an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Evolutionary biology, testosterone and bonobos

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this is the first of a 22-part slide show on the topic – hormones don’t rate a mention!


Canto: So I think we need to get back to another obsession of ours – bonobos and how we can harness a bit more bonoboism for human purposes. We’re currently observing, horrified, as Russia’s alpha male chimp flips out on his own testosterone, perhaps….

Jacinta: Yes, it could well read like something out of Jane Goodall – a long-term alpha male, who has done reasonably well in holding his troupe together by inordinate bullying, random slaughter and regular breast-beating, and by smart alliances, suddenly endangers everything in attempting to take over another troupe…

Canto: And having read three books on the trot, referenced below, on China and its all-male thugocracy, it’s more than tempting to cast that thugocracy in chimpian terms – alpha male after alpha male after alpha male. 

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve long considered how best to rename the soi-disant Chinese Communist Party (CCP), arguably the most absurd misnomer in the known universe. I considered the Chinese Fascist Party, but that seems a bit ‘trendy’, and to call it simply The Party seems too bland, neutral, and even festive. But to call it the Chinese Testosterone Party – that fits the bill perfectly. I really really want that to catch on in the WEIRD world. So anyway, with the evidence mounting that female leadership leads to better outcomes, politically, socially and, I hope, sexually – though we’ve been a bit nervous about that tediously sensitive issue – how can we speed up the trend towards human bonoboism?

Canto: It’s hard, especially when all these macho shenanigans bring out my own most bloodthirsty revenge fantasies. But I’ve been wondering about hormones: Are there any hormonal differences between chimps and bonobos that might help to explain the bonobo turn towards female-female bonding and control of males – and the freewheeling sexual play within bonobo society?

Jacinta: You mean – could we control and transform our human world through some kind of hormone replacement therapy? Sounds promising. 

Canto: We’ll here’s some food for thought re males versus females, and not just in humans:

Empathy is our ability to understand how others are feeling, and men are less able to do this than women, across cultures. This is a widely replicated and consistent finding, and it’s not true just of human males and females. In chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, elephants, dogs and wolves, researchers have observed that males engage in lower rates of behaviours related to empathy, like caregiving, cooperating, helping and comforting.

Carole Hooven, Testosterone, p159.

Jacinta: So the question is – is there a hormone we can take for that? Sadly, it’s never that simple. 

Canto: Sure, but anyway, let’s ask Dr Google. Hmmm, top of the page:

There is some evidence that high levels of estradiol and progesterone are associated with low levels of aggression 

Jacinta: That’s enough for me. Compulsory high-level doses for all males. Overdoses in fact. They either die or shut the fuck up. 

Canto: So there’s a university textbook, Principles of social psychology, which has a section, the biological and emotional causes of aggression, and of course Hooven writes a lot about aggression and testosterone in humans and other animals. There’s just so much to dig into here. For example, pair-bonding male birds and other animals, such as bonobos, who have more of a share in child-rearing, have lower testosterone levels than those in social situations where there is a greater separation between males and females. Arguably that is the case in agricultural societies as opposed to hunter-gatherers. 

Jacinta: So much easier to change hormone levels by just stuffing them into people’s bodies than by changing behaviour, though, surely. Can’t you just add them to the water supply?

Canto: That might be possible, especially if we lived in a thugocracy. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, it gets more and more confusing. 

Canto: What’s interesting about the findings is the chicken-egg issue. Does the gradual social evolution of male caring – if that’s what’s happening – reduce hormone levels or vice versa? I would hypothesise that it’s the caring that’s affecting the hormone levels, but how to test this?

Jacinta: Seriously, testosterone plays a huge role in our development, physiologically to take it to its most basic level. It makes for more athleticism, and probably for more of the competitive urge that leads to that obsessive athleticism, and bodybuilding claptrap. Somehow it makes me think of Mr Pudding, and his caricaturish experience of first being bullied by Charles Atlas types, and then learning a few martial arts-type skills to get revenge, with the end result of controlling a whole nation, and leading a military to rape and murder women and blow kids to bits in Ukraine. Testosterone has a lot to answer for. 

Canto: And yet. Look at bonobos. Look at Scandinavia. The beast has been tamed, in a few pockets of our universe. 

Jacinta: Do aliens have hormones, there’s a question. 

Canto: Yeah we first have to answer the earthling question – are there aliens in the universe?

Jacinta: But haven’t quite a few humans been kidnapped by aliens? 

Canto: Ha, oh yes, the ones who escaped…. but all the missing persons…

Jacinta: Returning to Earth, the hormone issue, and possibly even the neurophysiology issue, these raise the questions of masculinity and femininity – which Hooven explores from an endocrinological perspective – does a woman with a high testosterone level have a disqualifying advantage over another ‘normal’ woman, in running, jumping, throwing and lifting?

 Canto: Hilariously – depending on your perspective – this has become a minefield in the world of sport and athletics. Hooven cites an athlete, Caster Semenya (and I know v little about this topic) who had a habit of blitzing the field in running events a decade ago –  in fact from 2009 to 2018. Unsurprisingly, I would say, she had ‘suspiciously’ high testosterone levels (which of course would never have been measured before the 21st century), so complaints were made. Was this woman really a man? Which raises obvious masculinity and femininity questions…

Jacinta: Which, just as obviously, should be quashed by – fuck, she’s fast, that’s so fantastic! Go, girl! 

Canto: But I suppose there’s a legitimate question – do abnormal levels of x give you an advantage?

Jacinta: Yeah, like long legs, in running? Shouldn’t leg length be subject to restrictions? 

Canto: It’s a good point. We want to think maleness and femaleness are distinct, but we tend to think in terms of averages – the average female is 80% of the mass of the average male, the average male produces x more testosterone than the average female, etc, but there’s enormous variation within each gender, and that’s genderbendingly problematic for more than just athletics officials. 

Jacinta: Anyway, just how important is endocrinology for a future bonobo world? Should we be focussing on promoting estradiol and progesterone rather than femaledom? Should we be screening politicians for the best hormonal balance rather than the best policies?

Canto: Ah but if my previously mentioned hypothesis is correct, we should be screening potential ‘leaders’ for their caring and sharing, which will lead to a greater expression of the ‘good’ hormones. 

Jacinta: Yes, good for a society in which aggression has more serious consequences than it had in the past, what with WMDs and the like – the slaughter of women for their ‘contemptuous’ flouting of dress codes, the slaughter of ethic communities for their insistence on a modicum of independence. Aggression with a massive state apparatus behind it, and more effective weaponry than ever before. But how do we rid ourselves of these aggressive states without aggression? How do we even defend ourselves against them without aggression?

Canto: Maybe we’re just wanting too much too soon. I note that we’re getting more female political leaders than in the past, though they tend so far to be countries with relatively small populations – Scotland (our birth country), Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Baltic States… and, as with bonobos, it’s not just the alpha females, it’s the status of the whole female sex that makes the difference. 

Jacinta: Yes, if we had but world enough, and time….

References

Jane Goodall, Through a window, 1990

Trevor Watson & Melissa Roberts, ed. The Beijing bureau, 2021

David Brophy, China panic, 2021

Bill Birtles, The truth about China, 2021

Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the story of the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5942158/

Nicky Hayes (?), Principles of social psychology, c2015?

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2022 at 3:03 pm

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

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

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

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

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

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm

a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.

Reference

Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 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.
 
References
 
https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/GougesRightsofWomen.pdf
 
 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229698542_Aggression_Gender_and_Sport_Reflections_on_Sport_as_a_Means_of_Moral_Education
 
 

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm