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A bonobo world and other impossibilities 25: women and warfare (2)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in January 2019, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.


humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.


Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation in any future talks

Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.


Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 9:22 pm

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.


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

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


Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

Will the USA ever reform its federal system? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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the USA is flagging

So I’m writing this on the last day of the Trump ‘administration’, and I don’t know if I’ll finish it today, and currently I don’t know if Trump will come out with the hundred or so pardons that some reporters are predicting, or if there will be one final attempt at insurrection, or if any more lives will be lost etc etc.

Whenever I write about Trump I feel as if I’m repeating myself for the nth time, and of course I know that virtually nobody reads my blog and I basically get no feedback on it. Still I feel compelled…

Robert Sapolsky begins his book Behave (and he presents this orally on a video available on Youtube) with a fantasy about what he would do with Hitler if he could’ve gotten hold of him at the end of the war. It isn’t nice. As he points out, he’s a liberal fellow, and opposed to capital punishment, but – humans are complex and contradictory. I’ve had similar fantasies about Trump, among others – in fact I might blame Sapolsky for giving me permission. But seriously, I’ve had fantasies about doing horrible things to horrible people long before I read Behave. I’ve long had a kind of visceral loathing of bullies and thugs, whether they’re world leaders or in the local neighbourhood, possibly because I was bullied quite a bit at school, being the smallest kid in my class for about ten years. When in the morning I read or listen to the latest horror story about Trump, or Putin, or some other apparently unpunishable tyrant, I get so mad that my dog, who regularly sleeps on my bed, starts shaking and looking at me with either fear or, I like to think, reproach. 

I think I’ve been following the Trump debacle, or what I’ve called the slo-mo train wreck, because I’ve been wanting it to end like the movies, with the villain crashing and burning. And again to emphasise our complex and contradictory impulses, I’ve been hoping, and am still hoping, that Trump ends in gaol, but I’ve also been convinced, since before he decided to claim that he was a politician, that he wasn’t a ‘normal’ person, that there was something fundamentally wrong with him, and that he’s been this way for his entire adult life, and more. And I’ve become convinced, over the years, that free will is a myth, and that this has major implications for our systems of punishment, incarceration and the like. So what should be done with Trump? My feeling is that anyone with an average degree of intelligence and psychological insight should be able to see that this man should be kept away from any position of public responsibility. He’s an extremely, narcissistic, tantrumming pre-adolescent, and has been for 60 years. This is someone who couldn’t manage a public toilet, let alone the government of an uninhabited island. And yet he was put in charge of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on the planet. I don’t blame Trump for this, I blame the USA, and its federal political system. 

The USA is, as I’ve written before, exceptional in two things, its religiosity and its jingoism. As a non-believing non-American, a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, where I’ve lived since the age of five, I struggle with my lack of sympathy for these American features. I’ve never waved a national flag or sung a national anthem in my life, and I never will. I feel a kind of emotional aversion to nationalism, and I suspect any explanation will simply be post-hoc rationalisation. So Trump’s patriotism, which is as fake as his religion, his complexion and his business acumen, naturally gets my goat, but it isn’t Trump I want to write about here. 

Since realising that Trump was being taken seriously as a contender for US President, I’ve been following US politics like never before, and what I’ve learned has frankly horrified me, and continues to do so. Their federal system and their presidential system are real shockers, and frankly seem to be a disaster waiting to happen. There are plenty of pundits happy to dump on Trump of course, but hardly any are willing to dump on a system that allowed Trump to manipulate it so effectively (though it was more like bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour than calculated manipulation). I would cite Fareed Zakaria as an honourable exception, but his obvious Indian accent suggests that he hasn’t been fully infected by the native jingoism that his colleagues appear to suffer from. 

So here – again, but with additions – are some of the glaring problems of a political system, and some political beliefs, that no nation in its right collective mind would want to emulate. 

1. The ‘constitutional president’ becomes so as a result of a popularity contest between one superhero and another, in keeping, apparently, with ‘American individualism’. The ultimate recipe for demagoguery. These superheroes are either worshipped or reviled, and remembered by their numbers!

2. The Presidential candidate gets to choose his own running mate, plucked from the general population.

3. The President gets to choose a whole suite of personnel, or courtiers, to effectively run the country for the next four years, with only limited vetting, and has minimal contact with the parliament – living, during incumbency, in a White Palace.

4. Major elections occur every two years, last far too long, and involve obscene amounts of money, inevitably leading to corruption.

5. The political system is based on a much-worshipped, brief, vague and out-dated constitution, written for a small semi-democratic former British colony, and hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the third most populous country in the world. This urgently needs to be supported or replaced by laws, and lots of them.

6. The American people’s attitude to government, from the outset, has been disturbingly negative, so that interventionist government of any kind, to improve healthcare, education, race relations and so forth, is branded as socialism – the dirtiest word in the American language. And that’s something, considering the country’s religiosity, where the most lively and fun ‘curse-words’ aren’t even allowed on TV!

7. The popularity contest for the nation’s presidency is interfered with by an ‘electoral college’, which is state-based and regularly prevents the winner, based on popularity, from actually winning! 

8. The President has exceptional pardoning powers, veto powers, government shut-down powers, power to select members of the judiciary and heads of innumerable government departments, as well as, apparently, total immunity  from committing offences, however grave, while in office. 

9. It follows from the above that the political process known as impeachment would be surplus to requirements, and all politicians’ wrong-doing, up to and including the President, would be dealt with by the judiciary on the basis of law. 


The USA should look to the government of its neighbour, Canada, which has a far better political system, but it is of course prevented from doing so by its pathological jingoism. My hope is that the USA might be pressured by the international community to be more reformist in its approach to its national government. It’s a faint hope, of course, but the wreckery of the Trump period has, at least, exposed many glaring deficiencies. Gentlemen’s agreements aren’t anywhere near sufficient to keep ‘commanders-in-chief’, in a nation bristling with nuclear weaponry, with an at times disturbing superiority complex, in check. 

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2021 at 1:50 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. 


Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm raceédech_Thévenot

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm

23 – bonobo morality superior to Christianity

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the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to 539 BCE

In his strange but interesting book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari reveals an obsessive interest in religion. While recognising that the traditional religions such as Christianity, which dominated Europe and its colonies and offshoots for a millennium and a half, no longer provide a template for our political and social organisation, he’s happy to label the isms that he claims are traditional religion’s successors, namely humanism, liberalism, progressivism and scientism, as religions too. And the final section of his book bears the title ‘the data religion’, and is all about our new-found worship of algorithms. 

Personally I much prefer a tighter definition of religion, being a belief in gods and god-like entities, or spiritual, or spirit-ish, beings such as sprites, fairies or mischief-making bunyips and such – thingummies that have an effect on our world but are too superior to ever be caught by hand or on camera. Or they belong to another world or dimension or something. Harari dismisses the non-believers’ dismissal of these beings as supernatural, but he offers no better alternative. He seems to have caught the Nietschean affliction of trying to stand outside of everything so he can be disdainful of it. 

Traditional religions, however, suffer from the hearsay problem. I first heard about the Judeo-Christian god from a Sunday School teacher who no doubt heard about him from either his parents or rellies, or some other churchy elder, and so on down the generations, with mostly increasing conviction as we go back in time. Another way to describe him, or gods and religions in general, is as memes, thought-bubbles, differing in detail and import as they pass between people, but always presented with a sort of prestigious vagueness. God, for example, is divine, but what does this word mean? How do we collect evidence for divinity? Much easier to collect evidence for the processes involved in the Earth’s origin. Humans are lazy that way. 

I don’t want to enter into a philosophical or theological discussion here – god forbid – but I’m concerned about the baleful effect that certain religions, those that still influence large numbers of human apes today, have on morality. Religion, as we know, tends to congeal morality in the time-frame of that religion’s founding, or its high-water mark. And even then it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Take the story of ‘the woman taken in adultery’, in the soi-disant gospel of John, about which there’s much argy-bargy as to authenticity (it may have been a later interpolation), as if any of these writings are particularly authentic. The issue here, for me at least, is about whether the ‘sin’ is really a sin, or more generally what is a sin, though in the religious context of the time, the point of the story is that, since everyone sins, this woman’s sin deserves forgiveness, like everyone else’s sins, as long as she sins ‘no more’. Of course, it’s a pretty piss-poor argument, even if you equate sinning with wrong-doing according to the legalities of the day. Context is everything, and no context is given in the story. Adultery isn’t even clearly defined. It’s well-known, and other biblical texts bear witness to the fact, that women were treated as chattels in this era and region, and very often married off as children to men twice or thrice their age, with no fellow-feeling about it. Bonobos wouldn’t have stood for it. So my advice to this youngster would’ve been ‘go for it lassie, and pay no attention to those arseholes’. Depending on the context, that is.

And yet this sort of context-free drivel is still taken seriously by those who aren’t religious and should know better. I’ve heard a professional philosopher, much younger than myself and by no means religious, argue, or simply claim, that our legal system is based on Christian teaching. That’s total bullshit. Some years ago I did a deep dive on Christian morality as expressed in the five ‘gospels’, including Thomas, and found no clear moral message – again because context is everything, so that general remarks like ‘blessed are the peace-makers’, or indeed the cheese-makers, are essentially meaningless. Bonobos are pretty peaceful, but they’ll fight when they have to, to keep the greater peace. It’s a pretty good general rule, but the particular action and its extent depends on context. 

Another example of context-free ethics that I’ve heard being extolled is the Ten Commandments, or at least those that still make sense in the modern world – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet (note the negativity), don’t commit adultery (makes no sense to bonobos, and why and when did human apes start marrying?), and honour your parents (hmmm, shouldn’t parents, and any others, be given the respect they deserve? Not based on titles or positions, but on observed behaviour and effects? Automatic honouring, or respect, strikes me as a bad, even dangerous idea. Political leaders often benefit from this automatic, fawning respect, especially in non-democratic countries, where those leaders are allowed to hang around for a long time, like an ever more fetid odour). 

None of these commandments should be considered as absolutes, which is why the nuance of laws based on the complexity of civil society is far superior, and that nuance is displayed in rather more earthly laws of the time, such as those of Solon in Athens. And another near contemporary, Cyrus of Persia, renowned for having emancipated the Jews of Babylon, had rather more humane laws (or really just policies, and possibly short-term) written on a cylinder uncovered more than 2000 years later, and celebrated by some (mostly Persian nationals) as the first versions of human rights. 

Laws change, as they should, as we learn more about human flourishing, and that such flourishing depends on a broader, more vital flourishing of that narrow band of life that covers the surface, and a tiny sub-surface, of our planet. From whence we emerged. Only recently, rather shockingly, has the so-called developed world caught up with bonobos in their understanding and acceptance of homosexual behaviour – and that acceptance is very far from universal. Perhaps such intolerance has sprung from the old idea that ‘the world must be peopled’, but these days we’re well aware that it has been peopled enough. Nowadays we don’t want so much to have children to carry on for us, but to carry on ourselves, hale and hearty for 200 years or so. But that’s another story. 


Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016


Written by stewart henderson

January 15, 2021 at 7:52 pm

A coronavirus update: new variants

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2021 at 10:47 am

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.  


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

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)


Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

20: bonobo and human families, early childhood and free will

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ye olde nuclear family, and its enclosures

The bonobo reproduction rate is low, as is ours these days, though for different reasons. Bonobos don’t tend to go all the way, while humans have contraception even for naughty catholics. Muslim scholars seem a little confused about the issue, but are generally more accepting than their catholic counterparts. As to children, humans are rather more possessive about them than bonobos. Bonobo females are largely in charges of the kids, collectively, and paternity is unknown and undisputed. Think about how that would play out in human society, which for millennia has been largely patriarchal, patrilineal and even primogenitive. 

This doesn’t mean male bonobos are hostile to kids, as it’s generally a caring and sharing society, and besides, humouring the kids is a good way of winning favours from their mothers and others. Think of how that would be as a kid – you wouldn’t just be able to run to dad when mum’s mad at you, you’d have any number of adults to run to. You’d also have a range of adults to learn from, to identify with, to consider as role models, as well as to play off against each other. 

Modern, supposedly advanced human society is very different. We live in separate, securitised houses, in nuclear families – ideally mum, dad and 2⅓ kids – with a garden surrounded by a high fence, if we’re ‘lucky’. The grandparents live across town, or in another country, or a nursing home. Visitors are vetted by smartphone. Of course often it’s a single-parent situation, usually mum, and the odd long- or short-lived boyfriend. She works, so the kids spend a lot of time in day-care, meeting other kids and sharing with them one or two adults, who don’t get too close, wary of being accused of funny business. Rarely are these adults male. Still it’s pretty good, lots of toys and games and things to make and do, all in primary colours, but it’s not every day because it’s too expensive, you (the kid) sometimes get shipped around to aunties or friends or assorted baby-sitters, or you get switched to a new centre, with a whole bunch of strangers, or a kid you really like just disappears. But mostly you’re at home with your stupid brother, until school days arrive and you have to wear a uniform, and mum fusses over you and makes you feel nervous and watchful about whether you look different from the other kids, in a good or bad way. And you learn stuff and you like or hate the teacher and you start competing with the other kids and start thinking about how smart or dumb you are. 

Modern human life is pretty regimented. At a certain tender age you go to school where you learn first of all the basics of numeracy and literacy as the first steps toward being civilised. You also learn about rules and regulations, time management and the difference between work and play. Thrown into the school pool of humanity, you’re driven to contemplate and come to terms with variety: fat and skinny, pretty and ugly, noisy and quiet, smart and dumb, friend and enemy and all in between. You learn to make judgments, who to trust, who to avoid, and what to pay attention to. The prefrontal cortex, that amazing human asset, is continuing on its great connective journey, as you negotiate yourself between the formal and the free, between regimentation and independence. 

Yet all the research tells us that most of those judgments you make at school, and which you vaguely remember having made, are actually the product of that growth period before the laying down of memories, distorted or otherwise. And that includes your ability to make effective judgments. 

In the first few years of life, we form more than a million new neural connections every second. In fact, so many that after this surge of connections comes a period of pruning for order and efficiency. But this early period of development requires stimulation, which comes in infinite varieties of ways, including, of course, the bonobo way (and I don’t mean tree-climbing and chomping on insects), the chimp way (watching adult males battling it out), the Tiwi Islander way or the Netherlands royal family way or whatever. And much of this guided stimulation forms our behaviour for the rest of our lives. And the lack of it can reduce our capacities for a lifetime, in spite of subsequent kindness and care, as the notorious case of the Romanian orphans kept in horrendous states of neglect under the Ceauşescu regime has shown, though interestingly, some 20% of those adopted orphans have grown up showing little or no damage. Stimulation can come from within as well as without, and neglect has many variables. 

It stands to reason that we as individuals have little or no control over our development in this crucial period. Which brings me to the issue of free will. Philosophers have traditionally argued for free will on the ‘could have done otherwise’ basis. I could have drunk tea rather than coffee with brekky this morning (though I invariably drink coffee). I could’ve chosen x from the restaurant menu instead of y. So often these trivial examples are given, when it’s screamingly obvious that you don’t get to choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your early childhood environment, the country or period you were born into, or even the species you were born as (I could’ve snuffed out your brief candle by treading on you in this morning’s walk). Given these restraints on your freedom, restaurant choices surely pale into insignificance. 

But let’s stick with humanity. I won’t go into the neurological underpinnings of the argument against free will (as if I could), but if we treat no free will as a given, then the consequences for humanity, vis-à-vis our handling of crime and punishment, are stark, as  the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in the penultimate chapter of his book Behave, entitled ‘Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will’. This is a vital issue for me, in terms of a more caring and sharing bonoboesque society, so I’ll reserve it for another essay, or two, or more.  


InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. 2017


Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2021 at 12:43 pm

19: the USA – an anti-bonobo state?

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Of course it would be ridiculous to compare the complex, diverse collection of human apes – some 330 million of them – who call the USA home, to the few thousand bonobos who make their home in the forests of the Congo. So call me ridiculous.

Bonobos appear to be an egalitarian lot. They have fun together, sexually and otherwise, they share responsibilities, they look after each other’s kids, and they generally nip disagreements, which do occur, in the bud, either with sexual healing or with female group force. Unfortunately they don’t read, write or do much in the way of science, but you can’t have everything.

They don’t kill each other, which their close rellies the chimps occasionally do. And it’s the male chimps who tend to do this, just like male human apes. 

Now, Americans. They like to think they’re exceptional, many of them, but to an outsider like me they seem exceptional in only two respects – their religiosity and their jingoism, neither of which I have much time for. The nation’s foundational religiosity has been well dealt with by Sam Harris and many others, and the backlash to their writings, as well the more recent kowtowing by so-called evangelical Christians to the mendacious messianic misanthrope whose presidency has effectively destroyed the nation’s reputation for the foreseeable, indicates that they still have a lot of growing up to do. Their jingoism seems another form of infantilism, and I suspect they get it drummed into them from kindergarten on up. That’s why even their best cable news pundits and politicians carried on a ‘how has the mighty fallen’ narrative over the four years of the misanthrope’s reign, without seeming to realise that the problem wasn’t Trump but their massively flawed federal political (and legal) system. It’s also why they’ll never engage in the root and branch reform of that system, the failings of which Trump has done them the great favour of exposing.

However, in comparing Americans unfavourably to bonobos, it’s not their lack of modesty and self-awareness that I want to focus on, but their violence. The violence of the state, and states, towards individuals, the violence, or violent feelings, of individuals towards the state, the violence of partisanship, and ordinary violence between individuals. And of course the gun culture. 

Incarceration is a form of violence, let’s be blunt. The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has some 22% of the world’s prisoners, making the nation’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. It was up at nearly 25% twelve years ago, and declined slightly during the Obama administration, but no doubt has been rising again under Trump. State authorities have also played a role in rising or declining rates of course.

The nation tries to delude itself by calling their prisons correctional institutions, but very little in the way of formal correction is attempted. The tragedy is exacerbated by prison privatisation, which first occurred under Reagan in the eighties. A for-profit prison system, fairly obviously, benefits from a high prison population, and from skimping on counselling, training, facilities, and even basic needs, covering all of Maslow’s hierarchy. 

 As is well known, US prisons are top-heavy with those people designated as black (I’ve always been uncomfortable with black-white terminology). So much so that a 2004 study reported that ‘almost one-third of black men in their twenties are either on parole, on probation, or in prison’. So it would surely be correct to say that every person ‘of colour’ is touched by the prison system, either personally or via friends and family. I won’t go into the reasons why here, except to mention the obvious issues of poverty, disadvantage and endemic despair, exacerbated by the imbecilic war on drugs, but clearly imprisonment is itself violently punitive and rarely leads to human betterment. It appears to be a ‘sweeping under the carpet’ response to all these issues. People are free to do whatever they like, but if they make a nuisance of themselves in the street, and make the place look bad, best to put them out of the way for a while, until such time as they clean themselves up. But the sad fact is that very few if any of those incarcerated blacks have done anywhere near as much damage to the nation as has their outgoing President. 

As to a sense of violence towards the state, this is evidenced by paramilitary anti-government groups and the strange sense amongst a huge swathe of the population that if governments try to do anything interventional or ameliorative that in any way affects their lives they’re engaging in socialism, thus leaving the path open for white-collar crime (especially the gleefully celebrated crime of tax evasion), bank banditry and the like, and for real minimum wages to fall well below those of comparable countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Japan etc. And so, while their fellow-citizens are struggling in poorly paid jobs with inadequate conditions, people placard the streets screaming about their constitutional right to be protected from their Great Enemy, government in all its despicable forms. Ronald Reagan, who seems to have become a doyen of the moderate right, is now celebrated for saying that government is the problem, not the solution, surely one of the most imbecilic utterances of the pre-Trump era. 

So with this eschewing of government oversight and guidance, the USA has devolved into a war of all against all, with rights eclipsing responsibilities, and with parts of the country resembling the worst of so-called third world countries in terms of entrapment, suffering and despair. But of course it’s different for the rich, who protect their own. 

Finally I want to explore another form of violence, which relates to the US military. It’s amusing to note that there are arguments raging online about whether or not the US military is a socialist organisation, since it’s run and massively funded by by the federal government, with congress never delaying and rarely debating such unaudited funding. This is all fun to read since so many Americans become apoplectic when the word socialism comes up, but the fact remains that the Pentagon is, to most outsiders, something like a supermassive black hole sucking in funds that are never to be seen again. 

US military spending is estimated to be close to one trillion dollars over the 2020-21 year, with something like 85% described as discretionary spending, which means essentially that they can spend it any way they choose. Three attempts have been made in the past three years to audit the Pentagon, and they have all ended in failure, but it’s unclear whether the auditor or the Pentagon is the responsible party. Needless, to say, conducting such as audit would be a largely thankless task. Of course defenders of all this expenditure claim that vast sums of money are required to keep safe this exceptional beacon of liberty to the world. Yet much of US military personnel and materiel are deployed outside of the country, and the USA has never been under serious attack from any other nation since its foundation. The fact is that the US uses its military as has every other powerful military state in history, dating back to the Egyptians and before, and including the Romans, the Brits, the Germans and the Japanese, that’s to say, to enhance its power and influence in the world. And the US certainly is exceptional in its military. Its defence budget is ‘more….than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined’. 

Every powerful nation in history has fallen for the same fallacy, that their economic and military superiority somehow infers moral superiority. Might is right, essentially, and this translates to non-human ape societies too, as they all have their power hierarchies. Bonobos, however, less so than any of the others. In bonobo society, it seems, group power is used to stifle individual power-mongering, so that the group can get back as quickly as it can to the main purpose of their lives, surviving and thriving, exploring and foraging, looking out for each other and having fun. If we could have all this, in our more mind-expanded, scientific, with-knowledge-comes-responsibility sort of way, what a wonderful world this would be. 


Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2021 at 5:08 pm

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

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bonobos play-fighting


human apes play-fighting?

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

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

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

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

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

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

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

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm