found inherently inhospitable – though of course those new arrivals didn’t by any means give up, and eventually found ways to exploit enough of the land and resources to become populous and dominant. 

In reflecting on all these differences and tensions, we need, I think, to always keep in mind how situated we are. None of us chose the cultures we were born into, and this heavy fact should help determine our sympathy for those born into more or less different cultures, as well as those born better or worse off in our own. And there are many features common in our humanity. As a teacher of international English, I’ve taught students from scores of different nations and cultures, and clearly from a range of different positions within those cultures, and I’ve been struck by the broad lines of humanity they share, in terms of humour, ambition, anxiety, desire and wonder. All of these emotions or traits are a kind of human substrate, a permanent foundation upon which human cultures, which come and go and transform and so forth, are constructed, sometimes obscuring the view of the basic humanity that really connects us. 

The language barriers may be about to erode, by means of technology – at least the barriers between major languages, such as Mandarin and English (the minority languages will inevitably get the rough end of this particular stick). Electronic translators are a long way from the Babel fish thought up by Douglas Adams in The hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy, a device like Apple’s AirPods which instantly translates every language in the universe into your own, but earpiece translators are already with us, and are bound to improve. It’s surely better than having everyone learn the same, dominant language. But the real promise of this technology is the promise of collaboration, and the reduction of truly artificial, or human-created, differences, and strengthening that human foundation that underlies those differences. Something to hope for. 

 

References

Madelaine Bohme, Rudiger Braun & Florian Breier, Ancient bones, 2020

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/17/is-the-era-of-artificial-speech-translation-upon-us

Written by stewart henderson

February 9, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Covid-19: remdesivir, masks, vaccine trials, arrhythmias

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So to Dr Seheult’s coronavirus update 77, where he looks again at the antiviral drug remdesivir. A preliminary report from the New England Journal of Medicine describes results from trials comparing remdesivir with placebo in covid-19 patients at various levels of treatment, i.e, those receiving oxygen, those not receiving oxygen, those receiving high-flow oxygen or ‘noninvasive mechanical ventilation’, and those receiving full mechanical ventilation or ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), and the finding was that remdesivir only made a statistically significant difference in the oxygen-receiving patients, which is more or less an intermediate phase. This may be due to the larger sample size that fell into this category. There were apparently small benefits in the non-oxygen category, but nothing in the more serious patient categories. The report’s conclusion:

These preliminary findings support the use of remdesivir for patients who are hospitalised with Covid-19 and require supplemental oxygen therapy. However, given high mortality despite the use of remdesivir, it is clear that treatment with an antiviral drug alone is not likely to be sufficient.

So remdesivir appears to be just one of many agents and therapeutics in the armamentarium of health authorities dealing with this pandemic, which over the past few months appear to have been utilised to reduce mortality and improve recovery times since the early phase of the outbreak in the USA, to judge from figures comparing, say, New York with Texas and Florida.

The update also discusses heat-treating the interior of police vehicles as a disinfectant, using a computer program. Basically a system has been devised to heat-treat unoccupied vehicles for 15 minutes to 133 degrees fahrenheit, long enough and hot enough to kill 99% of known pathogens, including SARS-CoV2, and it’s already being rolled out for police SUVs. Interesting, and obviously adaptive to other circumstances. The rest of the update discusses promising approaches as of the end of May, including convalescent plasma therapy, which I hope to look at later.

Update 78 starts with face masks. We here in South Australia have only suffered 459 cases in total, with 457 recovered and only 4 deaths. The majority of cases by far occurred in the early stages (March-April), and much has opened up since then, and the wearing of masks has always been optional here. However, the virus has had a resurgence in Australia’s more populated eastern states, so we’re on alert, and there’s been a partial closing down again. Still, most people I notice aren’t wearing masks. In the USA there seems to have been some prevarication from authorities like the CDC on mask-wearing, but with a further understanding, especially of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases, they came out more strongly in favour of cloth masks ‘in public settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g. grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission’. The WHO’s guidelines aren’t so strict possibly because they’re dealing with a broader base in which effective face masks are less readily available and need to be prioritised.

Also related to masking is a New England Journal of Medicine article on aerosols and droplets generated by speech, which have been implicated in Covid-19 transmission. A simple experiment was conducted using laser light scattering to illuminate droplets from a speaker without a mask, and then with one, and the difference was quite dramatic. Update 78 shows the video, and it’s worth a thousand words.

This update also highlights a website which I intend to explore further, especially as I seem to be spending a lot of time in the world of disease, pathogens and the fight against them. It’s called Regulatory Focus, and there’s a further link to its covid-19 therapeutics tracker, which tracks all the research and studies, of antivirals, monoclonal antibodies and any other medications that might relate in any way to the pandemic, and another link takes us to the covid-19 vaccine tracker. It provides information on phase trials, the vaccine type, the institutions and sponsors involved, etc.

In update 79, Dr Seheult picks out a few of the vaccine trials that seem to show most promise and are most likely to be available by 2021. First is the Moderna mRNA-1273 candidate, which will inject mRNA to produce proteins that generate an immune response. Now the standard clinical trial process for testing a vaccine involves three phases. Phase 1 tests primarily for safety, phase 2 largely looks at appropriate dosage, and phase 3 is the final, large human population trial. These phases have been fast-tracked more than ever before, as is well known, sometimes without the usual animal testing, which would generally raise ethical issues, but that doesn’t seem to be happening for covid-19 trials. The University of Oxford candidate is ‘a chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector called AZD1222’. It injects an epitope for an antigen into the patient. An epitope is a region of an antigen that antibodies detect and bind to. Other candidates come from the Merck company, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

Update 80 deals with a very controversial issue, which is possible research industry malpractice, in the form of massaged results relating to a relatively small company, Surgisphere. Interestingly, it involves an overstatement of deaths here in Australia, among other inconsistencies, which have led to retractions of papers on hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in prestigious journals such as the Lancet and NEJM. It seems that the papers may have exaggerated negative effects from the use of these anti-malaria medications, with or without the addition of a macrolide (a class of antibiotics), which has just added to the controversy surrounding them. There’s also a question about the use of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin, and some common heart medications, due to these now-retracted results.

Interestingly, update 81, posted back on June 9, highlights Australia as still succeeding in keeping numbers down as we head into winter. That’s not the case today (August 11). It goes on to introduce another website, Covid-trials.org, comprising data on ‘over 1400 trials’ (now over 1900) worldwide relating to covid-19, including ‘alternative therapy’ and ‘traditional Chinese medicine’. Hmmm. And of course all the more promising treatments. This and the previously mentioned vaccine and therapeutics trackers provide a wealth of ongoing detail about the who, the how, the what, the how much, etc.

The update also describes a trial of hydroxychloroquine ‘as post-exposure prophylaxis’ published in NEJM. 821 people known to be exposed to the virus were treated with either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo, and then tested for the virus. The result was a non-statistically significant prophylactic effect. There were minor gastrointestinal side-effects in the hydroxychloroquine group, but no cardiac arrhythmias, often associated with the drug. Dr Seheult explains something about these arrhythmias, which is interesting enough for me to dwell on.

When we look at an electrocardiogram (ECG) we find something like the drawing here, with a P-wave, and a T-wave at the end. Some medications can cause a prolonged QTc (the c stands for ‘corrected’), and in combination with others, this can result in cardiac arrhythmias, which generally have two types, as shown in the illustration at the top of this post – an over-fast beat (tachycardia) or a too-slow one (bradycardia).

So, although the positive effects of hydroxychloroquine in this study were minor, there may have been a greater benefit from adding zinc to the treatment, as Seheult suggests, because the drug acts as a zinc ionophore. An ionophore is a fat-soluble transporter material which can carry non-fat-soluble minerals like zinc through the fatty cellular membrane. Zinc inhibits the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase of the coronavirus, but it seems that as of mid-June no full-blown studies had been done to show a benefit, or otherwise, from the combination.

References

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 77: Remdesivir Update; COVID-19 in Mexico

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 78: Mask Controversy; Vaccine Update for COVID-19

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 79: COVID-19 Vaccines to Keep an Eye On – mRNA, Antigen, Others

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 80: COVID-19 Retractions & Data (Hydroxychloroquine, ACE Inhibitors)

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 81: New Data on Hydroxychloroquine Side Effects & Prevention of COVID-19

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2007764

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2766943

https://www.raps.org/news-and-articles/news-articles/2020/3/covid-19-vaccine-tracker

https://www.raps.org/news-and-articles/news-articles/2020/3/covid-19-therapeutics-tracker

https://covid-trials.org/

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/studies-show-zinc-inhibits-viral-replication-but-theres-a-catch-301079772.html

Written by stewart henderson

August 12, 2020 at 1:10 pm

update 69: NAC, glutathione, oxidative stress, thrombosis

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glutathione – far more than just an antioxidant

So we start with a closer look at glutathione, and its backbone amino acid chain, including the amino acid cysteine. Cysteine has the formula HO2CCH(NH2)CH2SH. The thiol sub-chain (SH) is important because it can bind to another form of the molecule, with S binding to S (oxidised form) rather than binding to H (reduced form) as here. So, as Dr Seheult explains, if you have two glutathiones, in this reduced form (2GSH), oxidised via hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), you will create a bond (GS-SG) between the two oxidised glutathiones, together with water. This happens in the oxidisation processes in our cells.

Seheult next mentions ADAMTS13, which is also known as von Willibrand factor-cleaving protease, so it’s a zinc-containing enzyme. VWF polymerises via disulphide bonds, and ADAMTS13 can help in disrupting that process, I think. Seheult diverts us by mentioning the disulphide bonds that connect the spiral strands of keratin in hair. A ‘perm’ reduces the molecular structure, breaking the disulphide bonds, so that the individual strands can be straightened, or made more curly, after which ‘you neutralise the perm agent’?? via H2O2, allowing disulphide bonds to re-form keeping the new hair structure in place. That was almost interesting.

So what can we do to assist these glutathione-based processes in relieving oxidative stress? This is apparently where N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) comes in. This molecule, which is ‘the N-acetyl derivative of the natural amino acid L-cysteine’, is ‘an antioxidant and disulphide breaking agent’, according to a 2018 review article in the Journal of Free Radical Research (not a political journal). So NAC is a reducing agent, which, like cysteine, has an SH bond. It breaks disulphide bonds and adds hydrogen, reducing viscosity. NAC has been used as a mucolytic inhalant, and as an agent against tylenol (paracetamol) overdose. How this last effect works is complex and I’ll try to comprehend it.

As Seheult explains it, NAC would act on the metabolite of paracetamol in situations of overdose. In such cases the liver metabolises paracetamol via an alternative pathway, by means of the toxic metabolite NAPQI, which depletes the liver’s glutathione. NAC replenishes the glutathione, but I won’t try to analyse the mechanism here. The main point is that NAC’s glutathione-boosting effects may have potential in dealing with Covid-19 symptoms. According to the above-mentioned review article, glutathione depletion is related to oxidative stress associated with a wide range of illnesses and pathologies, as well as in general ageing. So, a 1997 study in Italy looked at H1N1 flu and NAC treatment in a randomised, double-blind trial of 262 individuals of both sexes, most of them suffering from non-respiratory chronic degenerative diseases. They were divided into a placebo group and a NAC tablet group for a period of six months. No difference was found in both groups contracting the virus, but the majority of the placebo group (79%) came down with symptomatic forms, compared to only 25% of the treatment group, a significant difference. The study concluded that NAC treatment ‘appears to provide a significant attenuation of influenza and influenza-like episodes, especially in elderly high-risk individuals.’

So, recognising that this update is 2-3 months old now, I went online to see if NAC treatment is being used, or more comprehensive trials are being undertaken, as I note that, though case-rates are still disturbingly high, especially in the USA, death-rates are somewhat reduced.

An article from NCBI (the National Center for Biotechnology Information), which post-dates update 69 by a couple of weeks, presents only a hypothesis:

that NAC could act as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of COVID-19 through a variety of potential mechanisms, including increasing glutathione, improving T cell response, and modulating inflammation.

However, it didn’t seem as if any effective clinical trials focusing specifically on Covid-19 had been completed at the time of the article. A much more recent article (July 14) in Future Medicine (not such a promising name, given the urgency), presents more biochemical detail of NAC’s action, along with the anticoagulant heparin, and mentions ongoing clinical trials, but not specific results. It also mentions NAC treatment as a preventive for frontline ICU workers and general healthcare workers. It may be that such treatment is already being applied.

So, returning to update 69, Seheult cites another article from 2010 in Biochemical Pharmacology which showed that NAC inhibited viral replication (here the virus was H5N1) and reduced inflammatory cytokines, and again they suggested it as a potential treatment in the case of future influenza pandemics. Another small trial suggested some limited efficacy for NAC in the treatment of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

So on it goes. A 2018 article found that ‘[NAC] improves oxidative stress and inflammatory response in patients with community acquired pneumonia [CAP]’. This oxidative stress reduction may be more important for Covid-19 cases because of the possibility of thrombosis due to the effect on VWF. A 2013 study found a significant decrease in a number of coagulation factors with NAC treatment. Of course, with this blood-thinning facility, NAC should not be used for patients with increased bleeding risk during or resulting from surgery. In any case I note that NAC is on the WHO list of most safe drugs or treatments.

And there are more studies. Another 2018 study found that NAC could reverse cerebral injury from strokes exacerbated by diabetes. The study concludes that ‘the diabetic blood and brain become more susceptible to platelet activation and thrombosis’, and that NAC appears to offer protection against the risk of stroke. The study’s explanation of the process here gives me an opportunity for further revision:

[NAC protects against stroke] by altering both systemic and vascular prothrombotic responses via enhancing platelet GSH, and GSH-dependent MG elimination, as well as correcting levels of antioxidants such as SOD1 and GPx-1.

So that’s platelet glutathione, and glutathione-dependent methylglyoxal, and the antioxidants mentioned are superoxide dismutase 1 and glutathione peroxidase 1. The ScienceDirect website does an amazing job of informing us about every known aspect of molecular biochemistry, just saying. Its material on glutathione and its catalysis is exhaustive and exhausting. And it looks as though the silver lining to the tragedy of Covid-19 may be a spike in further research into this and other essential elements of the molecular basis of immune systems.

Dr Seheult goes on to cite one more study, which found that ‘NAC administration promotes lysis of arterial thrombi that are resistant to conventional approaches…’, principally by acting on VWF, and that it is even more effective in combination with ‘a nonpeptidic GpIIa/IIIb (glycoprotein) inhibitor’, with no observed worsening of symptoms or outcome vis-a-vis normal haemostasis.

So I’ll end this piece wondering how things are going with NAC and other applications to reduce both respiratory and thrombotic symptoms in regions where the virus continues to be spread through a mixture of government, business and personal irresponsibility and stupidity. The battle to keep people alive and relatively healthy will, I think, ultimately win over the stupidity of some, but at a terrible and tragic cost. Vaccines are in the offing, but fear, indifference and ignorance will probably have the most adverse influence on their effectiveness.

References

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 69: “NAC” Supplementation and COVID-19 (N-Acetylcysteine)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7261085/

https://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/10.2217/fmb-2020-0074

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304416512002735

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/methylglyoxal

Written by stewart henderson

August 2, 2020 at 12:46 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility 2

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Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’re beginning to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared may be an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of our social relationships. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to compare themselves to, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows.

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the lager males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. I may look at sexual dimorphism more generally in a later post.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of his book She has her mother’s laugh, Carl Zimmer tells the tale of the ‘ill-fated’ Burke and Wills expedition which attempted to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/diet#:~:text=Honey%2C%20eggs%2C%20soil%2C%20mushrooms,small%20mammals%20(young%20duiker).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

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

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, 2018.

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Covid 19: hopes, failures, solutions

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under pressure

Covid-19 continues to be devastating, especially in the USA, where there are vastly more cases than anywhere else, and vastly more deaths, though the picture there is complex. The hardest-hit region, the New York area, is seeing devastation in poorer districts such as Queens, where the Elmhurst public hospital is inundated with uninsured, critically ill patients. New York has suffered almost half of US deaths. Some other states and regions, especially physical outliers such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, have very low numbers, and it would be hard to explain why the spread of cases across the mainland has been so uneven. Of course it’s obvious that there has been no federal leadership on the pandemic.

Here in Australia, where the numbers seem to be improving (we’re 33rd on the list of total cases, down from 18th when I first started paying attention to the list about three weeks ago, and 52nd on the list of total deaths), our conservative federal government is keen to open up the country again, and has released modelling to the effect that the virus will be eliminated from the mainland if we maintain current physical distancing measures, though it’s likely to take weeks rather than months:

The model suggests that every 10 people infected currently spread the virus to five more people, on average. At that level, the virus would eventually be unable to circulate and would die out within Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australia in course to eliminate Covid-19, modelling shows’

Australia’s current reproduction number (R0) is just a little over .5. A maintained R0 of 1 or less will eventually eliminate the virus. Of course, there will be fluctuations in that number, so it will be difficult to project a time when things are ‘all clear’. Another difficulty with modelling is that the number of infected but asymptomatic people is unknown and difficult to estimate. For example, recent Covid-19 testing of the entire crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt found that a substantial majority of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, casting doubt on previous estimates (already worrying for transmission) of one in four cases being asymptomatic.

The asymptomatic/presymptomatic transmission issue was addressed by Bill Gates in this article back in February. It’s what makes SARS-CoV-2 a much more serious threat than the previous SARS and MERS viruses. Gates, in this very important article, also provides an outline of what needs to be done globally to fight this pandemic and to prepare for inevitable future ones. If only…

It’s worth comparing Gates’ call for national and global co-ordination, and more expenditure, in the fields of epidemiology and disease prevention, with another more recent article, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which tells a tale of Britain and its NHS, gutted by years, in fact decades of ‘reforms’ and budget cuts:

Thanks to government “reforms” of the NHS, it has become highly decentralized, with over 200 commissioning groups in England that can make independent decisions about staffing and procurement of equipment — far from the monolithic “socialist” health care system it is often assumed to be. The devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have substantial health system autonomy. At a time when central management of staff and resources might be most helpful, the decentralized decision-making structure leads to competition for resources and inconsistent policies.

One can hope that the travesty of this virus, especially in places like the US and the UK, will lead to a rethinking of the importance of a well-funded, centralised, co-ordinating and interventionist government in modern states, with particular emphasis on the healthcare system. But I suspect that, in the USA at least, things will go the other way, and the government-hating and government-blaming will only intensify. I’d love to leave this topic and look at solutions – that’s to say I’d love to focus more on the science, but I’m barely equipped to do so. Still, I like to have a go. A very technical and comprehensive review review of pharmacological treatments has been posted recently on the JAMA website, which includes an account of how SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells and utilises those cells for reproduction.

The review claims that currently the most promising therapy is the antiviral drug remdesivir. So what is it and how does it work? I’ll try to answer that question next time.

References

https://www.news.com.au/world/coronavirus/global/epicentre-of-the-epicentre-this-queens-ny-hospital-is-coronavirus-ground-zero/news-story/6d0213ab9d5dd82fa12339f551be99ce

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/apr/16/coronavirus-map-of-the-us-latest-cases-state-by-state

https://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-on-course-to-eliminate-covid-19-modelling-shows-20200416-p54kjh.html

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2005755?query=recirc_artType_railA_article

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2003762

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764727

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm

gods, science and explanation

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

Sam Harris, Letter to a christian nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2020 at 2:58 pm