an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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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. 

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56437852

https://www.statista.com/topics/2229/billionaires-around-the-world/

https://www.forbes.com/real-time-billionaires/#5f3fa3c23d78

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

https://www.bcg.com/en-au/publications/2020/managing-next-decade-women-wealth

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.  

References

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

Tagged with , , , ,

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.

References

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

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

 


 

Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2021 at 5:49 pm

a bonobo world 32: bonobos and us

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female-dominated society (male version)

So let me look at the role of the adult female in the bonobo world. Why do they tend to be the bosses, in spite of being smaller on average than the males, and how did this come to be? If we can trace this, maybe we can find out how to live in a more female-dominated, peaceful, integrated and – yes maybe a more loving, even sexy community. 

Frans de Waal has described bonobo society as a gynecocracy, a pre-feminist term which simply means a society or culture governed by women, without going into detail, for example about matrilineal descent or inheritance. De Waal’s findings, mostly drawn from captive bonobos, have been criticised, but further confirmed by wild studies. 

Bonobos are initially hard to distinguish from chimps, from whom they separated, species-wise, 1.5 to 2 million years ago. They’re officially described as more gracile, meaning a little more slender, less robust, but I can’t easily see it myself. What I do notice is their charming middle-parted hairstyle, a la Marcel Proust or Oscar Wilde, which has earned them the title the gay ape. Or should have. Although omnivorous like clothed apes and chimps, they have a more vegetarian diet in practice than the other two, probably because they tend to be more arboreal and inhabit a more restricted area, south of the Congo River. The name bonobo is of course human-created, possibly deriving obscurely from a misspelling of Bolobo, a Congolese town. We don’t know how they refer to themselves. 

There’s been a lot of contentious but fascinating debate about the dating of the last common ancestor between clothed apes and the chimp-bonobo line. For a time the consensus seemed to be converging around a date of 6-7 million years ago, but the doubtless contentious work of Madelaine Bohme, published in a book, Ancient bones (2019)  pushes the date back by a few million years. 

Bonobos weigh on average between 35 and 40 kgs, and, standing, measure about 110cm. The females have prominent boobs compared to other unclothed apes, but nothing a human ape would want to slobber over. Generally they’re more physically divergent than chimps – so you’ve got your plain Janes and your beauty queens, your Adonises and your ghouls. Their bipedalism – or their use of bipedalism – varies with habitat and habituation. In captivity they use it more, as they spend less time in trees. 

It’s argued that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in a more stable, less threatened environment – the threats to them in the wild are entirely due to clothed, and weaponised, apes, against whom they are, of course, entirely defenceless. Chimps, on the contrary, occupy a wider range, and so, like clothed apes, tend to separate into distinct, competitive communities, who fight over resources and territorial ascendancy. The difficulty here is that, due to the dangerous conditions that have pertained in the Congo for many decades due to long-term clashes and survival struggles among clothed apes, bonobo behaviour has been difficult to analyse outside of zoos. But even under captivity, bonobos clearly behave differently and have a different societal structure than their close cousins the chimps. And this is what should get feminists much more excited than they are, IMHO. 

So, among the higher primates – humans, bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orangutans – bonobos are the only species in which the females have an equal or dominant role in the social organisation. I should perhaps make an exception of orangutans, the most solitary of all the higher primates. For this reason, the question of social hierarchy isn’t so relevant fo this species, though it’s notable that orangutan males are two to three times larger than females. Certainly there’s no question of females being dominant. 

The key, it seems, to the more prominent position of females in bonobo society, is female-female bonding, and female alliances. That’s why, I would argue, nothing is more important to the future of human apes than female alliances. It may take time, but I’m hoping we’ll eventually wake up to the essentiality of this phenomenon, for our continued success. The tight social bonding between bonobo females seems to have had a more general socialising effect, something that human apes, who have become increasingly isolated, competitive, covetous and demoralised by new class divisions, would do well to take note of.

In terms of what we need for a more successful, harmonious future, within and beyond our own species, I’m arguing for female prominence rather than dominance (though I do believe we’d be better off with the latter), and I believe we’re inching – with agonising slowness – in that direction, especially in so-called advanced, more science-based societies. Here’s part of Wikipedia’s most up-to-date account of bonobo social behaviour.

Different bonobo communities vary from being gender-balanced to outright matriarchal. At the top of the hierarchy is a coalition of high-ranking females and males typically headed by an old, experienced matriarch who acts as the decision-maker and leader of the group. Female bonobos typically earn their rank through age, rather than physical intimidation, and top-ranking females will protect immigrant females from male harassment. While bonobos are often called matriarchal, this is a trend rather than an objective fact. It is not unheard of for some communities to have a male who decides where the group travels to, and where they feed. However, these male leaders never harass or coerce the females, and they can choose to ignore his suggestions if they feel like it. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. A male derives his status from the status of his mother. The mother–son bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, and although the son of a high ranking female may outrank a lower female, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Relationships between different communities are often positive and affiliative, and bonobos are not a territorial species. Bonobos will also share food with others, even unrelated strangers. Bonobos exhibit paedomorphism (retaining infantile physical characteristics and behaviours), which greatly inhibits aggression and enables unfamiliar bonobos to freely mingle and cooperate with each other.  

I quote this passage at length because I feel there are various clues here to creating a more effective human society, on a global scale. Let’s be ambitious. Here are some of the clues:

  • respect for our elders, and keeping them within the community, rather than shuffling them off to nursing homes. This includes allowing them the right to die, when or if they feel their time has come
  • respecting knowledge and experience rather than physical strength or military might. Finding strength in unity of purpose, shared goals and experience in achieving those goals
  • recognising over-arching concerns shared by all nations, whether these be nations with officially-drawn (but often artificial) boundaries or nations of cultural identity – the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Cherokees, the Pitjantjatjara, etc – while recognising, respecting and learning from different cultural perspectives and methodologies.
  • respecting experience and knowledge over rank, and so creating a greater communal fluidity, and avoiding the accumulation of resources by a small elite group 
  • encouraging play and playfulness, youthful exuberance (especially among the no-longer-youthful) and free expression
  • being generally more forgiving and less punitive

Are such clues to an improved human society dependent on a more prominent role for females in that society?

Do bears shit in the woods? 

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm

A bonobo world 31: are bonobos people?

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William Damper’s Aussie disappointment


Apparently, under current US law at least, there is a clear distinction between people, or persons – that’s to say, all human animals – and everything else, with the emphasis on thing. From a legal perspective, bonobos, chimps, rats and lice are things. This of course raises questions about a human embryo or blastula or morula etc, which I won’t explore here.

Clearly bonobos, chimps and our pet birds and animals aren’t things, except in the sense that we’re all things – living things. It’s also clear that many non-human animals do many of the things people do, such as feeling angry, sad, bored, scared, tired, confused etc. With these obvious facts in mind, a US organisation called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought habeas corpus hearings in a New York State court ‘to determine whether Kiko and Tommy, two captive chimpanzees, should be considered legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty’. The chimps, who have different owners, are each kept in conditions which any reasonable person would describe as inhuman – but then, they’re not humans. According to current US law, they’re human possessions, subject no doubt to certain animal welfare laws, but arguably not to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking to strengthen their case, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought together a series of amicus curiae (friends of the court) essays by philosophers and ethicists, published in 2019 in a booklet, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosopher’s Brief. 

All of this should make us wonder what a person actually is, and whether there are degrees of personhood. On this point I want to share an anecdote. 

I was walking my young dog in the park, and she was bouncing and darting about friskily in front of me. We passed two women on a park bench, and one of them beamed at me, ‘I bet she’s a girl!’ ‘Yes, she’s a girl’, I smiled. ‘Yeah, they’re always the lively ones,’ she asserted. Being ever a contrarian, as I’ve been told, I wondered about the truth of this assertion, which led to a far more interesting question – was Mulan (the dog) still a girl? A quick calculation, using the human-to-dog years rule-of-thumb, told me that she was now in her early-mid twenties, just that age when it starts to become dodgy, PC-wise, to keep using the girl moniker.

So, this dog was a woman now?

We actually call our pets girls or boys even deep into old age. Isn’t this a form of infantilism? It goes with the word ‘pet’ of course. So what about, say, lions? Do we condescend to confer adulthood on those regal animals? Well, sort of. We use male and female, and of course him and her, and personal names if we’ve thought ones up. But the terms man and woman are only for us.

This is understandable, while at the same time it has the odour of human specialness. I imagine that zookeepers or zoologists who get friendly with wild animals might employ the term girl or boy to refer to them, a term of affection laced with superiority. We just can’t allow them to rise to our level. That’s why, with bonobos, it’s okay, and indeed very fruitful, to learn about them, but to learn from them is a step too far, is it not?

And yet. Gillian Dooley, a research fellow at Flinders University, and Danielle Clode, of the same university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, recently co-edited The first wave, a collection of writings on Europeans’ early contacts with Aboriginal cultures in Australia. The book’s cover features ‘the first known illustration of the Aboriginal people of Australia, which appeared in a rare 1698 Dutch edition of William Dampier’s 1697 New voyage around the world.’ It was only recently brought to light in the library of the University of Hawaii. The image depicts a confrontation of sorts between Dampier and his crew and the Aborigines, in which the Europeans tried to get them to carry barrels of water, perhaps in exchange for articles of clothing, as one Aborigine is depicted sporting a European jacket. It seems the Aborigines didn’t ‘get it’ and were unwilling to comply. Dampier wrote umbrageously that ‘we were forced to carry our water ourselves’.

The scene beautifully illustrates the European attitude, over many centuries, to the people of what they liked to call ‘the new world’ – which effectively meant the world beyond Eurasia. The term savage, noble or ignoble, was first applied to human apes (of a certain condition), as far as we know, by John Dryden in a 1672 play, though the idea goes back to Montaigne and beyond. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Europeans of the last few centuries, with their elaborate clothing and appurtenances, their monumental architecture, their complex religious rituals and beliefs, their technological developments and political systems, would mostly see the ‘natives’ as part of the fauna of these exotic    new lands. And history tells us that it doesn’t even take a sense of their inferior otherness to turn our fellow humans into beasts of burden or slaves. Aristotle defended slavery and believed that some people were ‘natural slaves’. Athenian soi-disant democracy was entirely dependent on slaves, who vastly outnumbered citizens. Many of the indigenous nations of the Americas had slaves before they themselves were enslaved by the Conquistadors. The feudal system that pervaded Europe for centuries was essentially a slave system. Montaigne was able to retire to his castle and write the essays that inspired me decades ago because he inherited that castle, the productive lands around it, and the people who worked the land. They were his. If he asked them to carry water for him, they would feel obliged to do so. 

I imagine that if we travelled back in time and asked Aristotle whether slaves were people, that he would come up with a long complicated discourse to the effect that there were natural slaves who were best suited to be beasts of burden, and that these natural slaves beget more natural slaves, entirely suited to serve their masters – which is essentially the basis of the feudal system. What has, of course, blown all this type of thinking away (though fragments still remain) is modern biology, especially neurophysiology and genetics. Our understanding of human connectedness has been raised by these disciplines, as has our understanding of the connectedness of all species. So we look at ‘first nation’ culture and technology and its adaptation to environment with more enlightened eyes, and we see other species more in terms of family, culture and problem-solving, even if in very different contexts from our own. But the human context is constantly changing. For seventy-odd years now, we’ve built and maintained the weaponry to destroy human and other life on a grand scale. the USA alone has over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Surely there’s nothing more to achieve on the warfare front. Our survival is assured against all comers, except of course, ourselves. The future has to be about making peace, making connections, learning how to do things more cleverly, more supportively, more sustainably for all the life forms we’re connected with. 

Which returns me to bonobos. The question, of course, isn’t whether they are people. They’re in many ways like us, as are their chimp cousins. I just happen to think they’re more worth learning from than chimps (though I must say, I always feel guilty about dissing our chimp rellies – they’re not that bad!). They know how to nip violence in the bud, they’re relaxed and open about sex (though not obsessed, either positively or negatively), they keep their menfolk – sorry, males – in line, and in all those things they do better than we human apes. If we can follow bonobos in these ways – and maintain and build on the best of what’s human – our curiosity, out ingenuity, our sympathy, and our extraordinary creative capacity – I think we’ll be around for a long time.

savages – or maybe just greeny nudists – upholding Denmark’s coat of arms

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2021 at 1:57 pm

a bonobo world 26: boys and girls at work and play

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, brilliant women with great dress sense

In her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote this: 

.. the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.

A whole book could easily be written – some already have – to expand on this apparently mundane observation. Today in the west, or the developed world, or Anglo-American or Euro-American society (I never know quite what to call it), there are no set rules, of course, about how people should dress, or behave, or work or play, gender-wise, but there are conventions and social pressures, and I’ve noted encouraging developments, as well as their opposite.

A close female friend expressed a certain despair/disdain the other day in telling me that Dr Jill Biden, aged 69, wore stilettos for her husband’s confirmation as US President. I share that friend’s conviction that stilettos should only be used as murder weapons. In any case men only wear stilettos when in drag, which is all too rare. 

On clothing and accessories, while today’s variety is inspiring and liberating for both sexes, one still sees frustrating gender-based tendencies everywhere. Frills and furbelows have long been all the go for female formal attire, while tuxes or frock-coats are de rigueur for males, compleat with ties, bowed or straight. These traditions tend to emphasise gender differences you’d never notice in bonobos, though there is a welcome playfulness of gender-swapping attire among the elites, seldom replicated in your local bar or restaurant. 

What has constantly surprised me, as a person who spent his youth in the sixties and seventies, when déclassé jeans and t-shirts, in colourful variety, were common and pleasantly informal, is that those decades didn’t establish a trend of ambisexual dress – just as I’ve been surprised that traditional marriage didn’t get thrown out as seemed to be on the cards in those days. Marriage today appears to represent much of human ambiguity – a commitment to monogamous ideals even while recognising their limitations, even their absurdity. Conservatives argue that loyalty is a much undervalued value, but it’s always been possible to have more than one loyal friend, with benefits. Bonobos manage to have a bunch of them. Bonobos aren’t being rad, they’re just being bonobos. Which raises the question, what is it, to be humans?

David Deutsch, in The beginning of infinity, celebrates and encourages our infinite possibilities, to find solutions, to expand our outlooks, to achieve outrageously amazing things. He writes of the value of optimism over pessimism, and progress over stasis. I’m largely in agreement, but with some reservations. He has nothing to say about community, for example. Community, it seems to me, has become ever more important as change has become more rapid. As Deutsch and others have pointed out, during the many thousands of years when humans lived the hunter-gatherer life, with no doubt many variations, life simply didn’t change from generation to generation. And as long as that life was sustainable, there was little need for new developments, new hunting or grinding implements, new forms of shelter or clothing. So, nobody was out of date or old-fashioned, there were no old fuddy-duddies you wouldn’t be seen dead with. In fact, quite the opposite – the elders would have been more expert at the latest technology, developed in the previous aeon, than the youngsters, who would marvel at how those old guys’ boomerangs always came back (okay, they were never actually intended to). Given this relatively static society, it’s hardly surprising that elders were more respected, for their skills, experience and store of communal lore, than today’s nursing home denizens. And, as always, I’m aware of the multifarious nature of modern human societies, static and otherwise, to which I have little access, beyond book-larnin. Most of these societies or cultures, though, are today forced to interact with others, creating identity confusions and divided loyalties by the brainload.

Anyway, sticking with the White Anglo-Saxon ex-Protestant culture I’m familiar with, I’m a bit shocked that, despite two or more waves of feminism in the last century or so, women are still earning less than men and paying more for what I would deem unnecessary accoutrements, including hairstyles, bling, fancy tattoos, make-up and the aforementioned frills and furbelows. I recently bought a ‘men’s’ stick deodorant, which seemed to me nothing more than an anti-perspirant, and which was identical to that of my female partner, only bigger, and cheaper! These are ‘first-world issues’, of course, but they reflect, in little, an exploitation of the feminine worldwide, which seems a hard nut to crack.  

There’s of course a thing about eternal youth, in regard to women, that should be addressed. Men in their fifties don’t wear make-up, at least not the ones I know. Quite a few women I know, in their fifties, and older, also don’t wear make-up, but let’s face it, most of them do – with all the expense, as well as the time and effort, this involves. They do it, presumably, to hide the effects of gravity, though gravity always wins, as Radiohead informs us. With men, apparently, gravity lends gravitas.

I’ve often – in fact, ever since adolescence  – imagined myself as female. Mostly lesbian female, though I did have an early period of male-male attraction. So, if I did turn out female, how would I behave, appearance-wise, now that I’m in my sixties? Would I wear an op-shop jacket, t-shirt (usually with some thought-bubble printing) and chino-type trousers, as I do now? I hope so. It’s a kind of unisex outfit for academic and sciencey people, the types I’ve always aspired to be. But unfortunately, feminists have recently written of the pink/blue divide in children’s clothing that’s stronger than ever, as well as the divide in toys – fighting, racing and danger versus dancing, cuddling and beauty. This appears to be driven by manufacturers and advertisers, who, like social media moguls, seem to derive a benefit from driving their customers down wormholes of like-mindedness. Not surprisingly, social psychologists find that children benefit from being more unisex in these choices – not a matter of turning them into their opposites, but seeing dolls and trucks as others see them, and generally being more colourful. And slowly, all too slowly, we’re following this advice, and seeing more male nurses and female truck-drivers than previously. Not to mention female white supremacists sporting submachine guns – but that’s only in the US, they do things differently there. And more males working in child-care? That’s another nut to crack.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), new translation 2009.

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/play/gender-typed-toys

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

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

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

 

humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

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

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 9:22 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

References

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

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

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

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

22 – sex, reproduction, science, bonobos

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the act, depicted by Leonardo, along with his intriguing mirror writing

Thinking on dolphins again, I remember reading claims about sophisticated dolphin language, at a vocal range beyond human hearing, and I’ve also read scientific dismissals of such claims. I’m thinking again about these questions (the communications of some birds also comes to mind) because the communicative complexity of language would have enabled human apes to, among other things, be species-aware of the connection between sex and reproduction – though unfortunately failures in that communication still result in unwanted teenage pregnancies. 

But I don’t seriously imagine that any other species – on this planet at least – knows that the joys of rump-pumpy lead to the much-later popping out of wee human replicants. For one thing, Matthew Cobb’s book The egg & sperm race provides an account of how confused we humans were, even at the time of Leonardo, about ‘the exact relationship between male, female and offspring’. They were particularly confused with regard to non-human generation. Ideas about barnacle geese being hatched from barnacles, mice being generated from wheat and vipers from dust were entertained at the highest level, even at the Royal Society in the 17th century. The spontaneous generation of the tiniest creatures was essentially a given for millennia. But human generation was also much of a mystery until relatively recently. Here’s a little summary from Cobb:

Although the real situation now appears obvious, discovering exactly what goes on was a long, complicated process. Even what might seem to be the most obvious step in generation – the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy in humans – is really quite difficult to demonstrate. Part of the problem is that the clear signs of pregnancy do not immediately follow the sexual act. Even menstruation does not necessarily appear to be directly linked to pregnancy: although women stop menstruating when they are pregnant, some women always have irregular periods, while teenage girls can get pregnant without ever having menstruated. The link between sex and generation is so unobvious that in the 20th-century the Trobriand Islanders in the Pacific Ocean were said to be very surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two. All around the world, folktales of conception taking place in the most astonishing ways, such as by eating fruit (mango, lemon, apple, orange, peach ..), accidentally swallowing crane dung, or, more politically, being touched by the rays of a dragon.

The late 17th century, however, was the period in Europe when most of this confusion was cleared up, at least in the so-called developed world, thanks mainly to the work of four gifteded individuals, Francesco Redi (1626-97), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Nicolas Steno (1638-86) and Reinier de Graaf (1641-1673). Much of this work took place in the Netherlands, a major progressive and scientific nation in this period, backed by massive profits from the spice and slave trades. Of course another power of the period was England, and one of the most important figures in researching ‘generation’, as the problem of sorting out the reproductive process was then called, was William Harvey, famous mostly for working out the role of the heart in circulating the blood. Harvey was a pioneering experimentalist, and his approach to the issues was essentially correct, and quite revolutionary, but he lacked the necessary to work out the detail of generation. In particular, he lacked a microscope. His late work, de generatione animalium (1651), though mostly a restatement of Aristotelian doctrine, was inspirational in that he emphasised, through experiment, the importance of the egg in generation, regardless of species. Without a microscope, however, this claim couldn’t be fully verified. Microscopes, or magnifiers of various kinds, had been used since antiquity, but their full development came only after the invention of the telescope. Galileo built his own compound microscope in the 1620s but they remained largely a novelty until later in the 17th century, with the founding of scientific societies and academies, and the sharing of scientific experiments and tools. 

The four above-mentioned intellectuals (the word scientist didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century) – one Italian and three Dutch – were friends, colleagues, and sometimes frenemies at a time when being first with scientific breakthroughs was even more important than during the covid19 era. There were no professional researchers of course, so you had to publish to get recognition and encourage patronage (and you often needed patronage to get published).

Francesco Redi, who combined a more rigorous experimentalism than was common at the time with the wit and urbanity that made him a mainstay at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, to whom he acted as physician among other things, carried out careful research on insects which proved that they weren’t generated spontaneously in rotting foodstuff or anything else. His interest in the subject was inspired by Steno who had come to Tuscany from his studies in Leiden, via Paris, with a reputation as an expert in dissection and cutting-edge experimentation. Steno was in turn influenced by the greater mathematical rigour of the intellectuals at Ferdinando’s court. The two worked together on fossils and geology as well as animal anatomy. Steno was interested in the difference between viviparous and oviparous reproduction – that’s to say, between creatures who produce live young and those who lay eggs – and stumbled on a new, decisive insight, that female ‘testicles’, at the time believed to be internalised versions of male testicles, were in fact ovaries, a housing for the female’s eggs. This was an insight from observation, rather than experiment, but it was of course correct, and revolutionary.

Steno, Swammerdam and de Graaf had all met in Leiden where they engaged in their first adult studies (Leiden University in the mid 17th century had more student enrolments than Cambridge and was one of the most progressive learning institutes in Europe), and Steno and Swammerdam, being in the same year, became firm friends and collaborators there. After their Leiden studies, all three went to to France, a common destination for young Dutch intellectuals. Swammerdam and Steno were attracted there by an extraordinary French polymath, Melchisédech Thévenot, who had visited Leiden during their studies there, and who was head of a private academy in Paris, which eventually morphed into the Académie Royale des Sciences. 

But I’m getting bogged down in fascinating detail. Read Cobb’s The egg & sperm race for the story of how these individuals, and others, sorted out the story of ovaries, testes, semen and the equal contribution of males and females to offspring production. It’s a story of collaboration, rivalry and the struggle for both knowledge and recognition that captures much of scientific activity, then and now. 

The point of all this is to recognise how difficult it was for even the most complex species on the planet to work out the relationship between the pleasures of sex and the rather more mixed experience of childbirth – deadly for many, including my own grandmother. 

And yet, bonobos do it for pleasure and relief, openly, and manage to avoid having endless pregnancies, unlike  Anne Stuart, queen of Great Britain (18 pregnancies, none surviving to adulthood) and Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, and many other regions (16 pregnancies, only 3 of whom died in infancy), not to mention a horde of less ’eminent’ catholic martyrs to the world’s peopling. Bonobos have between five and seven infants, on average, in a lifetime, which is certainly more than enough. I’m not sure of the survival rate of offspring, but it would probably be higher if not for human depradations. 

References

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race 

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm

23 – bonobo morality superior to Christianity

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the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to 539 BCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solons-laws

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 15, 2021 at 7:52 pm