an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.


Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world? 4

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a group of Rapa Nui people, photographed in 1895

Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, and was thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through paleobotanical analysis. However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse. According to Deutsch, following Bronowski, the self-destructive behaviour of the natives was a counter-example to the ‘ascent of man’ or ‘the beginning of infinity’ that Deutsch admires in the form of the short-lived but brilliant ancient Athenian culture, and in modern scientific humanity. However, I feel that both Deutsch and Bronowski have over-simplified and thus seriously distorted Rapa Nui culture to make their case, and that these kinds of distortions can be generalised to show that many of us still treat other cultures in a dismissive and hubristic way, when a more open and sympathetic understanding can only improve our own culture, at a time when, arguably, our future isn’t quite as rosy as we would like it to be.   

In his account of the Rapa Nui cultural collapse – which certainly did occur – Jared Diamond is more sympathetic. With the help of scientific associates, he examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that deforestation is more severe on: 1) dry islands than wet islands, 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands, 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands, 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it, 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume, 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it, 7) low islands than high islands, 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed … we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. However, there’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, with some claiming it may have been as much as 15,000 – a large number for such a tiny island, when the inhabitants had to depend entirely on that island’s resources. But these numbers are very rubbery, as is the length of time that these Polynesian adventurers had been inhabiting the island – anywhere from 800 to 2700 years. I am reminded of similar uncertainties and debates about Australia’s first inhabitants; dates range from 45,000 to 80,000 years, and the populations are anybody’s guess, but that doesn’t stop researchers from guessing. Surely there would have been wide fluctuations in the populations over time, as the climate warmed and cooled. In any case, the Rapa Nui population was supposedly reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, though how this figure was arrived at is a mystery. Clearly Roggeveen didn’t take a count, and the Rapa Nui people were not in a position to keep written records. Unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much but certainly not all of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I cannot of course vouch for the truth of this new interpretation of Rapa Nui culture, despite hoping that it’s more accurate. What is definitely true and uncontroversial is that the arrival of Europeans, and the diseases they brought with them, was far more devastating for the Rapa Nui people – as well as Australia’s Aborigines – than anything they ever did to themselves. 


Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011,currently%20the%20most%20heavily%20populated.

Written by stewart henderson

October 28, 2020 at 11:21 pm

a bonobo world?:3

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Burke and Wills, leaders of a naive and disastrous expedition


Introduction: The small world of bonobos, continued

Another example is given In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, where he tells the tale of the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition, an attempt 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. In his generally riveting 1963 book on the expedition, Cooper’s Creek, Alan Moorehead devotes only a few lines to the Yandruhwanda, many of whom died in the 1919 flu pandemic. The last member of this once-thriving group died in 1979. 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.

Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern Europeans transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

Bonobo society it seems to me, offers some interesting examples of how to improve on human society, in its most dominant ‘western’ form, and these examples can be divided, perhaps arbitrarily, into a handful of interconnected topics, such as violence, compassion, sexuality, resources, family and work. First, though, I should address the general concept of culture, and whether the social organisation of bonobos, and other intelligent highly social animals, really have it.

Chapter one – Culture

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyerdahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.


Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, Picador Books 2018

Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, Hamish Hamilton 1963

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking 2005

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, Pelican 2011

Jacob Bronowski, The ascent of man, BBC documentary series, 1973

Easter Island – where giants walked – Fall of Civilizations documentary 

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV documentary

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2020 at 1:49 pm

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

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1. the small world of bonobos

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’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is 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 their social relationships, and our own. 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 follow, 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. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

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 on average 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 larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them closer to living examples of our direct examples than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

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. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 



Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 pm

reading matters 13: the glass universe

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Canto: So The glass universe, published in 2016, has a cute title, referring as it does to the ‘glass ceiling’, another clever term for that invisible barrier up there that appears to prevent women from rising in politics, business and science, but also to the glass photographic plates upon which were recorded the spectrographic signatures of a vast arrays of stars, clusters and the like, in the decades of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, by a somewhat less vast array of human computers – the name given to the largely underpaid female stargazers and recorders of Harvard College observatory and elsewhere.

Jacinta: Yes, Dava Sobel, author of the fascinating little book Longitude, as well as Galileo’s Daughter, which is in a stack of books here waiting to be read, has brought to life a group of dedicated women and their male supporters over a period when the higher education of women was just starting to be addressed. 

Canto: Yes, it all started with the Drapers, a wealthy and well-connected couple in the 1870s. Henry was a leading astronomer of the day, and ‘Mrs Henry’, aka Anna, a socialite and heiress. Their social evenings were mostly science-focused, with guests including the inventor Thomas Edison, the zoologist Alexander Agassiz, and Prof. Edward Pickering, of Harvard. Henry Draper was working on the chemical make-up of stars, using ‘a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colours’, for which he’d won great acclaim, when he died suddenly of a flu-like illness in his mid-forties. His devoted and rich widow, keen to continue his legacy, helped finance, along with Pickering, a continuation of his ground-breaking research.  

Jacinta: And so the computers of Harvard College Observatory were born. We need to explain – or try to – the science of spectrographic analysis, but I’d like to first briefly describe some of the women who did this work. They include Williamina (Mina) Fleming, a canny Scotswoman frae Dundee (our birthplace), whose first American job was as the Pickering’s maid but who soon proved her worth as a star spotter and tracker, classifier, and organiser, leading the team of computers in the early decades. In 1899 she was given the title of ‘curator of astronomical photographs’, becoming the first titled female in the university’s history. As such she presided over 12 women ‘engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer’. 

Canto: Far from just bureaucratic work – this would’ve involved a lot of learning and conjecture, noting patterns and anomalies and trying to account for them.

Jacinta: Absolutely. Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Leavitt and the tragically short-lived Adelaide Ames were among the most noteworthy of these computers, and I should stop using the term, because they weren’t machines and they all made lasting contributions to the field…

Canto: And they all have their own Wikipedia pages. What more evidence do we need?

Jacinta: They contributed to academic papers, often without attribution, especially in the early years, and had their findings read out in academic institutions to which they were barred. Over time they became established teachers and lecturers, in the women’s colleges which started to become a thing in the twenties. But let’s get onto the daunting stuff of science. How were these glass plates created and what did they reveal?

Canto: So spectroscopy became a thing in the 1860s. Spectroscopes were attached to telescopes, and they separated starlight into ‘a pale strip of coloured light ranging from reddish at one end through orange, yellow, green, and blue to violet at the other’. I quote from the book. But what these changing colours meant exactly, as well as the ‘many black vertical lines interspersed at intervals along the coloured strip’, this was all something of a mystery, a code that needed to be cracked. Henry Draper had captured these spectral lines and intervals on photographic plates, which were bequeathed to Harvard by his widow. They formed the beginning of the collection. 

Jacinta: The term spectrum was first used by Isaac Newton two centuries earlier, and he correctly claimed that this coloration wasn’t due to flaws in glass and crystals but was a property of light itself. The dark lines within the stellar spectra on Draper’s plates are called Fraunhofer lines, after a Bavarian lens-maker, Joseph von Fraunhofer, who built the first spectroscope. He at first thought the dark lines between the rainbow of colours his instrument produced were somehow artificial, but continued work convinced him that they were a natural effect. He gave them alphabetical labels according to their thickness, including the letter D for a double line in the pale orange region. He mapped hundreds of them, though today we’ve detected many thousands of them in sunlight. He didn’t understand what they were, though he realised they were something significant. Later in the 19th century Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchov conducted experiments with various chemical elements and found that they burned in colours around those black lines, which we now know as absorption lines. 

Canto: Yes, it was Kirchov who connected the colours created by burning elements to the spectral lines that the sun’s light could be separated into, concluding that this great fireball of gases producing white light in the sky was actually a mixture of burning elements, or elements being transformed into other elements. As to the absorption lines, Sobel puts it this way:

As light radiated through the sun’s outer layers, the bright emission lines from the solar conflagration were absorbed in the cooler surrounding atmosphere, leaving dark telltale gaps in the solar spectrum.

These absorption lines, which together with emission lines, are spectral lines in the visible spectrum which ‘can be used to identify the atoms, elements or molecules present in a star, galaxy or cloud of interstellar gas’, to quote from this Swinburne University site

Jacinta: So we’ll try to keep within the confines of the book, and the scientific developments of the period which these women, in particular, contributed to. So, rather, surprisingly to us modern wiseacres, these revelations about the sun as a super-hot fireball and a producer of elements was a bit hard for 19th century folk to take in, but scientists were excited. Henry Draper described spectral analysis as having ‘made the chemist’s arms millions of miles long’, and in 1872 he began photographing the spectra of other stars. It was long known that they had different colours and brightnesses – called ‘apparent luminosities’ – but spectral analysis provided more detailed data for categorisation, and sets of photographs revealed changes in luminosity and colour over time. Williamina Fleming, Harvard’s principal computer, took charge of Draper’s thousands of plates, which provided the most detailed spectral data of stars up to that time, and was able to analyse them into classes, via their absorption lines, in new and complex ways. It was cutting edge science.

Canto: There was also an interest in throwing more light, so to speak, on variable stars. They were so numerous and complex in their variability that Pickering needed more computers to track them. Lacking funds, he advertised for volunteers, emphasising the role of women in particular, whose effectiveness he’d seen plenty of evidence for. 

Jacinta: Not to mention their willingness to work for less, or effectively nothing. These were often siblings or partners of astronomers or other scientists, with unfulfilled scientific ambitions. Later, though, came from the newly created ‘Ladies’ Colleges, such as Radcliffe and Wellesley.

Canto: The Orion Nebula was a particularly rich source of these variable stars, and Pickering found an ideal computer, Henrietta Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, to explore them. Within six months, she’d confirmed previous identifications of variables in the nebula and added more than 50 others, afterwards confirmed by Fleming. Then, using a combination of negative and positive glass plates, she found hundreds more, in the Orion Nebula and the Small Magellanic Cloud. As Pickering pointed out, due to the lack of resolution in the plates, this number was likely the tip of the iceberg. In writing up a report of her findings, Leavitt described a pattern she’d found: ‘It is worthy of notice… that the brighter variables [aka cepheid variables] have the longer periods’. This brightness (or luminosity) and its relationship to periodicity (the time taken to go through a full cycle of change) is now known as the Leavitt Law, though of course it took decades for Henrietta Leavitt to receive full recognition for discovering it. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth noting that these women worked painstakingly on data analysis, developing new and more rigorous classification systems, studying and theorising about anomalies, and communicating their findings to leading astronomers and researchers around the world. And it’s also worth noting that they were supported and highly appreciated at Harvard by Edward Pickering and his successor as Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley – though of course there were plenty of naysayers. 

Canto: Okay so we’ve spoken of two or three of the computer stars’, and there were many more, but let’s finish with the work of Antonia Maury. 

Jacinta: Well we must also mention Annie Jump Cannon (great name), star classifier and photographer extraordinaire, suffragist and generally formidable persona, in spite of being almost completely deaf. She classified around 350,000 stars and contributed greatly to the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first international star classification system. Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Maury (I’m not kidding), a graduate of Vassar College, was a niece of Henry Draper. 

Canto: Not what you know but who you know? 

Jacinta: It is partly that – and that cliché is worth a whole book to itself – but Maury was no slouch, she was a keen and observant star observer and systemiser. One important discovery she shared with Pickering was one of the first known binary star systems, in the handle of the Big Dipper. This required months of careful observation from 1887 through 1889, as they noted one spectral line separating into two then the lines merging again, then separating, with one line shifting slightly to the red end of the spectrum and the other to the blue. Once they recognised that they were dealing with binary star systems, others were soon found. And once these systems were confirmed, Maury carefully calculated their orbital periods and speeds.

Canto: There were many other important breakthroughs. Spectral colours, as we’ve pointed out, were connected to particular chemical elements, and Cecilia Payne, whose major focus was the measurement of stellar temperatures, found a superabundance in the elements hydrogen and helium, which confounded other experts and soon made her doubt her own calculations. Payne wrote up her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1925, ‘admitting’ that the percentages of hydrogen and helium were ‘improbably high’ and ‘almost certainly not real’. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s well worth noting that the knowledge we have of stars today, which seems almost eternal to us, is in fact very recent. The book also covers the dispute between Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble – with many on either side of course – as to whether other galaxies existed. That dispute was only resolved in the thirties, and now we count other galaxies in the trillions. So the period covered in Sobel’s book was a truly transformative period in our understanding of the universe, as well as transformative in terms of women’s education and women’s participation in the most heavenly of all the sciences. 

Canto: Whateva.


The glass universe, by Dava Sobel, 2016

Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm

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

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


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

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 pm

the strange concept of faith and the basic concept of morality

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when did Jesus become so Western European?

The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory.

Sam Harris, The end of faith

Canto: Writing about religion and atheism, belief and unbelief, appears to have become unfashionable recently, after a spate of atheist tomes in the early-mid 2000s, which certainly had an impact. Christianity continues to decline, and we try to ignore the other religions as best we can. But with the current kerfuffle about Amy Coney Barrett, a woman described as being ‘of deep faith’ possibly being raised to the US Supreme Court, it seems to me that religion still has the power to shape the law in some countries that we would hope should know better.

Jacinta: Yes, we’ve long expressed the view that this term ‘faith’ has a strange cachet about it that doesn’t really stand up well to scrutiny – to put it mildly. Just considering the judeo-christian version, the claims, as Sam Harris wrote, are extravagant indeed. That the world – rarely very clearly defined  – was made by a single god, of whose essence and world-creating abilities we can have no understanding. We can only speculate, haplessly and hopelessly, as to why he created this world (he isn’t really male but we have to use some pronoun after all), and what his purpose is for us, though there are supposedly clues in a collection of writings over many centuries, which are said to have been inspired by him. Apparently, though, we are his special creation, ordered to go forth, multiply and subdue the earth and all that crawls upon it, presumably for our needs and purposes (Genesis 1:28). This set of beliefs, and of course there are many more, though they may vary between individuals, doesn’t fit well with what we know about the formation of this planet, its relation to the universe, and the story of human evolution, so thoroughly verified by genetics, which we learned about as a result of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection from random variation. 

Canto: Yes, the story of this creator-god and the creation story supposedly written by the god’s human agents some 2,600 years ago or so, is in no way compatible with what we’ve learned about the 3 billion-plus years of life on this planet and the few hundred thousand years of existence of our Homo sapiens ancestors. And yet belief in the existence of this creator-god still persists in the minds of otherwise highly intelligent people, including many of our primary makers and interpreters of law.

Jacinta: Especially in the USA – exceptional, as we’ve often complained, only in its religiosity and its jingoism. Which brings us back to Amy Coney Barrett, who is a ‘devout Catholic’. I think the word ‘devout’, like ‘faith’ and ‘sacred’, deserves scrutiny. An article in The Nation about her carries this sub-heading: ‘Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.’ This raises my ire. I know nothing of this fringe right-wing sect but I know plenty about Catholicism. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church is, in its hierarchy, the most profoundly patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic organisation in the ‘western world’ – the world outside Islam and Hinduism. 

Canto: Well this fringe sect might be even worse, but granted the Catholic church has far greater reach. And Barrett will be the fifth Catholic on the court if promoted. Catholics represent about 22% of the US population. Interestingly, according to recent Pew Research, some 65% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, down from 77% only ten years ago, so we’re seeing big changes in our lifetime, though the political and judicial powers are at least a generation behind the trend. 

Jacinta: So let’s talk about faith and its untouchable nature. In some respects it’s like loyalty, as in keeping faith with the church, or our ancestors. The first type of religion was undoubtedly a form of animism – the wind, the sun, the rain, the ocean, these were moving, changeable elements which moved in mysterious ways, sometimes destructively, sometimes beneficially for humans. In our need to control our world we decided we needed to be on the side of these forces, to be loyal to them, bestowing gifts, sacrifices, bowing down. And when the sun shone mildly upon us, when the rain nourished our crops, it was because we were keeping faith with these godlike forces. But perhaps other less visible forces were operating, spreading sicknesses, killing our newborns – and so we created more abstract deities or forces, perhaps associated with places of danger or disease – the forest, the mountains, perhaps a particular lake or swamp. 

Canto: Yes, you’re talking about a pre-scientific era. Gods or supernatural entities – sprites or goblins – a thousand different terms used in a thousand different languages – these were explanations for unforeseen and unexpected events. And so you had to keep in with them, keep faith with them, through obeisance, sacrifices and the like. 

Jacinta: Gods and spirits as explanations – bad explanations. I believe that was what David Deutsch was on about in The beginning of infinity. I also like the idea of gods as memes. For example, I was sent to Sunday School at about 7 or 8 where I learned about the judeo-christian god from a guy in a Salvation Army uniform. He stood out the front and passed this story, this version of a god – a meme, essentially – to me and others. I was hearing it for the first time, and of course it passed, like any other meme, though my ‘interpretive apparatus’, my 7-year-old brain, and that’s how religion spreads, it seems to me. A universal message of sorts, individually interpreted, like many memes. But when this meme of a single god who made the world specially for us, etc etc, starts to fall apart as an explanation of anything – and this has been happening since the spread of far better explanations from at least the 17th century’s scientific enlightenment – the importance of faith has been emphasised to keep it all together. I think you’ll find that ‘faith’ was a very rare term in the millenium or so of medieval Christendom. It wasn’t faith, then, it was just the truth. Faith is like an enfeebled offspring of that truth. 

Canto: And what about ‘deep faith’, is that just more enfeebled? 

Jacinta: Stubbornly enfeebled perhaps. Actually, it’s probably more recent than the 17th or 18th centuries – it’s more of a 20th century concept, and it has gathered around it a kind of sacred aura, almost as a bulwark against the scientific age – which of course is ‘spiritually empty’. 

Canto: Thank god. But I think that even believers are cognisant that ‘faith’ has a dodginess about it. I recall years ago John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, expressing uneasiness with the word, and suggesting maybe ‘hope’ should be substituted. I suspect he regretted saying that – it surely weakens the religious position quite a bit. Then again, it seems more honest. 

Jacinta: Yes, and somehow more human. Many of us have hoped that this earthly existence isn’t all there is – this brief candle. And some, like the late George Harrison, have been entirely matter-of-fact about death being part of the eternal journey, though whether this was bravado or not we’ll never know.

Canto: We can also put our faith in the multiverse – an infinite series of universes in which we live longer, have better sex, make far more money…

Jacinta: Or die of an excruciatingly painful wasting disease… I’m not convinced by that one, whatever the maths says. Though it certainly is fascinating where current problems in physical theory can lead us. But to return to faith – it is what religion is about. The faith, or hope, that human life is special, that we are being looked after, watched over, judged. Gods are, I believe, integral to religion. It could be one, or many. They could be omnipotent, or fallible. They could be benevolent, or vindictive. But they must be interested, even obsessed, by us. That’s why I don’t think ancient philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism are religions, however ‘spiritual’ their teachings seem to be. Religions are unthinkable without gods. 

Canto: Yes, and religion doesn’t deal with the moral sphere, as Stephen Jay Gould used to think. Or rather, it might be moral, but it’s really about the morality of the god, or gods, and trying to second-guess it. Why have we been punished by bad weather? Because the god disapproves of something we’ve done. We need to change our behaviour as well as heaping praise upon the god for telling us about our wrong-doing and trying to correct us. So we obsess over the gods’ obsession with us, and round and round it goes, never getting to an answer about these inscrutable beings. Meanwhile real morality is about how we can thrive as the most socially complex, socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and we’ve been engaging in that quest and that process since our beginnings. Trying to shed these imaginary gods and our notion of our specialness in their eyes is an important part of the process, I think. Science has discovered, really quite recently, our relatedness to every other species on the planet – and even more recently, how our behaviour is threatening so many of those species, as well as the less lucky members of our own species. That’s where we should be focussing our moral lens.  

Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2020 at 9:15 pm

covid19 – the European CDC shows the way

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poverty and crowding in Peru – BBC picture

Canto: The US response to the pandemic continues to be massively hampered by political muzzling of and interference with the science, especially at the federal level, but the Medcram updates continue to inform us, and to be, or pretend to be, indifferent to this political interference.

Jacinta: Yes, and update 109 has introduced us to the European CDC’s website, which provides us with a wealth of information, on the progress of the pandemic itself in European countries, but also in the political response to it, and how those two things interact. 

Canto: The country overview page, and it’s currently updated to week 39 of the pandemic, is as data-rich as anyone can imagine, a statistician’s wet dream, but interpretation of the data needs to be handled carefully. 

Jacinta: Dr Seheult does some interpretation of some of the data in his medcram update 109, but there’s so much more in there, and so much more to say. So let’s take a European country at random – Denmark – and look closely at the stats.  

Canto: But before that, let’s look at some general European trends they report. It’s fascinating:

  • By the end of week 39 (27 September 2020), the 14-day case notification rate for the EU/EEA and the UK, based on data collected by ECDC from official national sources, was 113.6 (country range: 9.9–319.9) per 100 000 population. The rate has been increasing for 70 days.

So the EU is the European Union and the EEA is the European Economic Area. I’m not sure what is meant by ’14-day’ but I presume the case notification rate is simply the case rate, as far as they can ascertain from the data supplied to them – the cases they’ve been notified about. It’s good that they make that distinction, shifting the onus on the notifiers. So it’s 113.6 cases per 100,000 population over the whole region, and has been rising for over two months – a second wave. 

Jacinta: I think ’14 day’ just means the rate over the previous 14 days. They report every seven days for the previous 14 days, so there’s a 7-day overlap. That data is not only dependent on the reliability of particular reporting countries, it’s also dependent on testing levels, obviously. So in the general trends they tell us which countries are doing the most testing. Highest is Denmark, followed by Luxembourg, Iceland, Malta and Cyprus. Small countries, unsurprisingly. 

Canto: With all this, it’s interesting from Dr Seheult’s analysis of the data that the death rate isn’t mapping with  the case rate, thankfully, and that the age of people contracting the virus in the second wave is much lower, which seems weird.

Jacinta: Probably explained by an increase in testing since the early days. Now they’re catching milder and asymptomatic cases. It suggests, of course, that the case rate was much higher during the first wave, when the testing regime was still being put together. So let’s look at Denmark, and now we have data for week 40. There are four graphs, and in the first we see the case notification rate experiencing a big bump peaking in April with the death notification rate mapping pretty closely with that bump. Then there’s a gradual falling away in both figures, until August when the case rate starts to rise again, but not the death rate. Then in September that case rate rises very sharply, rising well above the April bump, though in the last week it seems to have leveled off at this high level. But the death rate has stayed pretty well level and quite low. Now that raises questions that the other graphs might help to answer. The second graph looks at the testing rate – tests per 100,000. The testing rate was pretty flat and low from February into April, but after the April rise in cases the testing began to rise from late April into May. It flattened and even dipped a bit into June. It stayed fairly steady through the northern winter, but of course at a high level compared to the earliest period, then it started to rise in August, presumably in anticipation of a rise in cases as the colder weather arrived. That rise in testing peaked at a very high level in late September, but has dropped quite sharply in the the last week or so. 

Canto: Interesting, so that does strongly suggest a sharp rise in mild cases being ‘caught’, and presumably dealt with, as the death rate hasn’t spiked at all. 

Jacinta: Yes, though we don’t know how well those cases have been dealt with – people are talking about ‘long covid’, people possibly having long-term issues. The two graphs don’t really give us granular detail – hospitalisation rates for example. So the third graph breaks the notified case numbers into age groups, and the results are fascinating. The first wave bump shows that most of the cases recorded were in the older age groups, particular those at 80 or over. There were cases in all age groups, but very few under 15. However, in the second wave, the cases found were predominantly in the young. In fact the 15-24 age group was way out in front, followed by the 25-49 group. Even the under 15s were well above the oldest age groups. So what does this mean? It seems to suggest that the older, and perhaps wiser, are recognising the dangers, especially to their age group, and taking fewer risks, and that the younger are still not very sick but can be carriers of the virus and more than ever a danger to the older generation. 

Canto: I wonder is Denmark ‘typical’ in this regard?

Jacinta: There are variations of course, but the general trend is much the same. The fourth graph shows test positivity – the percentage of people who tested positive. There was a massive spike in positive test results in March, up to around 16 -17%, but this dropped as sharply at it rose, due presumably to the rapid rise in testing from that period. By May it was around 1% and it has remained much the same since, as the number of tests administered has never been higher, in spite of the recent drop I mentioned. It’s still much higher than it was pre-September. 

Canto: But there are more than four graphs as we’ve found. We’ve looked at the data for notification rates and testing, there are other graphs which look at ICU and hospitalisation rates, public health response measures, and which break the nation down into specific regions. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly important to look at public health measures – restrictions on mass gatherings, closures or partial closures of public spaces, workplaces and schools, the mandating or recommendations around face masks, and map them against notification rates, hospitalisations and so forth. The picture that emerges is generally pretty clear, though sadly some countries, such as the USA and Brazil, aren’t paying heed to the fact that public health measures save lives as well as a lot of suffering. 

Canto: Well we should be talking about the governments rather than the countries, when we’re talking about public health measures. So I’ve assumed that the CDC in the USA has been hobbled by the Trump debacle, so I’ve gone to the Johns Hopkins site to see what detailed info they provide. Indeed they do have a lot of useful data both for the USA and other countries, though little on the effect of public health measures. An interesting graph they present on mortality shows that, in terms of deaths per 100,000 persons – and they show only the top 20 nations – Peru is on top, followed by Brazil, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, the USA and the UK, in that order. 

Jacinta: Well we know about the macho governments of Brazil, the UK and the USA – not that government is always entirely to blame, but it’s a key indicator – so what about the national governments of those other countries? 

Canto: Well other key indicators would be the country’s wealth, or lack thereof, and its healthcare infrastructure, but as to government, Peru had a federal election in January this year – it’s a multi-multi-multi-party system with the most popular party getting only 10% of the vote. The result was that Martin Vizcarra retained the presidency. He appears to be a genuine reformist who has tried to implement stay-at-home orders, but widespread poverty and overcrowding are major problems there. Brazil we already know about. Ecuador’s current President is Lenin Moreno, a right-wing figure who has slashed government funding and seems obsessed with destroying political opponents. He has a popularity rating of 8%, according to an article in Open Democracy, and his mishandling of the pandemic has been extreme. Spain is a ‘parliamentary monarchy’, and its current Prime Minister is Pedro Sanchez, leader of a leftist coalition. Currently there’s a battle with right-wing local authorities, especially in Madrid, to enforce lockdowns as a second wave hits the country. So it’s the usual problem there of non-compliance, it seems. And Mexico is, as is I think well known, a country with a lot of poverty and a lot of problems. Its governmental system has long been a minefield – in fact I’d love to learn more about its chequered history. Currently the President is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran politician who has been a member of various parties and is essentially a political centrist. So again it’s about lack of political control, poverty, lack of services, overcrowding and so forth. As to the UK, years of conservative government have gutted the NIH, there has been a ton of mixed messaging from the top… I’m getting sick of all this. I want to go to Taiwan.

Jacinta: Hmm. How’s your Chinese? Things are pretty covid-safe here in South Australia. Here’s hoping a safe and effective vaccine is ready by next year, and some big improvements are made in certain countries, with a return to justice and human decency…


Coronavirus Pandemic Update 109: New Data From Europe As COVID 19 Infections Rise

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2020 at 1:50 pm

stuff on covid19 and immunology

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Canto: Well it’s a great time to be living in quiet South Australia, with a global pandemic raging in many places elsewhere..

Jacinta: Particularly the US, which we’ve long been focussing on, maybe in a schadenfreude kind of way.

Canto: Yes or maybe in a lazy way, because we’re so inundated by American media, social media, cable news, the NYT, the WaPo, the Atlantic, Politico, the Medcram lecture series, it just seems easier to plug into US info these days. Which makes me wonder…

Jacinta: And all hell’s breaking loose with Trump having come down with covid19 and the misinformation machine starting to overheat. Currently – October 5 – according to the Worldometer figures, which we’ve been using since the start of the pandemic – the USA has suffered 214,611 deaths, more than a fifth of the world’s deaths by that database’s figures. 

Canto: Yes, we’ve noticed that the US media always has figures a little below ours – I presume because they’re using the Johns Hopkins figures, which seem to have a time lag. We can’t say which is more reliable of course. Complete reliability for all sources is unlikely. 

Jacinta: In any case the USA has spectacularly failed to get on top of this virus, and is still experiencing high case-rates and death-rates, though the variations between states are constantly changing, and tell their own complex story. Overall, though, unless something drastic happens, the US is on track to have suffered 250,000 to 300,000 deaths by the end of the year – and I haven’t accounted for the winter season. 

Canto: Yes and that’s no outlier prediction, that’s just a very simple forward projection. 

Jacinta: I’m half-wondering when the Trump administration will try to throw cold water – or bleach perhaps – at the covid figures, as they’ve tried to misinform with everything else to do with the virus, including Trump’s condition and the timeline of his infection. But I want to look at what we’re hearing from the Walter Reed medicos about his treatment, and more generally about immunology and the virus’ progress. From the figures, it doesn’t seem as if anything is working very effectively, but Trump will be getting treatment that isn’t widely available to anyone else in that country, and we’re getting no clear answers as to how he’s faring. 

Canto: The treatment everyone’s reporting on currently is the ‘antibody cocktail’ produced by the drug company Regeneron. This was made available through an emergency use authorisation, and unsurprisingly there’s now demand pressure on the product. He’s also on the antiviral remdesivir, and the steroid dexamethasone, and it seems he’s been given oxygen, though medical and other experts have had to read between the lines of public announcements to work out what exactly is going on. 

Jacinta: Yes, many experts suspect he’s been sicker than he’s been prepared to admit, and of course the Democrats and health officials are all wishing him well and ‘praying for him’ in their American way. Frankly, I hope he dies, for the simple reason that his death will likely save thousands of lives, as it will stem the flow of misinformation, and scare even his dumbest followers into wearing masks, physically distancing and generally starting to act sensibly and humanely. It will have been the best thing he’s ever done with his life. But enough controversy, let’s look at immunology and treatment. According to the NYT, Trump has also been taking Vitamin D, zinc, the hormone melatonin, and famotidine, an anti-heartburn medication. 

Canto: So he’s fit as a fiddle, then? 

Jacinta: Hmm. As we know, Dr Seheult on Medcram has spoken of the benefits of zinc and vitamin D, as well as remdesivir and dexamethasone, but none of these treatments have been subjected to rigorous clinical trials in relation to SARS-CoV2 as yet. It’s my guess that Trump himself is pushing the envelope to be treated with these drugs, though it could also be that he’s actually quite sick, as I’ve said. And unless he actually dies, it could be that we’ll never know. 

Canto: He won’t die. Anyway, what about Regeneron, and these monoclonal antibodies? 

Jacinta: Well we’ve talked about them before, but they’ve been mostly used in the past against cancer cells. In fact they’re finding uses in many medical fields but they’re tricky to manufacture, and would be expensive to roll out…

Canto: Actually I’ve heard some reports that it’s polyclonal antibodies they’re giving him. Is there a difference? I thought maybe because they were giving him a ‘cocktail’ of monoclonal antibodies, this amounted to polyclonal…?

Jacinta: Well, who knows what they’re actually giving him, but according to my reading, researchers have engineered (cloned) immune cells that produce specific antibodies – antibodies to a specific antigen, or more accurately, to the epitope, or binding site, of that antigen. That’s monoclonal antibodies. Polyclonal antibodies can bind to multiple epitopes, which sounds better but maybe they’re harder to manufacture in an effective form. 

Canto: So these monoclonal or polyclonal antibodies are proteins, synthesised versions of proteins produced by the immune system. Is it that, due to the virus, the body is prevented from producing these antibody proteins naturally, or can’t produce enough of them, or what? 

Jacinta: What I gather is that the response to the virus varies – some are producing antibodies, some aren’t. A report came out last week about Regeneron’s treatment, this ‘cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies’:

The company showed slides with detailed data from 275 infected people in a placebo-controlled trial that ultimately plans to enrol 2100 individuals who are asymptomatic or, at worst, moderately ill. The analysis divides patients into two groups: those who had detectable antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 at the trial’s start and those who did not, a so-called seronegative group. The monoclonal cocktail showed little effect on people who already had antibodies against the virus. But it appeared to help the seronegative patients, powerfully reducing the amount of virus found in nasopharyngeal swabs and alleviating symptoms more quickly. 

So it appears to boost the immune system of those who haven’t, or haven’t yet produced antibodies to the virus. So, useful for those in the earliest phase of having contracted covid19. But all of this has to be more thoroughly tested – for example, would the treatment work as a general preventive? 

Canto: There’s another company, Eli Lilly, which has been trialling a single monoclonal antibody treatment, with slightly different results – both companies have given low-dose and high-dose treatments, and Regeneron found no statistically significant difference, whereas Lilly found the high dose ineffective – which is good news as the lower dose will presumably be cheaper to manufacture, with fewer adverse effects, if any. The two companies have a slightly different approach to using their medications – though this might change in such a fluid situation. Regeneron is thinking of developing diagnostic tools to identify those most in need of the treatment, e.g those with the highest viral load, and those with low antibody levels (serology). Lily, on the other hand, are thinking that any covid19-positive people at higher risk – diabetics, overweight, or simply elderly – should be given the treatment, if possible. 

Jacinta: In the meantime, the dangers of this virus are constantly being underplayed by this administration under pressure, clearly, from the Boy-King, while a large cluster of people who’ve had contact with him, either at the White House or on any of his jaunts around the country. Exactly who set off the cluster will probably never be known, because it sounds like they’re refusing, again under the orders of a clearly incompetent wee boy, to engage in contact tracing!

Canto: It’s a SNAFU to be sure. Apparently one of this number – 34 at last count –  is gravely ill in hospital. It’s like we’re watching an episode of ‘Horrible Histories’ in real time. It’s good to see that the polls are predicting a landslide. That means if the actual numbers come in and it’s close, it may be to do with the dirty business Trump and the Republican ‘leadership’ appear to be trying on vis-à-vis voter suppression. And then all hell will break loose.

Jacinta: Hell will break loose no matter what happens. This next month or two will be a cracker for us non-Americans. We’re certainly living in interesting times. But seriously, my condolences to the American people. 


Coronavirus Pandemic Update 97: Vitamin D & COVID-19 Immunity, The Endothelium, & Deficiencies

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

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 88: Dexamethasone History & Mortality Benefit Data Released from UK

covid19: monoclonal antibodies, symptomatic v asymptomatic, corticosteroids, comorbidities

Written by stewart henderson

October 8, 2020 at 11:55 pm

Americans need to stop blaming Trump, and take responsibility for their broken system

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So there was a Presidential debate the other day, and it went as expected, by all accounts. I didn’t watch it, and never had any intention to. I’ve taken a strong interest in US federal politics in the past 4-5 years or so, with the advent of Trump, but in watching cable news I’ve always had the remote handy so as not to have to hear anything coming out of Trump’s mouth, or the mouth of some of his acolytes. Trump’s presence and position makes me feel enraged, a feeling of actual violent loathing which has always come over me when I encounter bullies. This has nothing to do with politics, or at least political ideology. Of course bullying is a feature of politics. The term ‘authoritarian leader’ is generally a euphemism for a bully, and we all know who the current ones are. 

However, as a person who, if not philosophical, has read a fair amount on philosophy and psychology over the years, I try to use those insights to calm and divert. For example, there’s the issue of free will, which I won’t go into in detail here, but we’ve learned – from the Dunedin longitudinal study, for example – that early childhood shapes our character far more than most of us are willing to admit. This often goes unnoticed because most of us have had relatively normal childhoods within the broader social milieu, which also shapes us to a large degree. However, as a person who has been in fairly close contact with highly dysfunctional families and the children born of them, the long-term or permanent effects are clear enough. In the case of Trump I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s clear from family members, long-term witnesses, and psychological and neurological professionals, that Trump’s seriously damaged persona was in place from a very early age. Many of those who’ve known him longest say things to the effect that you have to think of him as an eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or pre-adolescent, and it would indeed be worthwhile if neurologists could gain access to his pre-frontal cortex, which of course will never happen now. Some argue that he has deteriorated in recent years, and of course I can’t respond to that in any professional way, but I’m certainly skeptical. The bluster, the attention-seeking, the endless repetitions, the perverse doubling down, and the complete inability to say anything insightful or thought-provoking, these all represent a pattern of speech and behaviour that hasn’t changed in the couple of decades since I first encountered him. Of course this behaviour is exacerbated when he’s under pressure, and it’s this pressure and scrutiny, rather than his age, that gives the impression of deterioration, IMHO. 

I’ve described Trump, only half-jokingly, as a pre-teen spoilt brat turned crime machine, but whatever descriptor you choose to use, it should be clear to any reasonably sane and insightful observer that he’s not normal – and that this abnormality has entirely negative features, such as extreme selfishness, vanity, incuriosity, vindictiveness, blame-shifting and solipsism, which tend to damage others far more than himself, and which explains the title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s book Everything Trump touches dies. But of course Trump himself bustles and blunders on, and on. Indeed in some business and political environments, these ‘qualities’ can be very beneficial to the individual endowed with them, as Trump’s business career, however ‘fake’, has shown. 

 It’s this environment that needs to be analysed with a view to cleaning it up, so that those people like Trump, and the greatest influence on his life, his father, are unable to thrive. Think of Vibrio cholerae in faecally contaminated water. Draining the swamp indeed. 

I have written before about the political reforms that are urgently required, though I recognise that many of them will never be instituted, until it’s too late. Business and judicial reform are also urgently required, and perhaps the silver lining to the Trump debacle will be some long overdue attention to these areas, when and if the nation survives this crisis. I’m reluctant to make suggestions in fields in which I have little or no expertise, but I’ll make some anyway. In doing so, I’ll claim the benefit of being an outsider, as I note that very few American pundits, in spite of their obvious intelligence and wealth of knowledge, make mention of them.

  1. Vetting

Americans love to boast that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can become the nation’s President. It’s great for inspiring schoolkids, but have they really thought this idea through? The USA, as many of its inhabitants love to tell us, is the most powerful country, militarily and economically, in the world. It surely follows that any candidate for the highest office in that exalted nation, that of actually leading it, in the manner of a CEO,  should be fully versed in its operations, alliances, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – as would be expected of any other potential CEO. Herein lies a major problem of democracy – populist demagoguery. Because of America’s direct election system, Trump could bring his circus cavalcade directly to the people, in the teeth of scorn from Republican stalwarts, most of whom fell in line with him over time. Trump had had no experience in any form of government, and the business cognoscenti knew very that Trump’s businesses were shambolic. So the warning signs were clear and obvious from the beginning of his candidacy.

Under variants of the Westminster system, used in every other English-speaking democracy, there’s an informal vetting system that, in a sense, flies below the radar. To become Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) you need to have already won a local election, and to have impressed your parliamentary colleagues as a worthy, articulate, responsible, collegial leader. It’s not a foolproof system of course, but by its nature it emphasises the team as much as its leader. As with a soccer team, the Prime Minister, the Captain, is just perhaps the most prominent member, and if she loses form, or ‘goes rogue’, she can be replaced without too much fuss. The team may be affected, but not massively disrupted. But consider the US situation, where the presidential candidate, or candidate for Captain of the soccer team, gets elected by the people because of all that she promises, in spite of never having played soccer in her life, knowing nothing of the rules, and after being elected, gets to choose her own team all of whom are just as clueless about soccer as she is. That isn’t far from the current American situation. The President, or Captain, needn’t worry about a revolt from within, no matter how poorly the team is performing, because they owe the captain their highly lucrative jobs, which they would never have gotten without her. 

After the failed impeachment process earlier this year, the American pundit Chuck Rosenberg said something that made my jaw drop. He said that removing a President from office is and should be very difficult. That the US is, fortunately, not like Britain, where the PM can be removed by a simple vote of no confidence by his party. I believe the exact opposite to be true. Of course, there’s a sense in which Rosenberg is right. Under the highly problematic US federal system, removing a President creates a crisis unlike anything created by the removal of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. Under the US system, this completely unvetted President gets to choose his own running mate, who is likely to be no more competent than the President, a very low bar in Trump’s case. Indeed the President gets to choose a whole team of sycophants to ‘run’ his administration, none of them elected by the people. So, yes, given this autocratic system, dumping the President is indeed a dangerous event. The  Vice-President, barring illness, must take over, in spite of never having been independently elected. Under the Westminster system, however, dumping the Captain allows other elected team members to put their candidacy forward, and the team, the whole membership of the right or left wing party that’s in power, gets to choose a new Prime Minister – again based on the qualities described above.

   2. Power 

Special executive powers, veto powers, power to shut down the government, power to select a team of unelected Secretaries (State, Defence, Treasury etc) – performing the role that previously elected Ministers perform under the Westminster system, as well as extraordinary power over the judiciary, including personally selecting an unelected Attorney-General with apparently unlimited power to over-ride judicial decisions as well as to personally determine the legal liability of the President while in office. These are the gifts bestowed upon the person of the incoming President by virtue of his winning a majority of Electoral College seats. Compare Prime Ministers, who must go to work within the parliament, leading the debates, under the constant scrutiny of his fellow ministers and colleagues, and within spitting distance of the opposing elected representatives. 

It seems obvious to me that an American President’s position, between elections, more closely resembles that of a monarch, only slightly hindered by a sometimes oppositional Congress/Parliament, than does the position of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. And now we see that the ‘monarch’ can even go a long way to manipulate the forthcoming election in his favour. As many American pundits are finally noticing, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Constitution is wholly inadequate for reining in a President who is not in any sense a gentleman, but will Americans ever be self-critical enough to enact clear-cut laws limiting Presidential power, forcing tax disclosure, setting clear and enforceable guidelines on emoluments, and ensuring a uniformly free and fair federal electoral system? Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. 

3 Hero worship 

Sections 3 and 4 are less about the USA’s political system and more about its political culture, so will I suspect be much more difficult to change. 
Contrary to popular belief, Superman wasn’t born on the planet Krypton, but in Cleveland Ohio. Batman and his boyfriend Robin were born in New York, not Gotham City. Spider-Man, Wonder-woman as well as mere mortal heroes such as Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane were all typically American do-goodnicks and swamp-drainers, and no doubt classic presidential material. They seem to me to testify to a somewhat naive national tendency of Americans, a desire to place their trust in heroic individuals rather than teams, programs, policies and processes. Presidents are recalled by their numbers, worshipped by their admirers and reviled by their detractors, whereas in most other democracies, leaders evoke much milder emotions and are soon forgotten once replaced. Presidential elections are hyped to a mind-numbing degree, involving grotesque expenditures and apparently mandatory gladiatorial debates. All of this OTT razzle-dazzle seems almost designed for self-aggrandising con-artists like Trump, and it’s clear that he revels in the circus and the adulation. Much of his Presidency has been nothing more than a punctuated campaign rally. How to dial the nation down from all this hyperventilating claptrap? Possibly the Trump overdose might actually help. Once Trump’s dumped, a look around at how so much of the world is faring very well without American exceptionalism may lead to an extended period of good sense and sobriety – and a unity never before experienced, but which will be necessary to save the country’s reputation. 

4 Partisanship and Tribalism 

This, admittedly, is now a global problem. Social media, much of it headquartered in the USA, has led to huge increases in conspiracy theories, vaccine ‘hesitation’ groups, flat-earthers and other mind-numbing activities and belief systems. It’s becoming rare to find people reading old-fashioned newspapers with their diversity of takes on current affairs. The viciousness of Youtube political commentary is there for all to witness. People are throwing verbal bombs at people they’ll never meet, whose human lives of friendship, humiliation, suffering, struggle, anxiety and achievement they seem not even to know how to care about. We tend to see this trend as predominantly American, perhaps because we’re inundated by American media here in Australia and most other far-flung English-speaking countries. We constantly see videos of “ordinary Americans” apparently beset with certainty and contempt, however mask-like and brittle. It does seem like Trump has set this agenda, but many pundits also argue that the country has been polarised in this way for generations. The tragedy for Trump supporters is that they get so little in return for their adulation, and it seems the most disadvantaged and desperate are the most deluded. As I’ve argued from the beginning of this presidency, it’s highly unlikely to end with a whimper. The worst is surely yet to come. I’m certainly not wishing for it, but it may be the only outcome that can shake the country out of its ‘exceptionalism’, and towards a more realistic program of political (and media) reform and cultural healing. 


Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2020 at 11:27 pm