an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘bonobos

vive les bonobos

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I’ve written a lot about a bonobo future for humans, but what about the future of real bonobos? How long will they have one in the wild?

It’s likely the bonobo population has never been large. Their range has always been limited, presumably because they’ve inhabited a fertile niche south of the Congo River, and have had no reason to stray from it. All wild bonobos happen to inhabit one human country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The geographic range of chimpanzees, of which there are four sub-species, includes nineteen countries throughout west and east-central Africa. Both species are on the endangered list. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated the population at between 10,000 and 50,000 and declining. It’s a large margin for error, due to the difficulties of trying to track numbers in one of the most dangerous locations on the planet. It’s probable that the numbers today are well to the lower end of that spectrum. They have a slow reproduction rate, poaching and habitat loss are a perennial issue, and there’s the common notion in faraway regions such as China and South-East Asia that these ‘exotic’ creatures make for prestigious pets or that their body parts provide miraculous remedies. The live trade is generally in infants, which more often than not involves killing their parents. They’re not all being shipped overseas however – bonobo ‘charms’ (whatever they are) are quite common in the Congo itself, according to WWF and other sources.

Many of the DRC’s humans are fighting for survival themselves, and are competing with bonobos for forest resources, so deforestation is an issue. But the live trade is much more lucrative than that for bushmeat. Most of their habitat is unprotected, and the natives are not necessarily aware that they’re breaking the law, if in fact they are, in capturing these animals. Here’s a grim description of the situation from the wildlife website Mongabay:

Dead apes are chopped up and sold for meat and body parts. Meat is generally consumed by middle- to upper-class urban families, as well as foreigners living there. … On average, a kilo of such meat would cost between $20 to $40 in local markets … prices vary according to species and size. Body parts such as the skin, hands, and head are used as medicine and in spiritual rituals… The head takes the highest price at between $500 and $1,500, and hands between $20 and $50 each.

Trying to save and defend bonobos in the DRC is a dangerous business. The war-torn country is over-supplied with deadly weaponry, and it’s difficult to win people over to conservation when they are so impoverished and the trade is so lucrative. Improving the lives of the native human population is probably more important than education, but little appears to be happening in that regard. The natives have formed gangs to facilitate the trade, and conservationists have received death threats. The general corruption of the government is obviously a problem too, though international exposure may help to turn things around. The first nationally announced arrest of hunters only occurred in 2019.

Still, there are many conservationists working for a brighter future for bonobos. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative has for a long time been promoting indigenous leadership in land management for biodiversity in bonobo habitats, in particular the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. The plan is to extend this reserved area into a Bonobo Peace Forest, ‘a constellation of community-based reserves in the Congo rainforest supported by sustainable development’. Ecotourism is seen as a key to providing a future for both the bonobos and the human communities of the region, but this is a delicate issue, as the natural life-style of our cousins needs to be maintained. The DRC itself needs international support – it has suffered devastation in the past from the worst forms of colonialist exploitation, and it has never been properly compensated. Now, the nation is, hopefully, beginning to realise what a treasure lies within its forests. Vive les bonobos!


Images from a dropped phone reveal the ugly truth behind bonobo trafficking

Click to access projdoc.pdf


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Posted in bonobos, conservation

Tagged with

democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Some people out there might not think that democracy is the best system, but I’d say that, given the crooked timber of humanity and all that, it’s probably the best we can come up with. One of its major problems, as I see it, is its adversarial, or partisan nature. Modern democracies are generally about two major parties, left and right, with power swinging on a more or less regular basis from one side to another. On the other hand, many European nations have evolved multi-party systems, with fragile coalitions always threatening to break apart, and negotiations often bogging down and ending with decisions nobody is particularly happy about, or so it seems. While this can be a problem, so can the opposite, when one party’s decisions and initiatives are swept aside holus bolus by a new government with a polar opposite ideology.

When I occasionally check out social media, I’m disheartened by the number of commentators for whom party x can do no right, and party y can do no wrong. It almost seems as if everybody wants to live in a one-party state – their party. This is a problem for a state which is diverse and necessarily interconnected. That’s to say, for any modern state. And of course there are other problems with representative democracies – generally related to wealth and power. Parliamentarians are rarely truly representative of their constituents, each vote rarely represents one value, and cronyism has always been rife.

And then there’s the maleness of it all. It’s not just that the percentage of women in parliament is always less than the percentage in the general population, but the movers and shakers in the business community, notorious for their pushy lobbying, are invariably male. And then there’s the military, an ultra-male bastion which must have its place…

So here’s a ridiculous thought experiment. Imagine a cast-iron law comes in, dropped from the heavens, that for the next 200 years, no male is allowed to be part of any government of any stripe. Women must, and will, make up every political decision-making body on the planet. Sure they can have the odd male advisor and helpmeet, but they seem to find female advice more congenial and useful. And let’s imagine that in this thought experiment, the males don’t mind their secondary roles at all. They just see it as the natural order of things. After two hundred years, from the point of our current ever-expanding technological and scientific knowledge (which women and men will continue to fully participate in), where will be in terms of war and peace, and our custodianship of the biosphere?

I told you this was ridiculous, but you don’t have to be a professional historian to realise that a more or less unspoken ban on female participation in government has existed historically in many countries for a lot more than a couple of centuries. And we’ve survived – that’s to say, those of us that have survived. Sorry about the tens of millions of Chinese that Mao starved to death in his Great Leap Forward. Sorry about the genocides of Stalin, Hitler, Leo Victor, Talaat Pasha, Pol Pot and Suharto, not to mention Genghis Khan and countless other known or unknown historical figures, again invariably male.

So returning to that thought experiment, we could take the easy option and say we don’t know how things would turn out – certainly not in any detail. But that’s surely bullshit. We know, don’t we? We know that the world, and not just the human world, would be a far far better place in the event of female leadership than it is today.

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. I haven’t looked into the details about how they make their decisions, but the criteria appear to be reasonable. The nations are divided broadly into four categories. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

In 2017, just under 10% of the world’s leaders were female. The percentage may have grown since then, but clearly not by much. We could be generous and say 13-14% at present. There are some difficulties in defining ‘nation’ as well as ‘leadership’, but let’s go with that number. So I had a look at the rankings on the Democracy Index, and the leadership of various countries on the index and what I found was very enlightening. Of the 21 countries rated as full democracies on the Democracy Index, seven of them were led by women. That’s 33%, quite out of proportion to the percentage of female leaders in general. But it gets better, or worse, depending in how you look at it. Of the top ten democracies on the list, six were led by women. Sixty percent of the top ten. Narrow it down still further, and we find that four of the top five democratic nations – which, in order, are Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, are led by women – 80 per cent. It’s almost ridiculous how successful women are at making things work.

So what about the bottom of the barrel – the Afghanistans, the Burmas, etc. Of the 59 nations characterised as authoritarian by the Democracy Index, (though I prefer to call them thugocracies), zero are led by women. That’s nothing to crow about.

So, bonobos. The females, who are as small compared to their male counterparts as female humans are, dominate through solidarity. The result is less stress, less fighting, less infanticide, less killing and rape, less territoriality, and more sharing, more togetherness, more bonding, more love, if you care to call it that.

We don’t know anything much about the last common ancestor we share equally with chimps and bonobos. We don’t know about how violent Homo erectus or Homo habilis or the Australopithecines were, within their own species. We may never know. We do know that chimp troupes have gone to war with each other, with unbridled savagery, and we have evidence, from sites such as the Pit of Bones in northern Spain, of human-on-human killing from near half a million years ago. Our supposedly great book of moral teaching, the Hebrew Bible, describes many scenes of slaughter, sometimes perpetrated by the god himself. So it seems obvious that we’ve gone the way of the chimpanzee. Our worst leaders seem determined to continue the tradition. Our best, however, are making a difference. We need to make their numbers grow. Let’s make those female leaders multiply and see what happens. It may just save our species, and many others.


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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

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2500 years of this BS? Time for a change


So now we come to the writings on the god we’ve come to call God, and his supposed activities, nature and purpose.

I’m no biblical scholar, and this is a daunting prospect, but here are some questions I need to ask myself. When? What language? Who? How many authors? Is ‘the Torah’ the same as ‘the Pentateuch’? Don’t look for too many answers here.

The first five books of the Bible, and presumably all of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written in Biblical Hebrew, and this is important to always keep in mind for English readers, who so often fail to realise they’re reading translations of translations. The first traces of Biblical texts discovered, the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, date back about 2600 years. They are fragments from Numbers, the fourth book. Of course we may never know if these are the oldest texts, but it’s unlikely they’ll find anything too much older. They date, therefore, from a little before the Babylonian exile, written up in various books (Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Daniel). According to Wikipedia and its sources:

The final redaction of the Pentateuch took place in the Persian period following the exile, and the Priestly source, one of its main sources, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.

There were multiple authors, it seems. Famously, there were two origin stories, written presumably by separate persons. They’re designated as Gen 1 and Gen 2, and they each use a different name for the creator. The first, starting at Genesis 1:1, uses the Hebrew word Elohim, whereas the second, starting at Genesis 2:4, uses a tetragrammaton, YHWH, for Yahweh. Stylistically, they’re also very different. The first is fairly tightly organised and brief. Importantly from my perspective, the god, though male, is described as creating ‘man’ in its two forms, male and female, together. Here’s the the King James English version:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepers upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The second story begins immediately after the first story ends, and it is more detailed and lyrical, describing the garden of Eden, the river out of it, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the lands fed by the rivers, divided from the original, flowing from the garden. God spends a lot of time chatting with Adam (the name suddenly pops up), getting him to name all the beasts of the fields and the fowl of the air that he, the god, conjures up. He also tells him that he will create a help-meet for him, but Adam has to remind him of this later. So, the great moment arrives:

And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:21-23).

So the male has the naming rights, and the woman provides unspecified help, and they quickly notice that they’re both ‘naked’ – though what might that mean? – but it didn’t apparently bother them – because, it seems, they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE), a useful tree for any garden. Clearly, none of this makes sense from a modern perspective, but the story goes on, with a talking serpent, who addresses the as-yet unnamed woman, convincing her that she should eat from the TKGE, to become wise. This sounds like good advice, and the woman judges the fruit of the tree to be good, and so she eats, and gets the man to eat, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from the god, who, being omniscient, eventually finds them. He asks why they’re hiding and Adam explains that they’re naked – sophisticated language already! – to which the god asks the very interesting question, Who told you you were naked? There’s no answer, and the god assumes that they’ve eaten from the TKGE. But he doesn’t appear to be sure, he has to ask them. So Adam blames the woman, who blames the serpent, though of course there’s no explanation as to why ignorance is bliss and devouring knowledge is bad.

Most important for my purposes here is the god’s treatment of the woman:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16)

So that sets the pattern of male-female inequality in Judaism. Pretty flimsy, needless to say.

Now to turn to the warrior god, who is also a jealous god (which is certainly not the same thing). The god of the Israelites, essentially YHWH, is deliberately mysterious, and amorphous. He must not be represented (this is called aniconism, against icons), to make a graven image is toto forbidden. The religious historian Christophe Lemardelé, in an essay of great complexity, finds that the tension between a jealous god, who seems in some kind of marital relation with his people, and a warrior-god seeking to save his people and fight for them, as in the books of Exodus and Judges, can best be resolved by examining the anthropology of the peoples who created this god:

The figure of the patriarch Abraham echoes a pastoral population located in Hebron and therefore leads to suggesting that the patriarchal ideology of Genesis—a book of Judean and rather late origin (Persian period, around the 5th century)—would have its background in the family and kinship structures of these nomadic groups. It seems difficult to us to envisage, without any migration, a late Iron age diffusion, however slow, of the Yahweh’s religion from south to north through these groups. The divine covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not at the origin of God’s privileged relationship with Israel but rather one of its final elaborations.

It seems the god evolved with an increasing patriarchy – the origin stories were by no means the first written, and their misogyny, such as it is, is partial witness to an increasingly endogamous patrilineal society. This god, through the stories of Judges, Deuteronomy and Exodus, becomes more tightly bound to his chosen people, increasingly jealous of other gods, and increasingly demanding and unforgiving. Such is the legacy of the Abrahamic religions, if you want it.

There is of course a great deal more to say and learn, but the WEIRD world continues to move away from these tales and life examples, into hopefully something more bonoboesque, something more in keeping with our actual and potential human nature. The religion that reinforced over a millennium of misogyny is failing, all too slowly, in its Western European heartland, and it would be nice if we could speed that up. We understand our world now well enough to know that keeping women out of positions of power, demeaning them, pretending that they are inferior, or that their roles should be circumscribed, has been disastrous. Nothing short of disastrous. I want to argue for a worldwide release of female power, and a promotion of female dominance. It’s happening slowly, but I’m impatient. I want to present the evidence and I want to continue to see changes bearing fruit. There are parts of the world that are going backwards, certainly – in Afghanistan, in Burma, in China and many other regions. We need to show them by example how good it can be. We need to work to reduce the macho thugocracies (the majority of the world’s nations), and find ourselves in a less brutal, more collaborative, more caring, inclusive and thoughtful world. The rise of female power, I believe, is absolutely central to that transition. Without which not.


Click to access the-jealousy-of-god.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2022 at 11:50 am

On the origin of the god called God, part one – on the Judean need for a warrior god

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It has long irritated me that people ask the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ or ‘why don’t you believe in God?’, assuming that there’s only one deity, a cultural assumption that reveals a fair degree of ignorance. Obviously there are many gods, or spirits, or powers or forces, because many many cultures have developed over many thousands of years in isolation to each other. 

For example, I’ve been reading Cassandra Pybus’ book Truganini, which relates the horrors suffered by the Aboriginal inhabitants of what was then Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s. One particular spirit – Raegewarrah – was considered mostly responsible for the disaster that had befallen them with the advent of Europeans, but there were many other gods and spirits associated with places, activities and so on. Speaking more generally, I recall one spiritually inclined friend saying that these different gods or spirits are all different interpretations of God, or the godhead or some such thing, but it doesn’t take much anthropological research to discover that so many of these creatures have different characters, powers, relationships and fields of agency. There are malevolent and benevolent gods, there are capricious, unpredictable gods, there are regional gods, seasonal gods, gods of love and gods of war, gods of the sea, gods of the forest, squabbling and/or incestuous families of gods, hierarchies of gods, and gods of the other peoples over the mountains or on faraway islands.

It’s stated on some websites that there are between 8000 and 12000 gods on record, but records require writing, and religious beliefs surely predates writing, as for example those of Aboriginal Australians. And we have as little idea of when religious belief in humans began as we do of the beginning of human language. It’s likely though, at least to me, that the origins of human language and religion are connected.

But returning to God, rather than gods, this is a reference to the Judeo-Christian god, as I live in a country colonised by Christians. He (and he’s very male) is also referred to as the Abrahamic god, who unites the three associated religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in monotheism, or sort of. Christianity differs from the others in that there’s two gods, father and son, who sort of compete with each other for the attention of belevers, being, apparently, quite different characters. 

Anyway, this Judaic god wasn’t, strictly speaking the first monotheistic god, though he was at the foundation of the first successful monotheistic religion that we know of. We can’t of course be certain of how many monotheisms have been tried in history or ‘prehistory’ but we do know of the attempt by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, some 3,300 years ago – some 750 years before the rabbis of Judah got together to institute their monotheism. Akhenaten tried to compel his subjects to worship the Aten, the Sun God, but only through him, the pharaoh. It was an attempt to impose monotheism in a very hierarchical way, to consolidate the pharoah’s power, and it would’ve entailed the essential abolition of over a hundred other Egyptian gods, so it didn’t survive Akhenaten’s death – in fact, there was a fierce reaction to it afterwards.

Now of course the rabbis of Judah knew nothing about this when they began to develop their monotheism. It’s likely that the Judaic religion existed centuries before it turned monotheistic. It was one of several Canaanite polytheistic religions of the region, and the various Semitic cultures probably shared their different deities, leading to confusion at times about their identities and roles. Much of this will always be speculative as we have few written records from the time, but the name El, from which the Arabic name Allah derives, comes up in slightly different forms in Ugaritic, in Aramaic and in so-called proto-Semitic languages to describe a god who may are may not be the same god in each case. Sometimes El seems to represent a special or supreme god among gods. Other times it seems like a prefix to some particular god, such as El-Hadad. So basically, the name El, and its derivatives, comes up in so many language-forms and in so many contexts that it’s virtually impossible to characterise the god in any coherent way. If you don’t believe me, look up the comprehensive Wikipedia entry on this god, or this descriptor. 

So during the Bronze Age (about 5300 to 3200 years ago) the land of Canaan, of which Judah was a a small part, was occupied or influenced by the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Hurrian Mitanni and the Assyrians, among others. So there were all sorts of cultural and religious influences and pressures that I’m not scholared enough to sort out, but the gods that most stuck with or appealed to the Israelite tribes of Judah and surrounding regions were Yahweh, a warrior-god, the aforementioned El, the mother goddess Asherah, and Baal, who by the time of Iron Age 1 (3200-3000 years ago) had come to replace El in parts of Canaan as the master god. Baal was particularly a fertility god, associated especially with rainfall, which was crucial to the region. The scholarly term is monolatristic worship – with many gods, but one god being more prevalent or important. 

However, over time, and probably due to the regular incursions into and occupation of Israelite regions by other cultures, Yahweh became the more favoured god, a being to rouse the embattled Israelites against their various oppressors. The most serious oppression came from the Babylonians during Iron Age II (about 2600 to 2550 years ago) when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem and deported the most prominent Judeans, taking them captive to Babylon. Jerusalem, the city, was apparently destroyed, though much of the rest of Judah remained untouched. It was likely this trauma (much relieved a few decades later by the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus II of Persia, and the return from exile) that turned the Judean people inwards, and caused them to see Yahweh, their warrior-god, as their sole god, under whom they needed to unite as his chosen people. 

Which brings me to the complex writings of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. I feel daunted at the thought, so I’ll focus mostly on Genesis, the origin. I have very little interest in the endless abstrusities of Judaism or any other religion, but the tight hold that ‘the one true God’ still has on millions of people has fascinated and disturbed me for decades, especially considering what we’ve come to know about our universe in the past few centuries. It seems knowledge percolates slowly, even when confined to the so-called ‘WEIRD’ world. 

I don’t believe that science and religion are in any way compatible – they offer completely different programs, if you will, for understanding the world and our place in it. The science program is endless, or opened-ended, if you will – with new facts or findings leading to new questions, which, when answered lead to further questions with no end in sight, whereas the religious program (and I’m specifically focussing on Abrahamic religions) has an end, in God, He who cannot be questioned. The old Stephen Jay Gould attempt to evoke NOMA (non-overlapping majesteria), the idea that science and religion can live happily together, (about which I’ve written here), always struck me as frankly ridiculous. 

Of course I understand that religion comes wrapped in culture, which comes wrapped in religion, and all this forms a great part of the identity of many people, and I have no wish to belittle or take from people their culture. It’s a vexed issue, and I don’t have all the answers. I do think there are heavy cultures, which can be damaging, and I notice this damage especially when it comes to gender. Bonobos again. And since the god called God is so very very masculine, I cannot help but feel great discomfort about the Abrahamic religions. 

So my next post will look at the Hebrew Origin myth and the nature of the god as shaped by the writers of the earliest texts.


Truganini: journey through the apocalypse, by Cassandra Pybus, 2020

Stephen Jay Gould, NOMA and a couple of popes


Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2022 at 1:29 pm

on the history and future of human beans…

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… the oldest skull normally assigned to our species is almost 200,000 years old. It was found at Omo Valley in Ethiopia in the African rift valley. (In June 2017, human remains from Morocco were dated to 300,000 years ago, but their exact relationship to us remains uncertain).

David Christian, Origin Story p169

Canto: Dating the first Homo sapiens will always be difficult (I mean determining her provenance, not going out with her) because, like the first lion (Panthera Leo) or the first red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus) or whatever, she had parents, and great-grandparents, so when does any species actually begin? But apart from that taxonomic issue, the whole issue of dating, and classifying, hominins is obviously complicated by the dearth of fossil finds. In my reading and listening, the 200,000 year number usually crops up, in spite of the finding cited by Christian, which we’ve known about for some time. The Morocco site, specifically the archaeological site known as Jebel Irhoud, has yielded fossil remains since at least the early seventies, but a paper in Nature, published in 2017, relating to new finds at the site, controversially claimed a date of 315,000 years ago for skull, face and jaw bones of H sapiens…

Jacinta: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it seems to me that the claims about early hominins, and especially the first of our species, will always be hotly contested because of that lack of evidence. Both the place, Morocco, and that early date are outside the known parameters for the earliest H sapiens. 

Canto: But Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist of some repute, appears half-convinced, arguing that, with the new finds and better dating methods, ‘the Jebel Irhoud bones stand firmly on the H. sapiens lineage’. However, it’s not easy to find much discussion online about it since 2017. I did find a full copy of the June 2017 Nature article, referenced below, and the Smithsonian appears to be taking the older date as established. I quote from their website:

During a time of dramatic change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.

They don’t cite any evidence though. I mean, 100,000 years is quite a big gap. I presume there’s been a big search on in Morocco in recent years. The Smithsonian site also tells me most palaeontologists reckon H heidelbergensis is our direct ancestor, but the evidence is frustratingly scant.

Jacinta: Also, what does it mean to be human? I’ve often mentioned our hyper-social nature as something that sets humans apart, but were we hyper-social 300,000 years ago, or even 200,000 years ago? We’ve no idea, or not much idea, how we lived in that period – language, fire, tools, art, clothing, shelter… Did we congregate in large groups? How large, or small?

Canto: One site talks about ‘behavioural modernity’, dating from 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. That’s because there’s virtually no evidence – complex weaponry such as bows and spear-throwers, representational art, rough sculptures, bone flutes – of that kind of modern human stuff connected to earlier human remains. But the evidence from skulls suggests that our big brains were what they are now with the earliest versions of H sapiens. Skulls and genes tell us one thing, artefacts tell us another.

Jacinta: Yes, this Smithsonian site also suggests that human cultures, unlike other apes, ‘form long-term pair bonds between men and women to care for children’. They seem not to notice the rise of single-parent families in the modern era! Of course I’m hoping our WEIRD culture’s going the way of the bonobo – the women bonding together to raise the kids, with help from the odd metrosexual male. Is metrosexuality still a thing?

Canto: That’s so naughties…

Jacinta: But I really think that may be the next development – female power with men at last knowing their place as helpmeet. Lots of sex, fewer kids, and lots of collaborative scientific work to enable us to live better in a fragile biosphere, with a growing variety of other species.

Canto: Hmmm. Tell me more about the sex.

Jacinta: Haha well, what’s evolving is a drift away from religion as explanation, as we continue to pursue the history of our species, our planet, our galaxy, our universe, and considering those old religions were mostly born out of patriarchy and the male control of female sexuality, making a virtue of female virginity and prudery, sexuality will be released into the fresh air, so to speak. I mean, there will always be a power aspect to sex, no doubt, but with women on top, the empowerment will undergo an enormous, enlightening shift. I wish I could be there, in the vasty future, to witness it.

Canto: Dog knows we need more than a bit of female leadership right now, what with Putin, Xi Jinping, Orban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-un, Trump (still President apparently), Lukashenko, Bashar al-Ashad, Duterte, MBS, Raisi, some Burmese fucker, etc etc. We really need more ball-cutters.

Jacinta: Well, obviously, I agree. Back in little old Australia…

Canto: Quite young as a nation, but very old as a culture, odd that.

Jacinta: Not odd at all, actually. Yes, back here in a nation largely sheltered from the storm, we’re too small, population-wise, to be internationally despotic the way Putinland is currently being. But I’m happy that we’re joining the chorus of condemnation against Putinesque aggression. I’m just wondering if this is the future. This attack on Ukraine seems like a throwback, throwing us as far back as – well, Putin isn’t even an ‘enlightened despot’ in the tradition of Catherine II, or Elizabeth (Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762). He’s more like Peter the Macho Thug, whose reign certainly modernised Russia, but the women who followed him did a far better job of improving Russia’s internal state. It was of course a time of violence and warfare, and these women were always surrounded by macho advisers at a time when warfare was a way of life, but their record for internal improvement stands the test of time. Russia has never had a female ruler since Catherine the Great – and it shows.

Canto: Yes, I know it annoys you that these early female leaders are like anomalies – treated as honorary males, surrounded by male advisors and expected, in fact virtually forced, to continue the fashion of aggressive territorial expansion. But current female leaders are a different matter, and maybe the current macho thugocracies are a dying breed, trying to bring everything down with their last gasps.

Jacinta: Yes, pleasant fantasies indeed. But with the growth of global problems – global warming, air pollution, species loss, refugee crises (caused by those thugocracies, but also by climate change and the eternal tendency of animals to move from high-danger low-opportunity regions to regions of lower danger and higher opportunity) we need collaborative solutions, rather than macho weapons build-ups. Enough arguing, let’s collaborate, and if the men want to contribute, they’re welcome. If not, they need to be put in their place. We need to set our social evolution in that direction. The point isn’t to understand our human world, it’s to change it.


David Christian, Origin story: a Big History of everything, 2018


Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

more on macho thuggery and a world turned upside-down

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WPL – female political leaders past and present


Jacinta: So here’s the thing – after the horrible cannon-fodder event of 1914-18 that became known as the Great War, and subsequently WW1, the League of Nations came into being, to try to ensure that no futher war of such magnitude, such destruction, would occur. It would be a forum for the negotiation of grievances, a move towards a more civilised behaviour between nations.

Canto: Yes there must’ve been a sense of urgency as the death toll and the suffering came to light. But then it all happened again – so it failed?

Jacinta: Well of course I’m talking about this as the world watches a piece of obvious butchery in Ukraine, over a hundred years after that ‘war to end all wars’. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, these institutions have been, IMHO, vitally important 20th century developments, but they haven’t effectively prevented wars and invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. And war is hell, especially for those who’ve made the mistake of being born in those fought-over lands.

Canto: Yes, the ICC is massively hamstrung by the fact that the most militarily powerful countries, the USA, Russia and China, won’t join it, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to be held accountable. What’s the point of being massively powerful if you don’t get to throw your weight around with impunity?

Jacinta: Yes, and to be bonoboesque about it, none of those countries have come close to having female leadership in recent times. Okay, the USA has at last celebrated it first Vice-President, but it’s not really an elected position. There have been 45 male US Presidents, and zero female Presidents so far. Not bad for a group that represents just under half the population. China hasn’t had a woman on top since the much under-rated Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, a kind of divinely elected inner Cabinet, which has been operational, more or less, since the 1950s, has had fifty-four members, of which zero have been women.

Canto: Wow – not even a female impersonator? But then, during the one child policy, something miraculous happened. Almost all the kids born turned out to be male. You can hardly blame the CCP for that.

Jacinta: And as for Putinland’s mighty ruler, he’s an unabashed misogynist and he plans to rule his namesake for the next 200 years or so, so the chances of any of those countries allowing themselves to be accountable to the rest of humanity are close to zero for the foreseeable.

Canto: Yes, and it’s funny how the nations most likely to be naughty to the tunes of their national anthems are the ones least willing to defend themselves in open court. I’ve found that there are some other interesting countries that aren’t interested in the ICC – Israel, Libya, Iraq – nations with a very spotty recent history.

Jacinta: And nothing much in the way of female leadership. Israel did have Golda Meir, described in Encyclopedia Brittanica as the country’s first female Prime Minister, as if there were others.

Canto: And then there are nations where women are barely allowed to hold down a job never mind boss others around. So what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, all we can do is try to lay down foundations. And there’s a groundswell of interest in women’s empowerment, it’s been happening for decades. When we compare women’s wages with those of men, and grumble about a gap that never seems to narrow, we need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago, in the long arc of human history, that women weren’t considered a part of the paid work-force at all. Now they own businesses, run science labs and occasionally help to govern nations. And I should mention that here in little old South Australia – where we’ve never had a female Premier, our newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas celebrated his victory with a press chit-chat flanked by five new female MPs as well as Deputy Premier Susan Close. A sixth new female Labor candidate looks set to win her seat.

Canto: So how do we promote the empowerment of women in Australia, before taking over the world?

Jacinta: Well the government occasionally brings out policy documents, such as the ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy’, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in early 2016. It recognises that ‘nowhere in the world have women and men achieved equality’, and points out, in its global analysis, that GDPs would rise everywhere if such equality could be realised, or approached. It points out the obvious benefits of female education, for women, their children and the community, and the greater stability and peace that comes with female empowerment (no mention of bonobos however). As was pointed out in the military document I read some months ago, a greater female presence in the military leads to better peace-keeping. This DFAT document repeats the point:

Greater gender equality contributes to stability and peace. Women are often instrumental in brokering ceasefires in conflict situations, and peacekeeping operations involving women as soldiers, police and civilian personnel are more effective. Greater equality can prevent disputes escalating to armed conflict.

Canto: That must be why Putin and his Patriarch aren’t into gender equality so much. And just to change the subject, I’ve heard that, since their invasion isn’t going so well – possibly because the billions spent on the military have been largely siphoned off by the luxury yacht-loving kleptocrats in his inner circle – they’re now trying to pretend that they’ve been largely successful in their main aim, which is to gain complete control of the Donbas and Crimean regions, and this is really all they wanted in the first place, etc etc.

Jacinta: Well, I’ll believe that when I hear something from Putin himself, but that’s highly unlikely. They’re basically fucked, though Putin will never admit it. Hoist by his own macho petard, I’d say. Anyway, this document from six years ago talks the talk convincingly enough, and with a likely change of Federal government in the next few months, the talk will continue. It promotes a three-pronged approach to its aid, trade and foreign relations programs – 1) Enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building. 2) Promoting women’s economic empowerment. 3) Ending violence against women and girls. Which all sounds great, though all this needs to start at home. Also the document argues that ‘at least 80 per cent of investments [presumably by DFAT], regardless of their objectives, should effectively address gender equality issues in their implementation’. What about the other 20 per cent? Where did the 80 per cent come from?

Canto: Well, 80%, 90%, 60%, it’s all just talk, who’s going to be doing the measurements? Surely the important thing is that they’re pushing for a much better situation than pertains at the moment. And meanwhile on the world stage there’s an organisation, probably quite informal, called Women Political Leaders (WPL), consisting of former and some current national Prime Ministers and such, as well as heads of the European Commission, high-ups at the UN and so forth, all promoting the benefits of female leadership, benefits we’ve outlined so many times. They held a major forum last July, which seems to have garnered little attention.

Jacinta: I’m hoping that the machismo antics of Putin, Xi Jinping and others, which of course are garnering plenty of attention, might have more effect on our appreciation of female leadership than these forums, which of course are a pointer to the future. Unfortunately, our attention will always be more drawn to  the thuggery of these types than to the speeches and achievements of intelligent women. Violence, destruction and suffering are riveting because they bring to mind our own vulnerability, and often our own sheer good luck at not finding ourselves in the thick of it. And I sometimes wonder whether, if we ever achieve something like a bonobo world, many lifetimes into the future, our victory over the male hellholes of the world will render us complacent and soft…

Canto: Haha, little likelihood of that – after all, even the bonobos males have to be kept in check by what Bjork calls ‘an army of me’. So I suspect bonobos aren’t as complacent as they might look.

Jacinta: Yes, happy loving relations often need a lot of work. Hostile relations tend to come naturally – at least so it seems from within our patriarchal culture. So, nothing for it but to keep working for a world turned upside-down.


Written by stewart henderson

March 29, 2022 at 4:04 pm

On current thugocrazies and the slow hard road to a bonobo world

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Canto: So how will this Ukraine horror end?

Jacinta: How does any thugocracy end? I recently heard one pundit saying that most – I can’t remember if he said dictators, autocrats or some other euphemism for thugs – die violently, but this is bullshit. Stalin, Mao, Leo Victor (aka Leopold I, ‘Emperor’ of Belgium) and Suharto are just a few such thugs who died peacefully without ever having to account for their crimes. Some are still worshipped today by many.

Canto: Good point, and I was amused to hear that Putin was much exercised by Gadaffi’s ignominious death, watching several times the video of him being roughed up.

Jacinta: He could’ve added the video of the Ceausescus’ shooting, but that was before his time I suppose.

Canto: His time in power, yes, but a cautionary tale all the same. But getting back to my original question, with Putin not backing down and no nation apart from Ukraine willing to fight against his troops, he can’t realistically lose, while at the same time, he can’t realistically create a puppet state there that has any chance of surviving.

Jacinta: Yes, he’s in a bind and he surely knows it. I’m tempted to say ‘it’s clear that he miscalculated’, but that would make me sound smarter than I am. So I’ll just say it looks as if he has miscalculated badly, and surely he must be wondering what to do next, since continued bombing, shelling and slaughter will only lead to a pyrrhic victory at best, but more likely an exhausting and costly campaign for his invading force, and disastrously long-standing sanctions which will cripple the Putinland economy and looks like accelerating the European move from Putinland gas to renewables.

Canto: There are arguments that some of the attempts to isolate Putinland (for example blocking Facebook and other social media) are playing into Putin’s hands, because he doesn’t want his people to have any contact with the WEIRD world – they might get ideas above their station. But look at the companies blocking or getting out of Putinland – Ikea, Adidas, Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Disney, Netflix, Apple, Toyota and many more apparently. This will change middle-class life drastically.

Jacinta: But others, including many Russian dissidents and exiles, believe this is playing into Putin’s hands, as it’s reducing the WEIRD presence in the country, a source of opposition. I suppose this means that Putin and his thugocracy will have to produce effective enough local alternatives – as the CCP thugocracy has largely managed to do. But China has a much healthier economy than Putinland, and with all the economic difficulties Putin’s fellow thugs are facing, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pump much energy into local brands.

Canto: Which raises the question of just how much all this sanctioning is affecting the Putinland economy. Many who know about the situation are trying to leave the country. Sadly, these are the relatively wealthy who have contacts overseas and know how to get their money out of the country. Those who rely on cash must surely be most affected, but I must admit that economics isn’t my strong suit. By the way, can you lend me fifty bucks?

Jacinta: What’s also interesting is that it’s bringing more attention at last to Putin’s behaviour in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya and other places. And to Putin’s putrescence in general. For example, I wasn’t entirely aware of his fear and loathing of powerful women – though of course it doesn’t surprise me. I’d vaguely heard a story of his attempt to intimidate Angela Merkel by means of a dog, because he’d heard of her having a phobia about dogs, but I didn’t connect it at the time to misogyny, and then of his loathing of Hilary Clinton, apparently for no other reason than her womanhood. He was obsessed with ensuring that she wouldn’t become US President – it seems his sabotaging campaign might’ve been more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Of course we’re unlikely to ever know whether his animus or his destructive activity with respect to the 2016 Presidential election was the key to her ‘loss’. In fact she won the popular vote, and I’ll never understand why that doesn’t win a democratic election. How can it be democratic otherwise?

Canto: Good question. So Al Gore won the 2000 US election. Democracy seems less democratic than it seems. Anyway, instituting the bonobo world would ensure little Vlady’s emasculation. Why’s it taking so long?

Jacinta: We’re obviously not getting the message across. And since Merkel’s retirement, there aren’t any women, unfortunately, that are bestriding the world like a colossus. New Zealand, Taiwan, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Kosovo, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Georgia, Ethiopia and Gabon, where women hold Presidential/Prime Ministerial positions (though some of them merely honorary) are all no doubt admirable nations, but in the horrible Realpolitik world we inhabit they’re minnows, easily ignorable by the thugocracies of China, India, Russia and the macho Middle Eastern oil-o-crazies. Why wasn’t I born a bonobo?

Canto: Well, as we speak, Putin’s forces are surrounding Kiev, and the most sickening things are happening. Ukrainians are clearly putting up stiffer resistance than expected, but with little outside support other than money and best wishes, they can’t be expected to hold out against a Svengalian thug with massive cannon-fodder reinforcements at his disposal, not to mention the nuclear option.

Jacinta: So, if he manages to strangulate Kiev, and to kill Zelensky, what then?  That’s his aim, presumably, but given Zelensky’s profile, what good will it do him? He doesn’t want to believe that macho thugs are out of fashion (sort of) in the WEIRD world, but his economy is quite dependent on that world.

Canto; Well, worse things are happening elsewhere in Ukraine. The people of Mariupol, in the south, are trapped and under heavy fire from Putin’s forces. It’s been the most bombarded city in Ukraine, apparently. In the east, Kharkiv is holding out pretty well, even though war crime-type activities have been carried out there by Putin.

Jacinta: Yes Mr Pudding has a lot to answer for, and if we could bring him to justice, what a shock it would be to the Xi Jinpings, the Ramzan Kadyrovs, the Lukashenkos, the Orbáns, the Mohammed bin Scumbags and so on, in a world that will become, I fervently believe, increasingly bonoboesque. And when it does, we will look back on Putinland, the CCP, the Middle Eastern thugocrazies and so on and so forth, and think, ‘how could we have sunk so low? How could we have reached such a level of stupidity as to let these male apes run roughshod over our children and our future, when it’s screamingly obvious that we, women, should be the leaders?’ And history will be written from a bonobo-influenced female prospective, inevitably, a future perspective, pointing out the pointless male thuggeries of the past, remembering the victims, female, male and children yet to decide, yet to have much of a life. I’m sorry, I’m imagining a future almost beyond nations, beyond nationalist brutalism, and beyond maleness. Women are our future – we have to grasp the nettle.

Canto: I think you’re right, but perhaps you’re just before your time. We have to play out the last gasp of male ascendancy – and I’m not suggesting that Putin’s last breath, which hopefully happens soon, will be that last gasp – far from it unfortunately. But we have a long, hard battle to fight against misogyny. Look at the Taliban. Look at Iran. Look at the CCP – their politburo has never had a female member in the seventy years of its existence. Even the USA has never had a female President, and women have a horribly hard road to hoe in the male province of politics even in democratic countries. Australia has had one female Prime Minister, and she was subjected to more vitriol than any male PM in Australian history – I would have no hesitation in claiming that to be a fact.

Jacinta: Slowly but surely wins the race. Sadly for me, it’ll more likely take centuries rather than decades, but think of the progress made in a relatively short time. We couldn’t become university professors a century ago, never mind major political or business identities. Obviously our fantastical leadership qualities are likely to shine within democracies rather than the thugocratic alternatives – which are the only real alternatives to the WEIRD world, and they’re always male. The Chinese people – and I’ve met so many of them – deserve far better than this horrific CCP thugocrazy. Clearly the dictator Xi can’t last forever, and the Chinese people will hopefully not tolerate the country bumbling from thug to thug, and if we keep moving in a bonoboeque direction elsewhere, Chinese women will make themselves heard more and more within the country, before it’s too late for the already-decimated Uyghurs and other proud minorities.

Canto: Yes it amuses me that their oligarchy is called the Chinese Communist Party, an exquisitely meaningless name. They may as well be called the Soggy Bottom Boys Party, but humour has never been their strong suit. That’s thugs for you.

Jacinta: Yes, talking of humour, I’ve not yet heard from Mr Pudding about Elon Musk’s demand for Mano-a-mano combat. He’s such a coward, when it comes down to it….


Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2022 at 7:51 pm

the anti-bonobo world 2: Putinland

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So what is the opposite of a ‘bonobo world’ in human terms? I’d describe it as a macho thugocracy. The chimp world, from my research, isn’t anywhere near the kind of macho thugocracy that we find in some places in the human world, in which the concentration of male power is extreme. The chimp world is certainly more aggressive and more hierarchical than the bonobo world, but alliances are constantly shifting, and females make alliances with both males and other females, to protect their young and sometimes themselves against growing males who are constantly challenging the current hierarchy.

With humans, organisation and power became more institutional, but with democracy, power tends to be more fleeting and more dependent on collaboration, promise-keeping, popularity and the like. So a more democratic region tends to lend itself to a more bonobo-like culture. There used to be a claim that democracies never make war with each other, but one should never say never. Nevertheless, with the advent of modern democracy, the WEIRD world has clearly settled down into less violent forms of exploitation. And in terms of female power and influence, the door is slowly creaking open.

Some of us are more impatient than others. I need to recall that, 100 years ago, in 1920 to be precise, women were awarded their first degrees at Oxford University. In that same year, women in the USA were granted the right to vote, after years of struggle and vitriolic resistance. Social evolution has been increasingly rapid, but it’s still too slow for many of us to bear, as the sands of one lifetime start to run out.

And there are frustrating reversals. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, written in the late forties, she described the gains made by women in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, influenced by the feminist principles of Engels and Marx as well as the mostly British suffragette movement, followed by a backlash in the 30s and 40s as Stalin established his stranglehold on power. She ended her analysis on a grim note:

… today the demands of repopulation have given rise to a different family policy: the family has become the elementary social cell and woman is both worker and housekeeper. Sexual morality is at its strictest; since the law of June 1936, reinforced by that of June 1941, abortion has been banned and divorce almost suppressed; adultery is condemned by moral standards. Strictly subordinated to the state like all workers, strictly bound to the home, but with access to political life and the dignity that productive work gives, the Russian woman is in a singular situation that would be worth studying in its singularity; circumstances unfortunately prevent me from doing this.

Stalinist Russia and its profoundly corrupt and terrorising state control heavily impeded feminine and general freedoms, a situation that largely persisted until the advent of Gorbachev in the 1980s. What followed, according to the political science academic Brian Grodsky, was an unprincipled mess of grab-bag opportunism under Boris Yeltsin and his cronies:

…. Russians watched as Yeltsin clumsily dragged the country through a decade of lawlessness, poverty and humility, all in the name of American-supported democracy. The economy plummeted while a new tiny class of ostentatious “haves” made their fortune frequently by plundering what people had built during Soviet times.

Putin, the acme of the smart, devious, unprincipled KGB operative, was able to take advantage of the situation, quite likely by contributing to the murderous chaos before presenting himself as ministering angel to the country’s plummeting economy. He used Stalin’s tactics of sowing suspicion everywhere, while managing to sell himself as a friend of the ‘common people’, a skill that was never in Stalin’s make-up.

There is no doubt, though, that Putin is a ruthless, murderous thug who hates democracy with a passion. He’s clearly obsessed with his eastern border and the democratisation of any of Russia’s neighbours or economic ‘partners’. He’s much more comfortable among fellow macho thugs, as long as he can manipulate them. Within the country he’s intent on maintaining a conservative, masculinised culture. More than any other leader before him, certainly throughout the Soviet era, he has fostered close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, the leader of which, their equivalent of the Catholic Pope, is called the Patriarch. If only this was a parody.

But the promotion of patriarchal values via conservative Christianity is only one piece of the attack on feminism. Like the Chinese thugocracy, which chortles under the exquisitely meaningless title, the Chinese Communist Party, Putinland decries feminism – a campaign to promote equal rights, opportunities and respect for women – as liberal-democratic decadence. In her 2018 essay, ‘Russian politics of masculinity and the decay of feminism’, Alexandra Orlova describes the state propagandising of opposition figures and even dissenting nations like Ukraine as weak and ‘feminine’, even resorting to video campaigns dressing such figures up as transvestites and ‘fairies’. Traditional, unchanging values are continuously promoted in an unrelenting propaganda war, which unsurprisingly connects feminism with gay freedoms under the ‘banner’ of degeneracy. State-funded video ads for the already-rigged 2018 elections presented the alternative to the status quo as an enforced de-masculinisation of Russian society presented in absurdist comic terms.

Much of this disastrous absurdity springs from the failures of the Soviet era, which, as Beauvoir and Orlova make clear, began very promisingly for feminism. Why such a failure? The answer lies, it seems to me, in the moral congealing of a top-down, anti-democratic system, as existed under patriarchal catholicism for centuries in Europe. Communist ‘values’ have never been particularly coherent, but they were soon replaced by a ‘we know best’ authoritarianism which divided the rulers from the ruled and sought to promulgate rules that would maintain a status quo which would benefit the empowered. A promotion of stasis – of traditional or eternal values. For example, as Orlova puts it, ‘by the 1930s the Soviet government claimed that women’s issues were largely solved.’ Compare this to the Beauvoir statement above, which Orlova would surely endorse. Under Putin, nothing has changed, which essentially means that Russia has gone backward compared to the WEIRD world, in which progress has been slow enough to be extremely frustrating for some.

There was, of course, a window of opportunity in the nineties before Putin consolidated his power at the end of that decade. During this period, WEIRD organisations were active in promoting feminism and other progressive values in a nation whose immediate future was uncertain. All of these initiatives have been quashed with the advent of Putinland.

Putin is, as of this writing, 69 years and 4 months old. He has dispensed with the charade of rigged elections, and so has managed, by fiat, to avoid the skirmishes that alpha male chimps and gorillas have to face in order to maintain a hegemony that nature determines will pass on to someone else, usually through further violent confrontation. He’ll leave behind a nation that’s left behind, considering how globally connected the world – especially the WEIRD  world – has become. The Russian people, though, are better than this. Its beleaguered women will bounce back. Already they can see through the propagandist bullshit of Putin’s thugocracy. Like a coiled spring, they’re waiting for release. Any day now.

Evidence of a more positive future is clear enough. Orlova focuses in her essay on two issues that exercised the Russian court system, which, like the Duma, is stacked with ‘traditional values’ conservatives, and highlighted its absurdity vis-a-vis the rest of the WEIRD world. Firstly, the Pussy Riot débâcle, and secondly the Markin v Russia case regarding military leave, which was finally taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

To take the second case first, Konstantin Markin, a single father of three children, was employed by the military as a radio operator. His request for parental leave in 2010 was rejected, due to the fact that, under Russian law, such leave could only be granted to women. Two levels of appeal under the Russian justice system were rejected, and the judicial reasoning in these cases, and in response to the European Court, which found in favour of Markin, reveal how problematic the Russian judiciary’s attitude was in the face of obvious reality. The chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, claimed that the special role of women in the raising of children was supported by contemporary psychology. Presumably, he considered this ‘fact’ to be sufficient to prohibit a male who happened to be raising children from being provided the support given to women. The children don’t appear to have been given very much consideration in the matter. What Zorkin and his ilk proposed should be done about the children in these circumstances is unknown. I would also presume that Russia, like the USA, doesn’t feel itself bound by judicial bodies beyond its boundaries. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Markin ever got his leave, but I would agree with the Strasbourg observers, linked below, that the well-being of the children in the case should have been front and centre, the first and virtually only focus of the courts in all cases.

The Pussy Riot events are, of course, better known, and the humour and deliberate outrageousness of their activities were bound to endear them to the WEIRD world that Putinland pretends to despise. Tellingly the Russian courts were most ‘outraged’ by the group’s takeover of a particularly male section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to stage a feminist performance. One section of the court’s decision indicates their attitude:

While following the ideology of feminism does not constitute a crime or another type of an offence in the Russian Federation, a number of religions, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, cannot be reconciled with the ideas of feminism. While feminism does not represent a religious ideology, the followers of feminism are interfering with such public spheres as public morals, norms of propriety, family relations, and sexual relations, all of which have been historically built on the basis of religious principles.

This is essentially the dictate of a religious institution rather than a secular one. The religious organisations mentioned have, of course, been opposed to the equal treatment of women for centuries, and are obvious and necessary targets for feminist and human rights organisations.

As of this moment of writing, the forces of Putinland are about to invade Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation. Whether or not Putin wins this battle, he has no chance of winning the war of values. Meanwhile, horrors will be inflicted and needless suffering will occur. Fighting the anti-bonobo world is going to be difficult for an increasingly bonoboesque WEIRD world that prefers to make love. I’ve no idea how we can overcome this macho push, at least in the short term, but long-term victory will definitely involve women, in vast numbers.


Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

February 19, 2022 at 5:17 pm

me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half


I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world: the ascent and fall of man

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                                  devil woman, with evil on her mind

Bonobos obviously evolved from some earlier type, along with chimps, but we’re not as interested in their evolution as we are in ours, understandably enough. What wouldn’t we give to fill in the gaps in our rise – the where and when of the first use of fire, the first spoken language, the beginnings of religious practice and so on? And of course none of us will live long enough to find out if bonobos, left alone (which they won’t be), become more gynocratic or less in the distant future, let alone whether we humans will eventually manage to live for as long as some tortoises I’ve heard about.

We human apes, of course, have socially evolved, especially over the past few thousand years, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out regularly in the series so admired by Deutsch. Yet interestingly, there was a kind of evolution that Bronowski himself, and the producers of The Ascent of Man, seemed not to have arrived at by 1971. I haven’t watched the entire series, only the two episodes and other bits and pieces I’ve found on YouTube, because I’m too poor to pay for the entire series, but having watched the first episode more than once, I felt bugged by all this ‘man’ stuff. So I did a count. Bronowski utters the word ‘man’ 70 times, together with the pronouns ‘he’ (29 times), ‘his’ (23) and ‘him’ (12). The words ‘woman’ ‘she’ and ‘her’ are uttered zero times in toto by my count. In terms of imagery, only two human figures are focussed on apart from Bronowski, a male child learning to stand on two feet, and a male athlete running and pole vaulting. But of course, by ‘man’ he means ‘human’, right? And, hey, this was the beginning of the seventies, right? Which was almost the sixties, really quite close to the fifties…

I’m not even a woman but I felt like I was having my female irrelevance bashed into my face in listening to all this – a bit like a sleeping woman who only realises she’s being clouted when she wakes up. And all this man stuff didn’t suddenly end with the seventies – I’m reminded of a book, God, actually, which I read at the tail end of the New Atheism flare-up a few years ago. It was a dreadful piece of drivel seeking to prove the existence of the Judaeo-Christian god and to debunk evolution, which, against the advice of my betters, I managed to read to the end. Yet nothing in the male author’s specious arguments irritated me more than his deliberate use of ‘man’ as a generic term (though I was more irritated at the publisher, ABC books of all people). At one point, after reading the ‘man’ word about fifteen times in a couple of pages, I threw the book across the room in disgust. It seemed far more of an attack on women than on atheists.

But perhaps the title ‘The Ascent of Man’ was meant as a clever science-and-human development counterpoint to the religious ‘Fall of Man’ trope? Or at least, let’s pretend. The fall of man really was male, of course, and it was caused by woman. Or, if you like, by god, who should’ve left that spare rib alone. Not that this little fable was necessary to create a viciously misogynistic society, as witness the ancient Greeks (with apologies to the Spartans). Still it did a fine job of making life hot for women, long before the witch-burning frenzy of the fifteenth,  sixteenth, seventeenth  and eighteenth centuries (to be precise, the last woman known to have been burnt to death as a witch was Barbara Zdunk in Poland in 1811, and the first known execution of a witch, recorded by Demosthenes, was of Theoris of Lemnos, and her family, some time before 323 BCE, though it’s likely that witch-hunting, torture and execution predates this). Since all the early Christian writers and power-wielders were men with natural sexual desires, and since they’d gotten into their collective heads a fear and hatred of sexual desire as a straying from the endless and more or less brainless contemplation of the divine, women, the ‘daughters of Eve’ (though women were generally supposed, at least by the elites who pretended to understand such things, to be the carriers of the human seed without contributing to it) became the collective scapegoat. Basically, women were encouraged to be the objects of men’s desires, and exploited as such, and then blamed for it. Here’s the early Christian writer Tertullian, as memorably quoted by Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?

As many feminist writers have pointed out, the exploitation of, and the ill-treatment, murder and general public opprobrium of sex workers of all varieties has never really abated, despite the so-called sexual liberation that began decades ago. What these religious and conservative types would think of bonobo shenanigans is an interesting question, but not particularly relevant for the future of humanity, whether it’s headed upwards or down. For the future lies with those who are open and attentive to the behaviour of our relatives. Bonobos’ use of sex isn’t obsessive, or particularly excessive. What is excessive and obsessive is our fear of sex, and our need to control it, to hide it, to wrap it in bonds of ownership, to weaponise it. We’re so  absurdly uptight about it, so incapable of normalising it as a need, a feeling, an appetite, a social bond, a pleasure.

The fall, indeed. We’ve fallen for so many myths about sex. When will be able to rise above all that, and be kinder to each other? Not until women are on top, I’m pretty sure.


The Ascent of Man, Ep. 01 “Lower Than the Angels” (YouTube video)

Roy Williams, God, actually, 2010, ABC Books & HarperCollins

Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2021 at 9:32 pm