an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘bonobos

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

bonobos, community and our good selves…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2021 at 9:08 pm

on love and hormones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2021 at 8:17 pm

A bonobo world 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

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

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

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

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

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

Jacinta: ??

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

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

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

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

Canto: Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

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




Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

a bonobo world 38: bonobos aren’t monogamous

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You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus  20:17 New International Version



As to humans and monogamy, it would be absurd to try to cover the subject in one book, let alone an essay, but absurdism has its appeal. Ferdinand Mount has many interesting things to say on the topic in his 1982 book The subversive family, which is not so much a defence of the nuclear family as an account of its endurance against attacks from religious organisations, communists and free-love advocates, among others. More recently, the same-sex marriage push throughout the developed world has been met with surprise rather than serious pushback from those of us not particularly committed to the institution, heterosexual or otherwise.

Advocates of monogamy generally focus on one positive attribute as central: loyalty. Of course it has variants – commitment, constancy, dedication and devotion -terms which are also used to promote nationalism.

It follows that those not committed to monogamy are described as fickle, selfish, shallow, or worse – decadent and degenerate. Top-down, ultra-controlling governments such as those of present-day Russia and China seek to prescribe the traditional values of their people in contrast to the decadence of the US and Western Europe, citing, with due exaggeration, the breakdown of families and the rise of homosexuality and other decadent practices, but they’re fighting a losing battle in an increasingly interactive human world. In fact, as Mount points out, until recently all states felt they had a right to control the rates and terms of divorce:

… it is remarkable how long even Western governments have clung on to their power over marriage. The most striking example is the state control of divorce – which in England was only transferred to the State from the Church courts in the mid-nineteenth century against severe opposition from Gladstone and other high churchmen. The real relaxation in the laws of divorce did not reach England – and many other countries – until well after the Second World War.

But the fact is that, if monogamy is on the decline, it’s a very slow one. We appear to be a jealous lot, ever on the lookout for betrayal and boundary-crossing. This doesn’t seem to be the bonobo way, and few would think to describe bonobos (or dolphins or elephants) as degenerate.

Monogamy is defended, promoted and celebrated in other ways too – in the form of true love. Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Héloïse and Abelard, Bogart and Bacall, these couplings with their happy or sad endings have been presented, imitated and played upon in infinite varieties in novels, films and other media, while another view of this estate, more pragmatic or ‘realistic’, has an almost businesslike feel to it. You meet, you partner up, it’s all hormonal and feel-good for the first months or years, during which offspring come along, then come the disagreements and irritants, followed by a resolution of sorts, an appreciation of the good, a minimising of the rest, and another kind of love supposedly supervenes, a co-dependence which you’re never quite sure is unadventurous laziness or something like maturity. It helps that being part of a couple is highly approved of in a taken-for-granted way, and you don’t have to buy an interactive toy to keep you company in your twilight years.

However, defended or not, monogamy is certainly under some pressure, with the religious culture, which has emphasised the eternal nature of pair-bonding – ‘as long as ye both shall live’ – being very much in decline in Australia and similar nations. The developments of globalism and multiculturalism have encouraged us to look more broadly at human mating patterns, both culturally and historically. We generally find that, even in purportedly polygynous societies, monogamy is the norm – though serial monogamy is increasingly common. Think of the experimental teens – having any more than one boyfriend/girlfriend at a time is full of headaches, and because this is always about more than mating, rivalries, personality clashes and power struggles are bound to abound.

And yet, bonobos and other intelligent social animals are not classified as monogamous, serial or otherwise. Is this classification correct, and if so, how do they do it?

One obvious difference between them and us, is that they hang around together in large groups more or less all the time, whereas we spend much of our time in largely sealed off nuclear family units. We have homes, millions and millions of them. This separateness is built upon as we distinguish our homes from our neighbours’, and develop a private sphere within them. Private ownership extends to all the objects within the home’s perimeter, living or non-living. In some unmentionable countries, we even have private arsenals to protect our own from the potential incursions of ‘fellow’ humans. Compare, say, dolphins, who live in pods, for the protection, resource provision and welfare of all members. And yet, we know that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe our domination precisely to this fact. And we don’t, many of us, find anything odd about this paradoxical scenario.

So it seems that bonobos have evolved a mentality of sharing, of food, of space, and of each others’ bodies. This isn’t likely total, they surely experience greed, jealousy, spite and other such primal emotions, but it’s more like a spectrum and we’re tending, with affluence, to drift to one end of it, to what’s mine is mine, and what a depressing failure you are.

I recall, as autonomous (and electric) vehicles looked like they might be ‘five years away’, as the cliche had it, claims that they would not only solve the problem of petrol emissions, but also of traffic congestion, since we could not only dispense with drivers, but also with owners. Vehicles could be owned communally, and so be put to regular use as technological slaves, instead of hanging around idly in driveways and carparks. The libertarian reaction was swift and predictable. ‘I worked hard to get my bright shiny badge of a Tesla – daddy didn’t help me, honest – and I’m damned if I’m going to share it with any freeloading riff-raff etc etc’.

There are, of course, people pushing back against this libertarian drift. Most of them are women, it seems to me. People who support community banking, ethical investments and resource sharing. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth fighting, because the alternative is, I feel, pretty horrible to contemplate.


The subversive family, by Ferdinand Mount, 1982


Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2021 at 10:51 am

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.


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

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

a bonobo world 36: there is no bonobo nation

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nations, some say

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 and 300 thousand years, depending on various theories and interpretations. I always like to point out that the ‘first’ H sapiens had parents and grandparents, who wouldn’t have noticed any difference between junior and themselves, so when does a new species actually begin?

Leaving that thorny problem, I’ll turn to another – when did the first nation begin? My uneducated conjecture is that it was an evolving concept, post-dating the evolution of human language, and we have little idea about when that process was completed, at least to the point where we could conceptualise and communicate such ideas. Modern nations, with boundaries, checkpoints, passports and state paraphernalia, are of course ultra-new, with some fresh ones popping up in my lifetime, but I’ve heard Australian Aboriginal language groups described as nations, with the first of these H sapiens arriving here around 65,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Australia. Of course they wouldn’t have arrived here as nations, however defined, so when did they become such?  Bill Gammage, in The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, makes this point at the outset:

Hundreds of pages try to define Aboriginal social units (tribe, horde, clan, mob, language group, family, kin) without achieving clarity or consensus.

So is this a silly question? Surely not, since the term ‘First Nations’ has gained currency in recent decades. Rather bizarrely, the Wikipedia article on First Nations focuses solely on the early inhabitants of what is now Canada. This is presumably because these people are recognised as such by the Canadian government, at least for statistical reasons. In any case, these early people of North America, Australia and elsewhere mostly didn’t use writing, and their doubtless various self-references might be translated by us, at their bidding, as nations, but it’s clear that using such a term adds a certain gloss borrowed from modern lingo. Gammage does the same thing, perhaps justifiably, in referring to Aboriginal Australia as an estate, a term which I tend to associate with snotty landowners and gated communities. However, it also puts the focus on land, rather than people. 

We’ve come to associate nationhood with progress, civilisation and sophistication. No wonder the Kurds, the Basques and other cultural-linguistic groups are striving for it, and in particular for land on which to fix these qualities. The progression appears to go from group – as with chimps, bonobos and no doubt early hominids – to tribe, to settlement, to a collection of settlements or villages, to a centralised, sort of inward-facing region of shared culture, flourishing up to a civilisation of sorts. So it starts, for us, with our common ancestry with our primate cousins. 

We know that chimps and gorillas separate into groups that control particular territories, but if these groups are too small or avoid interaction with other groups, inbreeding will become a problem. This problem, which confronts all social species, can be solved by male or female dispersal – that’s to say, by breeding or ready-to-breed young adults flitting from their natal group to a neighbouring one. But moving to a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood might be as fraught, or more so, for non-human species as it is for us. According to an article published by the Royal Society in 2017, when there are limited opportunities for dispersal, many species appear to have a behavioural avoidance pattern to prevent inbreeding. For example, closely related elephants avoid mating altogether. In other species, they manage to mate without producing offspring, or produce healthy offspring even where the chances of inbreeding would seem to be high. 

We often make jokes about human inbreeding, especially with island populations (Tasmanians are sometimes targeted), but there are real issues with inward, ultra-nationalist thinking, which can lead to a kind of cultural inbreeding. This can even transcend nations, as with the touting of ‘Asian values’. Considering that millions of Asians have paired up with non-Asians, this might pose a problem for the offspring, if such notions were taken seriously.

Anyway, my own view of nations, for what it’s worth, is that that they’ve become a useful mechanism for divvying up land into states. Land has been an essential feature of human culture – this land is my land, this land is your land, this land is made for you and me. The obsession humans have with the myth of land ownership is something I’ve often found rather comical. I won’t go into the shenanigans around Antarctica, but I’ll relate a couple of illustrative anecdotes.

In my boisterous youth I accompanied a couple of housemates in visiting a nearby tennis court, which I’d previously noticed was surrounded by the usual high, open-wire fencing, but fronted by an unlocked gate. On the far side of the court were the vast sporting fields of St Peter’s College, one of the most exclusive private schools in the city, and beyond that, the imposing buildings of that august institution. I’d persuaded my housemates to take our racquets over for a fun hit out, though there was no net, and we only had two racquets between three. So we’d been at it for about 15 minutes when I spotted a figure marching towards us across the sward. As he closed in, I took note of the tweed jacket, the flapping flag of his woollen scarf, the swept-back, neatly combed blonde hair. I won’t try to mimic his accent or recall his exact words – distance lends a certain enchantment to the view – but there was no forgetting his sense of complete outrage. ‘Excuse me boys, but you must realise that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY!’ Those last two words are the only ones I’m certain of. 

I spent the next few weeks daydreaming of hoisting this gentleman by his own petard, but also reflecting on the quasi-religious power of landed property. It was exactly as if we’d abused, or worse, denied, someone’s god.  

Another incident was much more recent. An Aboriginal woman complained to me on the street that I – meaning we ‘whites’ – were on her land. I responded to her, perhaps in a frustrated tone, that land was land, it belonged to itself. This wasn’t particularly articulate, but she didn’t have any response. I suppose what I meant was that the Earth’s land, ever changing, shifting and subducting, had been around for billions of years, and for most of human existence we thought no more of land ownership than did the animals we hunted. How things have changed. 

Of course, nationalism is not going away any time soon, and I’m prepared to make my peace with it. States have their obvious uses, in binding a smaller proportion of the human population together via laws, economic co-operation and political policies. The Einsteinian dream of a world government is unworkable, and the United Nations still needs a lot of work, though it has been beneficial on balance, especially via its ancillary organisations. The problem of course is ultranationalism, in both its outward expansionist form, and its inward-facing exclusivity and xenophobia. Diversity, or variety, is obviously a good thing, whether in diet, industry, arts or genetics. My own modest experience in teaching students from scores of nations tells me that Homo sapiens, like Pan paniscus, are one people, with similar interests, in laughing, loving, wondering and striving for more. Our strivings and problems are much more global than national – a veritable internet of interests. I hope that this realisation is growing.  


Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, 2012.

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2021 at 7:57 pm

A bonobo world 35: what the world needs now

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

Margaret Thatcher

surplus to requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2021 at 8:42 am

Posted in bonobos, feminism, power, sex, wealth

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a bonobo world 34: bonobo and human families

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bonobos – family into community

In her brief, largely autobiographical book The heartache of motherhood, Joyce Nicholson captures many of the problems of married life and motherhood in the fifties and sixties, just before second-wave feminism became a thing. A mother of four, she sums up her experience:

In my case I wanted my first two children and managed well with them. Three I found difficult. Four were a disaster.

I’ve met at least one young woman recently who plans to have four children, but they’re few and far between. Women are choosing to ‘settle down’ into some sort of monogamous relationship, with children, rather later these days, and the current average number of children in today’s Australian family is between 1.8 and 1.9, so even having two is a bit too many for Australia’s human apes.

Other primates fare better – if that’s the word – in terms of birth, but keeping them alive is another matter. It’s a jungle out there. Bonobos average 5 or 6 births in a lifetime, about five years apart, and starting at about 13 years of age. Pregnancies last about eight months. Mothers have principal care of infants for the first six years or so, but of course bonobos are highly social beasts, unseparated by walls, so others are always there to help out. Bonobo females are sexually receptive all year round, and engage in face-to-face copulation (aka fucking, etc) regularly, whereas this attitude is very rare in chimps. In both bonobos and chimps several hundred copulations are required – if that’s the word – for each conception, whereas for human apes many zillions of copulations may be undertaken, and often are, with no intention to conceive. Nice work if you can get it.

Ah, but I was writing about families. Bonobos don’t separate into nuclear families of the modern human type (the provenance of this family type is a subject of intense debate, which I’ll explore later). That’s to say, they’re not monogamous like many species of birds and most humans. Both male and female bonobos tend to partner up indiscriminately and often briefly, regardless of sex or age. 

These days, in more affluent societies, we’re pretty demanding about what we want. Not too many kids, if any, and all of them as perfect as money can buy and science can create. As well as a long, very long, and fulfilling work-life balanced life, for all sexes. 

But this is really about what individuals want. Or what they require from and of their families, and from the wider society that is expected to support those families, with jobs and services. I suspect people are failing to realise that creating a successful family life – and I prefer the broadest possible definition of family – requires work. Not particularly hard work, but work nonetheless. Or maybe work is too strong a word, maybe a better word is focus. Bonobos seem to manage it quite well. 

Having said that, there’s an awful lot of pressure on the modern human family – pressure rarely felt by other primates and social species. For anyone who doubts this, I’d advise them to read Andrew Solomon’s monumental, essential work Far from the tree, which recounts the stories of families who have to deal with deafness, dwarfism, schizophrenia, autism, Down Syndrome, prodigies, homosexuality and severe intellectual and physical disability within their ranks. And it seems there are very few extended families these days that are untouched by such complications. Modern medicine, for example, has created viable human life forms which would never have survived more than a few weeks or months before the twentieth century. Other species, living in the wild – that’s to say, their natural environment – would, after giving birth to a litter of offspring, focus on the most viable, which might be all of them, but if one shows definite signs of what we would call disability, they’d be left behind. In modern human society – at least in the more affluent regions – this would be unthinkable, and probably criminal. And we’re approaching 8 billion human apes. Just how successful do we want to be? And then there’s religion and the supposed sacredness of human, and only human, life. Best not to get started on that one. 

But in spite of all the pressures, families continue, for better or worse. We seem to want the species to expand and to thrive, which means making sure that virtually every human ever conceived has a long, rich and fulfilling life, while maintaining biosphere diversity, reducing toxic waste, solving the global warming problem, increasing productivity, and of course reducing stress. There does seem to be a sense that we’re the victims of our own ambition. 

Bonobos are nowhere near so ambitious, and they don’t carry the caretaker responsibilities of the planet on their shoulders. Having a smaller brain, and an inability to see the forest for the trees, has distinct advantages. Their inward focus is on providing food and security for themselves and their offspring, and the wider group enveloping them. 

For us, that providing involves work, something that we’ve hived off from the rest of our lives. We do it in a different location, which might be just a different room if we’re working from home, but more often somewhere remote from the family we’re providing for – if we have one. And more often than not our work involves us in a hierarchy, of supervisors and less visible managers and unreachable CEOs. The work itself may or may not be fulfilling, but the hierarchical web is always something of a vague threat – ‘will you still pay me tomorrow?’

So there’s always this pressure – to survive, for some, to thrive, for others. Some version of a universal basic income could provide a solution to the survival problem – the currently ludicrous wealth disparities wouldn’t be noticeably reduced by such a dispensation. It’s the thriving problem that’s more intractable, as this is about systemic disadvantage, lack of opportunity, and problems of isolation, community, self-esteem and the like. In Jess Scully’s valuable book, Glimpses of Utopia, she writes of Aboriginal and other indigenous workers and what they value in their environmental work – work which they organise in their own way, the way of their culture. They tend to agree, wholeheartedly, that it is pride in what they are doing. Pride isn’t, of course, a monetary value. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative. It is one of the major factors missing from most hierarchical work situations, and of course it can’t be divvied out to people like the UBI. Scully writes about what might be seen as both supplementary and an alternative to a universal basic income, a form of work or activity that can provide those qualitative values, as well as bringing people together – universal basic services. More on that later.

It is this kind of activity, the kind which actually produces community, which is an extension of family and which blends family into community, that is often its own reward. It may be hierarchical – and we can no more escape hierarchy than bonobos can – but the hierarchy is less rigid and can shift with particular tasks and expertise. We need more of it, and we shouldn’t consider it in opposition to individualism. Individuals have no value without a community to evaluate them. And we humans – more than bonobos or any other apes – are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet.  


Joyce Nicholson, The heartache of motherhood , 1983

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

April 12, 2021 at 3:27 pm

Posted in bonobos, community, family, work

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a bonobo world 33: they don’t wear stillettos

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anti-shoes, designed by Leanie van der Vyver

Bonobos don’t wear stilettos. Here’s why.

Bonobos don’t wear anything. But that’s not the end of the story.

Bonobos aren’t bipedal, though they have spurts of bipedalism. Their feet aren’t built for long-term bipedalism, of the kind we have evolved. It’s mostly to do with the big toe. Humans and our ancestors became bipedal after moving out of trees and into savannahs. This along with our hands, the opposable thumb and so forth, helped us in hunting, as we were able to handle and manipulate weaponry, and to outstrip our prey in long-distance running. Losing our body hair and being able to sweat to keep our body temperature down – sweat is about boundary layers, something like evaporative air-conditioning – was also an adaptation to our new hunting lifestyle, as, perhaps was language or proto-language, which would’ve helped us to form groups and bring down a feast of big prey. Goodbye mammoths – too bad we didn’t evolve early enough to sample brontosaurus burgers.

So I imagine we developed solid pads of skin on our soles and heels as we scrambled over scree and bounced through brambles during hunts and childhood play. I experienced a bit of that in my own childhood, in the paths and fields of early Elizabeth (the town was the same age as myself). My heels were hardened in those early barefoot years as they were never to be again.

I suppose it was settlement that softened our feet and led to the idea of covering them for those increasingly rare outings into thorny bushland, or even just out in the fields, for the female and young male gatherers. The first shoes we know of, dating back only 10,000 years, were made of bark. These were, of course, utilitarian. We’re still a while away from stilettos, the ultimate non-utilitarian symbols.

The oldest leather shoes yet found date to c5,500 years ago. We can’t be sure of how old ‘shoes’ were – the first may just have been makeshift coverings, more or less painted on, or bound around and then tossed aside. Clearly they would’ve been more commonly used as we moved to a ‘softer’ more cindoor, village life, and would have become more decorative and status-laden – though, interestingly, gods and heroes were invariably depicted barefoot by the ancient Greeks. The Romans used chiral (left and right) sandals in their armies (though standard chiral footwear is a modern phenomenon), and generally considered it a sign of civilised behaviour to wear shoes regularly, possibly the first people to do so, even if only among the upper class. So it was around this time, a couple of thousand years ago, that shoemaking became a profession.

Fast forward to the 15th century, and the first elevated shoes, designed to keep tender feet above the ordure of urban streets, became popular. These were originally in the form of overshoes or pattens. They protected not only the feet but the decorative, thin-soled poulains, with their long pointy toes, which were de rigueur for the fashionable of both sexes.

These original high-heels, then, were practical and clunky. Made from wood, their noisiness was an issue – mentioned in Shakespeare and Jane Austen – and they were mostly banned in church. More refined high heels were used by the upper classes, aka the well-heeled, especially royalty. Catherine de Medici and England’s Mary 1 wore them to look taller, and France’s Louis XIV banned the wearing of red high heels for everyone except those of his court.

The mass-production of footwear began in the nineteenth century, and so shoes for all sorts of specific purposes became a thing. And so we come to the notorious (for some) stiletto heel.

Named after the much more practical stiletto dagger, the stiletto heel, or shoe, invented by the usual moronic continental fashion types, has come in and out of style over the past century. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on stilettos has a section on their benefits and disadvantages, with about five or six times more verbiage devoted to the benefits than the disadvantages. I’d love to meet the person who wrote it – while armed with a stiletto. Much of the benefit – according to this expert, lies in postural improvement, a claim completely contradicted by the disadvantages section, unsurprisingly:

All high heels counter the natural functionality of the foot, sometimes causing skeletal and muscular problems if users wear them excessively; such shoes are a common cause of venous complaints such as pain, fatigue, and heavy-feeling legs, and have been found to provoke venous hypertension in the lower limbs.

No mention of the fact that they instantly lower the wearer’s IQ by several points, unfortunately. Where is science when you need it?

Some of the benefits mentioned are risible – e.g. ‘they express your style and make you feel good’. As would going barefoot or wearing clodhoppers, if that’s your style. Another claim is that you can use the heels as a weapon to defend yourself. I mean, wtf? So you ask your assailant to wait while you unstrap your shoe and limpingly lunge at him? Or do you kick him in the nuts while keeping your balance on a square centimetre of padded metal? I’d like to see that.

Another apparent benefit is that they make you look femme fatale tough. I wonder that the military hasn’t considered them as essential for female personnel. While I admit that, in US-style or James Bondage-type movies, the black-leather-clad heroine-villain in matching stilettos and revolver does give me the proverbial kick in the fantasies, the plethora of YouTube videos showing absurdly-heeled models and other victims stumbling on stages and catwalks, their ankles twisted to right angles, provides a thrill of schadenfreude I could do without. A finer thrill, for me, would be to watch vids of the guilty fashion designers being tortured to within an inch of their lives by their own creations.

But let me go on. Our Wikipedia expert writes that the stilettoed look ‘boosts women’s self-confidence and that in turn makes them more likely to get promoted at work’. Now there’s a workplace I’d pay good money not to belong to. The expert goes on to point out the well-attested, but essentially shameful fact that tall people are more likely to get elected to leadership positions. In other words, had Donald Trump been a foot shorter, hundreds of thousands of US lives would surely have been saved in 2020. I should also feel relieved that, as a shorty myself, I’m automatically absolved from any leadership responsibilities.

So why was this claptrap allowed on Wikipedia? It seems that the website, so fabulously rigorous in fields such as maths, physics and biochemistry, has decided to slacken off when it comes to ‘popular culture’, which is both understandable and frustrating. The fact is that stilettos are way more decorative than functional, as is women’s role in the business world, by and large.

I admit that my views on clothing and footwear are heavily influenced by the years of my impressionable youth in the sixties and early seventies, when men sported long, flowing locks, multicoloured shirts and pants, and women mostly the same, though I loved to spot the odd tweedy female in short back and sides, and kickarse Doc Martens. There’s no accounting for taste.

Bonobo females are statistically smaller than males, in much the same proportion as human females. And yet they dominate. There’s nothing more to say.




Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2021 at 5:49 pm