a bonobo humanity?

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

Posts Tagged ‘bonobos

a conversation about dictatorship, intellectuals, bonobos and the strange case of the USA

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Francisco Lopez, one of the world’s lesser known dictators – unless you’re Paraguayan (see references)

Canto: So there’s now Putin’s macho invasion of Ukraine, Trump & co’s macho trampling of US democracy, such as it is, Hamas and its macho terrorist attack in southern Israel, and Israel’s massive macho response, Xi’s macho politburo and his assault on female empowerment, and the usual macho claptrap in Iran, Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, Yemen, etc etc, etc, so how’s your bonobo world going?

Jacinta: Well, my teensy-tiny part of the world is going okay, and hopefully that tiny-teensy patch south of the Congo River is too, for now. And patches of the WEIRD world are making slow progress, from century to century.

Canto: So you’re taking the long view. How admirable. Seriously, it’s the only way we can maintain any optimism. When the internet suddenly became a big thing in everyone’s life, I was excited – so much useful knowledge at our fingertips without having to visit libraries, subscribe to science magazines, buy books and so on – I didn’t really pay much attention to the social media aspect and its dangers, which have become so overwhelming in the USA, but probably here as well for all I know. I often hear – it’s repeated so often it’s almost as if I comprehend it – that so-and-so has been ‘radicalised by social media’. But what does that really mean?

Jacinta: Well, I think it starts with the fact that people want to be with like-minded people. They like to be part of an ‘in-group’. People who really deserve the ‘intellectual’ title are actually in a tiny minority. They’re generally more independent-minded and suspicious of any in-group thinking.

Canto: And yet, bonobos are real groupies, aren’t they? Isn’t that a problem for you?

Jacinta: I’m not pretending we should be like bonobos in all ways, but, since we’ve been focussing on free will, and the lack thereof, our recognition of this lack should make us more compassionate, from an intellectual perspective. And bonobos are the compassionate, and passionate apes, presumably not coming at it from an intellectual perspective. What they’ve become ‘instinctively’, we need to become from a more knowledge-based, intellectual perspective.

Canto: Way to become more sexy, by just giving it more thought.

Jacinta: It doesn’t require that much thought, just an open-eyed – and certainly more female-centred – view of what macho violence has done and is still doing.

Canto: What about the ‘problem’ of female self-obsession, fashion-consciousness, and general ‘femininity’ – highlighting the decorative over the functional?

Jacinta: Like the ‘problem’ of male dressing tough, or business-like or sporty-casual or whatever, these are minor differences which are already changing with greater equality. Visit any Aussie pub. Anyway, looking decorative rather than functional has often to more to do with status than gender. Though there’s still a way to go.

Canto: I’ve noted that human society, at least in the WEIRD world, seems to be divided into right or left wing obsessionalism. What do you make of this?

Jacinta: Taking the long view, it’s a passing phase..

Canto: Well if you take the long view everything’s a passing phase. Nations are a passing phase, and now everyone’s obsessed with borders and the status of immigrants, as if migration hasn’t been a thing since humans came into being and before  – ask any bird-dinosaur.

Jacinta: So, such terms as neo-Marxism or neo-fascism seem laughable to me. It’s largely macho stuff. We’re  more about wanting to get on with people, recognising our different backgrounds and influences and trying to find common grounds rather than ideological grounds for grievance. And what are those grounds? The desire to be heard, accepted, even loved. Youse men are too interested in besting, in winning. Of course, I’m generalising – there are male-type females and vice versa.

Canto: Well, I can’t disagree. But isn’t that competitive spirit good for capitalism as well as war?

Jacinta: Ah, capitalism. There are info-wars out there about whether capitalism is good or bad. To me, it’s either, or it’s both, because it’s much more than some political ideology. Birds do it, bees do it, even the fungi in the trees do it. It’s more than just human nature.

Canto: So, you mean capitalising?

Jacinta: Yes, and you can do it in a dumb way – say, by basing much of your diet on one or two species, hunting and gathering them to extinction, then heading towards extinction yourself because you can’t change your culinary ways. Moving to an agricultural lifestyle was a smart but risky thing to do, and was best done gradually, as with any change of diet….

Canto: But this has nothing to do with capitalism as we know it.

Jacinta: Ha, I neither know nor care about the dictionary definition of capitalism. Or the political definition, I should say. I’m thinking it in the broadest sense – capitalising on food and other resources, on our smarts, our technology, our history. And we can be synergistic capitalists, or symbiotic capitalists. Isn’t that what trade is all about? And getting back to bonobos, isn’t their sexual play a kind of synergistic capitalism, especially with the females? They’re building bonds that unite the community, especially the females when the odd too-aggressive male starts to cause trouble. Social capital, they call it. We need more social capital.

Canto: Trade alliances seem to be good for maintaining the peace I suppose, but it’s all beginning to fray…

Jacinta: Idiots like Trump, as far as he has any policies, think that closing the borders and shitting on your allies will MAGA, as if isolationism has ever benefitted any nation that wants to progress. How are the Andaman Islanders going?

Canto: Trump just intuits that the idea will resonate with his base, insofar as he thinks at all.

Jacinta: Yes, being born into wealth, but without intellect, by which I mean intellectual curiosity, the kind of mind that tries to ‘rise above the self and grasp the world’, to quote our blog’s motto, he’s purely interested in self-promotion, and his instincts tell him it’s not the curious and the questioning that’ll follow him, but those impressed by his wealth and his bluster. Look at any dictator – they all project this air of extreme self-importance, it’s the first and last, the ‘must-have’ quality.

Canto: And the fact that there are always so so so many dupes for these guys, that’s what astonishes me most. Why is it so?

Jacinta: I think conditions have to be right. There has to be a substantial proportion of the population that are under-educated, but above all suffering, feeling deprived, abandoned, desperate. Smart, successful and well-heeled people seek out their own, and easily slip into the fantasy that most people are like them. They’re not, especially in places like the USA, with its rich-poor gap, its tattered social safety net, its pathetic minimum wage, its massive incarceration rate, its group-think holy rollers and the like. And surely no nation is more deluded about its own superiority than the USA, so vague but persistent appeals to patriotism, which are the sine qua non for dictators (Hitler being the prime example of that) will always play exceptionally well there.

Canto: Hmmm, quite an indictment, but the USA, to be fair, is very diverse, almost like a few countries rolled into one. New York State and the north-east coast seem to be no-go areas for Trump, and California too… that’s my uneducated guess. It’s like the civil war never ended, it’s so divided. United States indeed!

Jacinta: Haha, we should get off this obsession with the US, but indeed, I’ve often thought they’d be better off dividing the place into two, or even three. Or rather, I just wish they’d do it for our entertainment’s sake.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of macho ground – though it often feels like the female Trumpets blow the hardest. But they can’t help it – no free will after all, right?

Jacinta: Well, yes, but that’s not a cause for despair – determinism isn’t pre-determinism. It means working towards a world in which the determining factors are as positive as they can be. But that’s for another time…




Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2023 at 6:34 pm

bonobos, chimps, theory of mind, and sex

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bonobo mother and child

Jacinta: So how is the bonobo influence faring these days – in Afghanistan, Iran, Trumpistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Israel and Burma, to name a few…?

Canto: Okay, enough goat-getting. I’m still fascinated by how bonobos – more genetically similar to chimps, of course, than to humans – came to be so different. It’s not genetics, so what is it? It can’t just be diet, or habitat. And, my feeling is, if you know how something works, you can build it yourself. Like, if you know how beehives work you can build your own beehive, which we’ve done.

Jacinta: Not quite the same as building a new social system methinks. Though they have tried, haven’t they? ‘Let’s go to the Americas and build a Paraiso en el Nuevo Mundo‘…But isn’t it already inhabited?’ ‘Yeah, we might need a bit of rubbish-clearing to start with’.

Canto: You’d think that our discovery of the bonobo lifestyle, really only a few decades ago, its feminism, its relative pacifism, its great community spirit, not to mention the sex, would be of interest to more than just a few primatologists, especially given the world of warfare, rapine and religious numbskullduggery that so many of us are still trapped within – it makes me scream with frustration.

Jacinta: It seems that the timber of humanity is more crooked than that of bonobos. I reckon we took a really wrong turn a few million years ago, so now we’re lost in the patriarchal jungle and we’ll never find our way back.

Canto: But bonobos are showing us the way don’t you see? And if humans didn’t make life so difficult for them, and their habitat wasn’t so fouled and fenced in by human depredations, they’d be so numerous, such a dominant force in the landscape, they’d put us to shame.

Jacinta: Haha we’re a pretty shameless species I’m afraid. Anyway, aren’t bonobos the anomalous ones? Chimps vastly outnumber them, despite the same human depredations. It be Nature, and what do please Evolution. If they hadn’t been separated into two species by the formation of the Congo River, they’d still be one species, and patriarchal, I’m betting.

Canto: Wow, who’s side are you on? Whether bonobos’ ancestors were patriarchal or not is beside the point to me. The point is, they’re matriarchal now, who cares when it started. And they’re happy, and successful. And we humans want to be happy, or happier, and more successful. So we might learn from bonobos about being less aggressive, less cruel, less exploitative, less competitive, and more caring, more playful, more communal, more uninhibited…

Jacinta: Okay, okay, I get it. But I’m wondering about that aggression, or at least that competitiveness. Hasn’t it been to our advantage as a species? The space race, the battles between competing scientific theories, between political ideologies and the like, haven’t they sharpened the collective human mind? Aren’t bonobos a bit intellectually lazy? I’ve read somewhere that chimps are more consistent toolmakers than bonobos. Or would you rather we lived in some timeless hippy-bonobo nirvana?

Canto: Okay, let’s look at the evidence, or what we have of it. Michael Tomasello et al published a research study in the journal PloS One in 2010, entitled ‘Differences in the Cognitive Skills of Bonobos and Chimpanzees’. Here’s the whole abstract from it:

While bonobos and chimpanzees are both genetically and behaviorally very similar, they also differ in significant ways. Bonobos are more cautious and socially tolerant while chimpanzees are more dependent on extractive foraging, which requires tools. The similarities suggest the two species should be cognitively similar while the behavioral differences predict where the two species should differ cognitively. We compared both species on a wide range of cognitive problems testing their understanding of the physical and social world. Bonobos were more skilled at solving tasks related to theory of mind or an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees were more skilled at tasks requiring the use of tools and an understanding of physical causality. These species differences support the role of ecological and socio-ecological pressures in shaping cognitive skills over relatively short periods of evolutionary time.

Jacinta: Yeah, that is a bit abstract. WTF is the difference between social causality and physical causality?
Canto: Well, it hints of course as to why chimps might be less interested in tool-making, and more interested in how to effectively share in the relative abundance of their habitat – a habitat they had full control of, I suspect, before a species called H sapiens started fucking it up. Says little about intelligence, however defined. Interestingly, the study involved far more chimps (106) than bonobos (34), and fewer female bonobos (13) than males – a bit disappointing, given that female bonobos have become dominant for some reason, but clearly not because of physical strength!
Jacinta: Well, reading further into the article, they did do some experiments in which they evened out the numbers, and I was intrigued by the claim that bonobos were more ‘timid’ than chimps:
Mirroring individual differences observed in theory of mind development in human children, the more cautious and socially tolerant bonobos outperformed chimpanzees on the theory of mind scale. Meanwhile, the prolific tool-using chimpanzee, whose survival is more dependent on extractive foraging, outperformed bonobos in the tool-use and causality scale.
Canto: Yes, apparently human children of the more reflective and less, dare I say, ‘out there’ type, have been found to be better at ‘theory of mind’ tasks. Tasks involving ‘walking in others’ shoes’, might I say. And isn’t that what we need right now? And I’m willing to bet all my worldly goods, that human females outperform males in those tasks.
Jacinta: This has been a contentious issue for some time, and it’s complicated, but yes, it seems that females do better at ToM, as they call it.
This pattern can potentially be interpreted as suggesting that bonobos are more skilled at solving problems requiring an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees are more skilled at solving problems relating to physical causality. In contrast, the two species did not differ in the scales measuring their understanding of problems related to spatial comprehension, discriminating quantities, using and comprehending communicative signals and learning from others via a social demonstration. This pattern of findings provides support for the hypothesis that socio-ecological pressures play an important role in shaping the cognitive differences observed between these species.
Long-term observations of wild chimpanzees have suggested that female chimpanzees acquire more proficient tool-using techniques faster than males, and other studies show a similar pattern in captive bonobos. Therefore, it may be that socio-ecological pressures play a more limited role in producing cognitive differences based on sex in these species, but it also suggests that female Panins pay closer attention to others which allows them to learn and solve social problems more quickly and skillfully than males (while both sexes perform similarly in physical cognition tasks).
Canto: That’s intriguing, but it still doesn’t come very close to helping us understand how bonobo females dominate. I’m still waiting for a good hypothesis to explain this apparent turn-around. I’d like to think that there’s a clue in their sexual activities, but since it all seems to be about mutual masturbation…
Jacinta: But maybe it’s because the females are more proficient masturbators. After all, human females are more easily able to achieve orgasm than males, and that’s likely true also for bonobos, and in a social system in which there’s no sexual prudery (and humans have barely any such systems), that achievement might be politically empowering.
Canto: Yes, and this Theory of Mind stuff suggests that bonobos would likely get off on each others’ excitement, the females especially. Creating greater closeness and empathy. But then, there’s masturbatory sex, but also more ‘serious’ sex, directed at producing offspring. I’ve read that dominant female bonobos seek to manipulate things so that there own male offspring have sex, in this procreative sense, with the ‘right’ females.
Jacinta: Yes, that does sound weird. Could bonobos possibly know the connection between sex and pregnancy? Seems unlikely.
Canto: That’s something to look into next time….

Written by stewart henderson

November 8, 2023 at 10:01 pm

more frayed and fractured thoughts on the long and winding road that leads to your bonoboism

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I have attempted to show, in my book The Second Sex [1949], why a woman’s situation still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, 1960

L’admission des femmes à l’égalité parfaite serait la marque la plus sûre de la civilisation et elle doublerait les forces intellectuelles du genre humain.

Stendhal, De l’amour, 1821



Little Women

The move towards female dominance in the WEIRD world has begun. Or has it? If so, it has a bloody long way to go. Here in Australia, our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are male, but at least our Foreign Minister is female. As a relatively new country, federated in 1901, we’ve had 31 Prime Ministers, 30 of whom have been male. That’s slightly (or much?) better than the USA, with 45 Presidents, all male, from 1789. Of course, Australia’s only female PM, Julia Gillard, came to power in the 21st century (unelected ‘by the people’, due to internal ructions in the sitting government, though her party, the Australian Labor Party, went on to retain government in 2010 – but then the party dumped her before the next election). Our neighbour New Zealand has had three female PMs, one of whom, Helen Clark, managed to hold the post for nine years. And New Zealand was the first country in the WEIRD world to allow women to vote, in 1893.

We don’t have a presidential system, we have a far better party-based system, in which we vote for policies and party platforms rather than a one-on-0ne between two ‘I alone can fix it’ noise-makers. Having said that, I’m being a bit disingenuous – it’s very likely that a lot of Aussies vote based on the ‘personality’ of Mr Labour or Mr LNP (the federal LNP has never had a female leader, while federal labour has had only Gillard). But at least the party can dump their leaders at the behest of the elected members, and there’s nothing in the way of immunity or ‘pardoning powers’. And that goes for virtually every democracy in the WEIRD world, apart from the USA. Getting rid of all that bullshit would, I think, be a move in the bonobo direction for that teetering nation. Don’t hold your breath.

The bonobo world, as I see it, is not just a predominantly female world, it’s a collaborative world. And with a greater spirit of collaboration in the structure or design or evolved culture of a company or a discipline – think education, the law, but above all the sciences, which don’t suffer from the negativities of in-built adversarial systems (politics, courts, industrial relations) – more women will be attracted, and will succeed. The horrorshow regions of the world – China, Russia, the Middle East (including Israel) and much of Africa, Asia and South America, are mucho macho. Which, frankly, doesn’t leave much territory for women to display their wares. Those that succeed, politically, often do so by aping the confrontational male approach, to the delight of their male ‘advisors’. Pew research from a few months ago tells us that fewer than a third of UN member states have ever had a female leader, and that of the mere thirteen current female leaders, nine are the first female leaders of their nation. Of course, if we go back 100 years, when the League of Nations was struggling to survive, the situation was far worse. So unless change occurs exponentially, we’ll be waiting a few centuries before bonoboism takes its rightful place in our world.

And yet, we must take the long view. It has amused and annoyed me that so many scholars, who should know better, take issue with Steven Pinker’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and Peter Singer’s ‘expanding circle’. The evidence of extreme, mass human violence and cruelty going back centuries into millennia has been gathered and presented by countless historians, and the fact that so many millions were killed in just the past century or so of warfare is not due to our growing thuggishness and indifference to suffering, but the greater efficiency of our killing machinery, culminating in the Hiroshima-Nagasaki horror. Some may say this is wishful thinking, but I consider that double event as a watershed in our history. What followed was a period of unprecedented peace in the WEIRD world, and the establishment of a concept of universal human rights, developed and promoted by the indefatigable Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.

Over the years I’ve known many individuals to sneer at and dismiss the UN as a toothless tiger, and it would be easy enough to enumerate its failings, but the very existence of ‘peacekeeping forces’ is, historically, a completely novel, and quite bonoboesque, phenomenon. After all, bonobos aren’t entirely non-violent, but they tend to employ violence only to prevent further violence.

Bonobos are less territorial than chimps. They both live in distinct troupes (think ‘nations’) but while bonobos are observed to share food (and cuddles) with bonobo foreigners, chimps are just as likely to engage in death-fights. In recent centuries, humans have created nations, whose integrity obsesses us, so that we patrol borders, we obsess over the ‘legality’ of those who cross those borders, we pride ourselves on being ‘us’ and not ‘them’. Before we developed those obsessions, an intrepid voyager, or ‘immigrant’, might have travelled from Albion, where I was born, to the European mainland, and on east for thousands of kilometres, to arrive at the northern Pacific, perhaps around where Vladivostok is now, without ever having crossed a border, or been asked to produce her ‘papers’. Of course she may well have been robbed or raped a few times along the way, all part of the adventure, and would’ve learned about safety in numbers, and the art of ingratiation… Intrepid travellers generally have many skills to rely on, for surviving and even thriving in new arenas, enlivening and enriching those arenas to the benefit of all, a process that has occurred time and time again – but when males have dominated, there has aways been a conflictual downside. If female dominance manages to become the norm, as one day, long after the eight billion humans currently doing their diverse things around the biosphere have passed away, I believe it will, this downside will be greatly reduced, and a true golden age for humanity, and for the biosphere within which it is enmeshed, will begin.

Or maybe not. I always like to have an each-way bet, even when I’ll never know in my lifetime what the outcome will be. Got to protect my future rep after all. But I really don’t think a future without greater female empowerment can be contemplated with equanimity. China, Russia, the Middle East and most of Africa are currently shithole regions for women, but arguably this isn’t because women’s situation has deteriorated in these regions. It has never been good for them, since their history has been recorded. Or perhaps not never. There have been brief periods – before the Ayatollahs turned Persia into Iran, for example, or when Catherine the Great introduced the idea of (limited) education for women in Russia – but it so often seems like one step forward then two steps back.

Anyway, Vive les bonobos. We need to keep learning from them.





Written by stewart henderson

November 3, 2023 at 4:55 pm

bonobos, an outlier in the primate world, and yet…

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any excuse for a nice bonobo pic

In trying to develop a bonobo world with human characteristics, or perhaps more realistically a human world with bonobo characteristics, I suspect it’s best not to start by disparaging the male (human) brain as ‘unevolved’ or distinctly inferior to that of the female – something I heard in an interview with a male psychotherapist recently. Firstly, it make no sense to say that a brain, or a human, or a dog, a dolphin or a donkey is ‘unevolved’. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, which is about ongoing change to most effectively adapt to a changing environment. And this includes social environments. The Andamanese, a tiny population living on scattered islands in the Bay of Bengal from about 25,000 years ago, and driven almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries by the introduction of measles, influenza, pneumonia, and alcohol, have recovered somewhat and preserve their simple lifestyle via extreme hostility to interlopers, and are no more unevolved than were the ancient Hominins who once lived on the Indonesian island of Flores. It’s true, of course, that evolution can be competitive, and some species – or sub-species or cultures – can win out over others, but to describe this as due to being ‘more evolved’ rather over-simplifies matters. Each species evolves to survive and thrive in its own niche, and may thrive in that way for an eon, but may be swept away by another invasive species, or by relatively sudden climate change, or by very sudden events such as meteor showers or volcanic eruptions.

In the same interview, the psychotherapist described the male brain, including his own, as sick and in some sense mentally unbalanced compared to the female brain. And you can go onto YouTube and other sources to find dozens of mini-lectures and expert opinions on the male versus the female brain.

However, it might surprise people to know that there is no categorical difference between the male and female brain, at least not in the sense there is, usually, between a male and female body. Put another way, if a neurologist with decades of experience was given a disembodied brain and asked about its sex, she wouldn’t be able to say, categorically, whether it was male or female. There are statistical differences – males have, on average, more ‘grey matter’ (individual neurons) while females have more ‘white matter’ (myelinated axons connecting neurons) – but there is great diversity within this frame, which should hardly surprise us. Our brains develop within the womb, subject to the diet and environmental conditions of our mothers, and genetic and epigenetic factors have their role to play. In early childhood neural connections multiply rapidly in response to a multitude of more or less unique conditioning factors, and new connections continue to be made well into adulthood, resulting in more than eight billion tediously unique noggins clashing and combining in tediously unique ways.

So, to me, it’s behaviour that we need to start with. Of course I’m interested in the nervous system and the endocrine system of bonobos, but that’s because I’m first and foremost taken by their behaviour. I’m encouraged by what I see as changes in male behaviour in the WEIRD world, but then I was told recently that male violence against women is actually increasing. Of course these things are hard to measure as not all violence is reported, and the very concept of violence may be disputed, but a quick look at figures for Australia, which surely qualifies as a WEIRD nation, suggests that my sense of things is right:

Experiences of partner violence in the 12 months before the survey (last 12 months) remained relatively stable for both men and women between 2005 and 2016. However, between 2016 and 2021–22 the proportion of women who experienced partner violence decreased from 1.7% in 2016 to 0.9% in 2021–22.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Australian Government)

Whatever one might think of these figures, there’s little evidence of an increase in male violence (against females), at least here, in this teeny WEIRD nation. So maybe it’s places like Australia, and New Zealand, far from some of the major global threats, slowly building a multi-ethnic culture (largely proof against the massive social divisions stifling the divided ‘USA’), an oasis of 26 million compared to the bonobo oasis of maybe 20 thousand, a region that still likes to think of itself as ‘young and free’, and prepared to experiment with our politics and culture, maybe it’s here that bonobo-style caring-and-sharing behaviour can start to make some headway (but of course even as I write this it strikes me as ridiculous).

The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to focus on such a possible future without sex rearing its not-so-ugly head. In human culture we’re obsessed with beauty (both male and female) in a positive way (though bad luck if you happen not to be physically attractive), and obsessed with sex in a much more confused but largely negative way (‘licentiousness’, a very human term, is generally condemned in all societies). Do bonobos distinguish between each other in terms of ‘good looks’? If not, when did we, or our ancestors start to do so? There has of course been much talk of ‘sexual selection’ in anthropology, going back to Darwin, but in bonobo society, where female-female sex predominates but sex, generally in the form of mutual masturbation, occurs among and between all age groups and genders, sexual selection (for breeding purposes) would only occasionally operate. And after all, masturbation is about one’s own erogenous zones, which, like being tickled, are best aroused by another, no matter what they look like. Think of a dog masturbating on your leg.

One might argue that religion has a lot to answer for, in so firmly linking sex to shame and transgression, while another might argue, along with Freud, that sexual sublimation was a necessary prerequisite for human civilisation. I’m still trying to work out my own view on this, but I’d surmise that the link between sex and shame existed in humans long before the Abrahamic religions took it to extremes. And unfortunately, much of the online material on our history of sex and shame contains a lot of bollocks, so I’ve reached a dead end there.

So here’s some guesswork. It may have started with the wearing of minimal clothing to protect the reproductive parts, both from damage and from gawkers – out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps this was initiated by females, but more likely (in the case of female genitalia) by males. On this topic I’ve often read claims that pre-agricultural or non-agricultural societies were less patriarchal, and I’ve even adopted that view myself, but I suspect the difference was only in degree, not in kind. 

As to patriarchy itself, consider this. Bonobos and chimps split from each other 2 million years ago, at most. From that time on, bonobos survived and thrived in a relatively circumscribed, densely forested region south of the Congo. Chimps on the other hand are more numerous and wide-ranging (with more varied habitats), and are currently divided into four sub-species, from the west to the east of sub-Saharan Africa, and their number in the wild, though hard to determine with any precision, is generally estimated as about ten times that of bonobos. And all chimps are patriarchal.

The dating of the CHLCA (the last chimpanzee-human common ancestor, and note that bonobos are excluded from this reference) has been a subject of ongoing debate and analysis. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

The chimpanzee–human last common ancestor (CHLCA) is the last common ancestor shared by the extant Homo (human) and Pan (chimpanzee and bonobo) genera of Hominini. Estimates of the divergence date vary widely from thirteen to five million years ago.

Obviously, this was before the chimp-bonobo divergence, and considering speculation by anthropologists that bonobo ‘female power’ might be linked to a more frugivorous diet and less of a hunting-killing lifestyle (due to their restriction to an area rich in fruits, nuts, seeds and small game), it seems likely that the CHLCA was already more patriarchally inclined. Consider also that the genus Homo sapiens, long believed to date to no more than 200,000 years ago, and arising in eastern sub-Saharan Africa, has recently been dated to over 300,000 years from remains found in faraway Morocco. That suggests the traversing of vast regions, and a diet much richer in meat than that of bonobos. So, while the hunter-gatherer term has been passionately disputed by some, it’s generally accepted – and it makes sense to me – that there was some division of labour, as implied by the term, and that it would likely be largely gender-based. So, our history, and our ancestry, has been almost entirely patriarchal.

However, this doesn’t define our future. Patriarchy is breaking down in the WEIRD world, albeit slowly. And there are, depressingly, many forces in opposition to female empowerment, especially in the non-WEIRD world. I’ll focus on that in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

October 24, 2023 at 10:23 am

Why are bonobos female dominant? Culture or genetics?

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I was going to entitle this post ‘How did bonobos become female dominant?’, but that assumes that they weren’t always so. To assume makes an ass out of u and me, and I don’t care about u, but I have my pride. And speaking of pride, lions live in those groups (of up to forty, but usually much smaller) and malely dominate, even though the women bring home most of the bacon, chevaline (well, zebra), venison, rattus and the occasional long pork, if they’re lucky.

The point is, we wouldn’t consider this a product of leonine (okay, lion) culture. It’s just what lions – male and female – are genetically programmed to do, just as marmosets, magpies (Australian) and macaroni penguins are programmed to be monogamous (more or less). But considering that separating genetic and cultural evolution in humans is a tricky business, the same would surely go for our closest living relatives. We’re generally convinced that the male dominance in most human history is cultural. I’ve often read the claim that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle in many parts of the world from about 11,000 years ago resulted in a more patriarchal society, with the concept of property, including women, becoming essential to power and dominance. This seems plausible enough, though I would assume that the first claims to property relied primarily on brute strength. Male muscularity is different from that of females, and, more importantly, they’re not hampered by pregnancies and child-rearing. And whereas hunter-gatherers (and it now seems the distinction between these lifestyles is by no means cut and dried) tend to migrate along with food resources, some concept of land ownership, based on kinship over time, clearly developed with an agricultural lifestyle. Again, such a fixed lifestyle would have essentially created the notion of ‘domesticity’, which became associated with the female world. And it seems also have encouraged a degree of polygyny as a sign of male social status. And as we left all this behind, in the WEIRD world so fulsomely described in Joseph Henrich’s book, we’re starting to leave patriarchy behind, though way too slowly for my liking.

So, let’s get back to bonobos. I was struck by an observation I read a while ago in some otherwise forgotten piece on bonobos. Female bonobos are smaller than male bonobos to much the same degree as in chimps and humans, but slightly less so. Considering that the split between bonobos and chimps occurred only between one and two million years ago (and I’d love that margin of error to be narrowed somehow), any reduction in this sexual dimorphism seems significant – and surely genetic. But then genes are modified by environment, and by the behaviour that environment encourages or necessitates. Here’s what I found on a Q&A forum called Worldbuilding:

Bonobos have less dimorphism because they all feed close together and females can almost always protect each other. Male A tries to monopolize female A and gets driven off by female B, C, and D.

Hmmm. There’s something in this, but not quite enough. Why wouldn’t the males bond together to monopolise a particular female? In non-euphemistic human terms this is called pack rape, and it does seem to be confined to humans, though coercive sex, on an individual level, is quite common in other species, and for obvious anatomical reasons it’s always the male who coerces.

This leads to the reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, that for females to have control in the sexual arena – at least in the mammalian world – requires co-operation. And that requires bonding, arguably over and above the bonding associated with ‘girl power’ in WEIRD humans. So here’s how the Max Planck Society explains it:

To clarify why same-sex sexual behavior is so important specifically for female bonobos, we collected behavioral and hormonal data for over a year from all adult members of a habituated bonobo community at the long-term LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to our focus on sexual interactions, we identified preferred partners for other social activities such as giving support in conflicts. We also collected urine to measure the hormone oxytocin, which is released in the body in other species after friendly social interactions, including sex, and helps to promote cooperation.

We found that in competitive situations, females preferred to have sex with other females rather than with males. After sex, females often remained closer to each other than did mixed sex pairs, and females had measurable increases in urinary oxytocin following sex with females, but not following sex with males. Among same-sex and opposite-sex pairs, individuals who had more sex also supported each other more often in conflicts, but the majority of these coalitions were formed among females. “It may be that a greater motivation for cooperation among females, mediated physiologically by oxytocin, is the key to understanding how females attain high dominance ranks in bonobo society,” explained co-lead author Martin Surbeck, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Harvard University.

Now, I know I’ve written about the peptide hormone oxytocin before, somewhere, and suffice to say its role in behaviour and its relation to the general endocrine and neurotransmission systems are extremely complex. Having said that, there will doubtless be strong similarities for its role in humans and in bonobos. And, reflecting on the above quote, what came first, the oxytocin release, or the bonding? Should we encourage more oxytocin doses, or more female-female sex? Doing both sounds like a fine idea.

To tell the truth, I find the willingness to see bonobos as any kind of female model somewhat lacking. They’re ‘jokingly’ referred to as the scandalous primate, and their revolutionary nature is underplayed. Yet their relatively comfortable, largely frugivorous lifestyle in the southern Congo region, where their only real threat is humanity, reflects in miniature the comforts of the WEIRD world, with its hazards of overspending at the supermarket, lazing too long at the beach, or pokies, cocktail bars and ‘Lust-Skin Lounges’ for the true thrill-seekers.

Of course, we got to our ascendant position today through the explorations, calculations and inventions produced by our brains, and the super-brains of our cities, corporations and universities. What can we learn from a bunch of gangly, hairy mutual masturbators dangling about in the Congolese rainforest? Well, we brains and super-brains can still learn a bit more about sharing and caring – as any study of our own history can tell us – and we can certainly learn to stop being so dumb and fucked-up about sexuality, gender and power. Learning lessons from bonobos doesn’t mean getting hairier and improving our brachiation skills, but, well, eating less meat would be a start, given what we know about the environmental damage our current diet is causing. And that’s just one of many lessons we can learn. For me, of course, the most important lesson is the role played by females. How ridiculously long did it take for us – I mean we male humans who have been in control of almost all human societies since those societies came into being – to recognise and admit that females are our equal in every intellectual sphere? This is still unacknowledged in some parts. And although we call this the WEIRD world, the Industrial part of that acronym has lost its machismo essence, a loss Susan Faludi has sensitively analysed in her book Stiffed: the betrayal of the modern man though I think ‘betrayal’ is the wrong word. After all, men were never promised or guaranteed to be breadwinners and heads of households, they took or were given the role through social evolution, and it’s being taken from them, gradually, through the same process.

Finally, getting back to the question in the title, the answer, for Pan paniscus as surely as for Homo sapiens, is culture, which can affect gene expression (epigenetics), which can ultimately affect genetics. I suspect that the slight diminution in the sexual dimorphism between male and female bonobos, over a relatively short period of time, evolutionarily speaking, might, if they’re left to their own devices (which is unlikely, frankly), lead to a size reversal and a world of male sexual servitude. Vive les bonobos, I’d like to be one, for the next few million years!




Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, 2021

Susan Faludi, Stiffed, 1999

Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2023 at 4:11 pm

FWIW, a few thoughts on Hamas v Israel

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So I wanted to write about the Nobel Peace Prize, and the recent award to Narges Mohammadi, and the reaction to it within the all-male Iranian government, but the advent of a new war has disturbed this peace piece (which mightn’t have been particularly peaceful). So, while still very mindful of this important award, currently I’ll focus on the concepts of Holy War, monoculture, religion and other such bothersome things. 

My readings around the Israel-Palestine situation include The case for Palestine, by the Australian lawyer Paul Heywood-Smith, Goliath: life and loathing in Greater Israel, by the US author Max Blumenthal, and Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud, a Palestinian woman whose family were forced to flee their homeland due to the 1948 Nakba or “Catastrophe”. Mahmoud was born in a Lebanese refugee camp, which she barely survived, and went on to found the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation (PWHO). My general view of the situation is that, as history often shows, the oppressed, if given the opportunity, become the oppressors, and the cycle may continue indefinitely without key interventions.

Obviously this is a horrific attack, and many innocent people have died. And though it can be described as a surprise attack, it is also hardly surprising given the many provocations from what most experts describe as the most extremist Israeli government since the country’s formation. 

This will be, for me, both a fact-finding and an opinion piece. So, first, what is Hamas, who funds it and where does it fit among the various Palestinian liberation movements and opponents of the Israeli regime?  

Hamas is the controlling force or government of the Gaza Strip, a tiny territory in the south-west corner of Israel – though not belonging to Israel. It shares an eleven-kilometre border with Egypt to the south and extends about 40 kilometres northwards along the Eastern Mediterranean. Hamas was elected to power there in 2006, the last election held in the region, in which it defeated Fatah, essentially a remnant of the PLO. The so-called Palestinian State consists of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (governed by Fatah), which are separated by almost 100 kilometres of Israeli territory. Most of the two million Gaza Strip people are Sunni Muslims, with a minority of Palestinian Christians. ‘Hamas’ is an Arabic acronym which essentially means ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’. It was founded in 1987 as the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt. Although it has moderated its demands over the years, Hamas has never accepted the legitimacy of the Israeli state. It receives some financial and military support from Iran (which supplies up to $100 million annually to Palestinian terrorist/liberation organisations, according to CNN), and some protection from Turkey. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly about an intolerance exacerbated by the creation of a state that always planned to be exclusionist. One hears egregious comments from both sides – I once worked with an Arab-Israeli teacher who considered the holocaust ‘hugely overblown’, and of course there are Haredi Jews, increasing in number, whose views have more than a whiff of insanity about them (from a WEIRD perspective). The tragedy of it all is that the region, anciently known as Canaan, was once home to a multi-ethnic, multilingual, god-saturated community that shared deities in the way that we share cuisines.

I’ve dealt elsewhere with the development of Judaic monotheism and the deadly ‘promised land’ mythology; what I’d like to focus on here is the women. Both orthodox Judaism and Islam are ultra-patriarchal, profoundly rejecting, indeed fleeing from WEIRD developments and its gradual opening up to the idea of women as possible movers and shakers in the world. And the war-like situation that has persisted in the region for decades has hardly been conducive to female empowerment. Even so, the only movement for reconciliation in the region seems unsurprisingly to be coming from women, though this is difficult especially for Palestinian women, who fear retribution from Hamas – which can be quite horrific. 

Women will, of course, be thrust back further into the shadows by these recent events – events which were entirely foreseeable, not of course in detail, but in a more general sense, with so many of the most reasonable, tolerant and long-suffering Palestinians giving up and quitting the place. And while this most recent event seems particularly gruesome, and must certainly be condemned, it should be noted that the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has kept figures – to the best of its ability – on “the number of Palestinians and Israelis who were killed or injured since 2008 in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and Israel in the context of the occupation and conflict”. According to OCHA, from the beginning of 2008 to September 19 2023, Palestinian fatalities number 6,407, while Israeli fatalities number 308. There’s no doubt that, as the Israeli government prepares to retaliate, this massive imbalance will continue well into the future. 

As I come to the end of reading Joseph Henrich’s extraordinary book The WEIRDest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, I note that the WEIRDness Henrich analyses is largely absent from Middle Eastern countries. Henrich’s book barely touches on feminism, but the better-late-than-never rise of female empowerment in the 20th century is undoubtedly a feature of the WEIRD phenomenon, and this rise has certainly influenced women in non-WEIRD, proto-WEIRD or ‘suppressed’ WEIRD regions (I think of those I’ve met who identify as Persian rather than Iranian, for example). And as to whether Israel ‘qualifies’ as a WEIRD nation, that question is beyond my pay grade (which is zero). My guess, though, is that it’s a rough amalgam of WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures and tendencies, and not exactly my ideal holiday location. 

On the positive side, Women Wage Peace (WWP), ‘the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel today’, launched a partnership last year with Women of the Sun (WOS), a Palestinian women’s peace movement founded in 2021. Such initiatives are likely to be eclipsed for a while, with payback rising to the top of the agenda. Everyone is holding their breath, it seems, about how Israel’s far-right government will respond. The unevenness of the death toll caused by Palestinian-Israeli hostilities, mentioned above, amounts to more than 20 Palestinians for every Israeli, and the ill-treatment of this essentially manufactured underclass has worsened in recent times. We don’t currently know the full death toll from the Hamas attack, but we’re all pretty certain that there will be more death and destruction to come. Here’s how one news outlet, Vox, described Netanyahu’s new government earlier this year:

The policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly sworn-in governing coalition brought out 80,000 protesters over the weekend in Tel Aviv. The protesters were largely focused on the government’s proposals to overhaul the judicial system, which could weaken the country’s democracy and separation of powers. But the effects of the policies on the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel and the 5.2 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories will be catastrophic, building upon years of policies that Israeli human rights organizations say constitute crimes against humanity.

The current difficulties faced by Palestinians within their own ancestral lands are truly shocking, though of course not unique – think of the Uyghurs in Xi’s China, the Hazaras in Afghanistan, the Kurds in Turkiye, Syria and surrounding regions, and so on. It would be impracticable for every ethnicity and/or language group to have its own nation, of course (there are more than 6000 languages currently spoken), but it is a breach of human rights to treat any ethnicity as inferior to any other, as well as being an offence to basic rationality. People of the WEIRD world generally understand that, including (non-Haredi) Israelis, and that helps to explain why so many have been protesting about their own government. This Hamas atrocity – a surprise in its particulars but hardly in the overall scheme of things – will surely escalate decades-long tensions, within the region and well beyond (look out for the US response to this attack upon their 51st state), and men and their weaponry will of course be front and centre. 

Vive les bonobos. There are times when I really wouldn’t mind being one. 







J Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, 2020

Women Wage Peace


Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2023 at 6:49 pm

we are family? bonobo care, monogamy or not, the magniloquence of humanity, etc

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a single mother, benefits assured

So in this post I want to look at how monogamy is doing in the WEIRD world, inter alia. As Henrich and others point out, marriage became thoroughly regularised (and economically exploited) by the Church in the millennium or more during which it held sway in Western Europe. Its marriage and family programme (MFP) ‘legitimised’ children (at least among the upper classes, where legitimacy mattered), reduced kinship ties (which helped to weaken dynastic forces that might challenge the Church’s power) and, perhaps inadvertently, encouraged marital ties based on elective affinities or that fuzzily pleasant concept or sensation known as love.

So in the modern WEIRD world we may marry whomever we like as soon as achieving legal adulthood, and then repent at leisure and divorce without fault, or we can reproduce without marrying and receive much the same supports for our offspring as married couples do. And during the past few decades in particular, couplings and combinations, short-term or long-term, and regardless of gender, have been experiencing less censure and opposition. There is no sense, pace some ultra-conservative circles, that our society is falling apart due to these changes. Capital enterprises continue to flourish, per capita GDP continues to rise (as does the temperature), and the WEIRD world continues to work and party hard, while occasionally fretting about its collective future.

With the rise of WEIRD feminism, there can be excesses, both in the positive and negative direction, and combined with the religious hangover (‘your body is a temple’), even sexual dialogue – the first level of sexual intercourse – has become fraught. Even so, the situation is an improvement on that of previous generations, when coercive intercourse, date rape and such were part of a history that women have only recently been able to talk about. So the WEIRD situation re sexual power, politics, language and intercourse (in the general sense) is very much in flux, and will be so for the foreseeable future.

How that flux will affect the monogamy we currently still accept as the norm is hard to predict. The most common argument in its favour has long been about the raising of children. The conservative view that a child needs both a father and a mother isn’t ridiculous, in spite of the fact that many modern children have thrived on less (and sometimes more), but it seems to me that the most successful upbringing for a child would involve what we call ‘support networks’, a rather bloodless, bureaucratic term for a combo of loving and caring elders and peers. You might guess from this the bonoboesque direction in which I’m heading.

Given what I’ve learned about bonobos over the years, I’m hardly surprised that childcare by bonobo non-parents is a normal part of bonobo life. An online article, linked below, describing research from the University of Oregon, bears this out. Here are some quotes:

“After studying bonobos for several years, I noticed that juveniles and adolescents were obsessed with the babies,” said Klaree Boose, an instructor in the UO Department of Anthropology. “They played with the babies and carried them around. It appeared to be more than just play behavior.”

“It is common in the wild to see infant bonobos be a focus of enormous interest to others, especially to adolescent bonobos,” White said. “It is often noticeable how bonobo mothers are willing to let others get close and interact with their infants, as compared to chimpanzees who are more restrictive.”

Initially, Boose observed that all juvenile bonobos, ages 3-7, were obsessed with handling the infants, all under age 3. As they entered adolescence, however, females continued to approach the mothers and help care for the infants, while males turned away in favour of other behaviours.

“Handling behaviour picked up among the female adolescents, and it was really intense,” Boose said. “They would approach the mothers, groom them briefly and then carry the babies away. They’d move across the enclosure, where they would engage in nurturing and other maternal behaviours with the infants, such as grooming and cradling them, putting them on their belly and carrying them on their back. These were very deliberate caretaking behaviors.”

Boose also found a hormonal link to her observations. Elevated levels of oxytocin — associated with complex social behaviors and social cognition, including maternal and caregiving activities — were common in urine samples collected after infant-handling activities. As young females interact with the infants, Boose said, increased oxytocin may reflect how the body reinforces caregiving activity or social bonding with mothers or infants.

Note that this is described as a very female thing. It isn’t clear from the article as to whether any adolescent carers of these infants were male, but I wishfully think they might have been. And I might draw from my own experience here. My mother gave birth to the last child of the family, extraordinarily enough, on my eighth birthday. This odd factoid had a seemingly profound maternal effect on me. I was fascinated by this baby, and more than happy to be his principal baby sitter, lullaby singer and rocker of the cradle. During the first year or so of his life, I doted on him, much to the relief and evident pleasure of my mother.

Whether or not bonobo males play much of a role in the raising of children, human males are doing a bit more of it in the WEIRD world, doubtless to the detriment of their testosterone levels. Here’s an interesting quote from ten years ago:

A record 8% of households with minor children in the United States are headed by a single father, up from just over 1% in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Decennial Census and American Community Survey data.

Of course the number of single mother households would be much higher and also rising. But it takes a village to raise a child – or, in the WEIRD world, a community, compleat with childcare services, kindergartens, Play School, Sesame Street and the like (the impact of disembodied social media on our culture – which we’re only just beginning to come to terms with – has been profound, and clearly not entirely beneficial). The ‘village’ that WEIRD children are currently exposed to seems in many ways to be a blooming, buzzing confusion, and yet they’re navigating it, for better or worse. The worry, at present, is that real physical contact is in danger of being replaced by gaming, texting and other forms of interaction that lack the throb and breath of that animal nature we seem at pains to deny. The term ‘remote learning’ is indicative, and of course there is more – online trading, virtual care services, artificial intelligence, the cloud, all of these developments seem to have swamped our reality in just a decade or so. In that sense, a bonobo humanity seems to be receding beyond the horizon.

And yet, it’s complicated. Bonobos are noted for sharing, and for closeness (to put it euphemistically). Humans are, I think, getting better at the sharing part, but not so much the closeness. The internet, for example, is a massive shared resource, with the potential to educate, entertain and enrich us beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations, without our ever having to rub our skin against another human for the best (or worst) part of a lifetime.

And speaking of skin, it’s something we’ve evolved to keep covered – for protection, for decoration, for privacy. Sometimes just for conformity. We’re the clothed ape, and few of us want to be thought of as less than that. All of this has more or less impelled us to develop a noli me tangere sensibility that has fuelled and been fuelled by religion – our bodies as temples must never be desecrated, and we alone can determine whether worship or desecration has occurred. And so, unlike bonobos with their close comforts, we’ve become more or less severe guardians of these decorated temples, proudly isolated, opened only to the most select of select of select few.

Perhaps this is all to the good? One of the first intellectuals I was exposed to as a youth was Sigmund Freud, with his concepts of polymorphous perversity and sublimation, and as a randy adolescent I took this to mean that we’re more filled with sexual thoughts and easily sexually stimulated in our youth, but as we mature our sexual impulses are harnessed and channelled into creative arty-sciencey endeavours. And was left to wonder whether I really wanted to grow up. Anyway, maybe we needed all this sublimation to uncover the secrets of the universe, to create marvels of engineering, wondrous art forms and financial empires (not to mention WMDs, mass slavery and the Cambodian and Congolese killing fields). What does love, or a bout of the touchy-feelies, have to do with it?

It’s a conundrum, and yet, I just can’t get those bonobo exemplars out of my mind…




The Rise of Single Fathers

Written by stewart henderson

September 25, 2023 at 9:41 pm

the big issue: monogamy, polygyny and bonoboism

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I think it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me. That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be…

Jacob Brackman/Carly Simon

And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When I was a young boy, my Mama said to me, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti’

Reckless Eric

glory days

Just the other day, a young woman very close to me was in a quandary about her boyfriend – though ‘quandary’ is too mild a word. She was very upset about what might be a permanent break-up. As part of their intimate chit-chat, he responded, presumably to her love declaration, with this remark: ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’.

Of course this response can hardly cover the whole nature of their relationship, but the fact that it was seen as less than satisfactory, indeed jeopardising the relationship’s future, has given me much food for thought – or rather, it has brought to mind issues that have obsessed me for a lifetime, an obsession that helps to explain my excitement at discovering, nearly four decades ago, bonobo culture.

I’m referring here to monogamy, and romantic love, modes of life and feeling that are essentially foreign to my favourite, and very loving, primate cousins.

It’s fascinatingly coincidental that, just as I found myself to be a sounding-board for my young friend, whom I dearly love, I’ve been reading Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, which deals with the cultural processes that broke down kinship connections and marriages (sororate and levirate), including polygynous marriages for elite males, in different global regions. This dissolution of long-standing kinship traditions was effected, not necessarily deliberately, through the edicts of the Church (Catholic) over many centuries in Western Europe, and was replaced by connections, including marriages, based on individual choice, shared interests and psychological compatibility. Other influences in other regions, such as China, had similar kinship-dissolving effects, though intensities have differed.

All of these transformations and modifications, though, have been within male-dominated societies. And, in the history we know most about, from the beginnings of agricultural society, there have been precious few female-dominated ones. And monogamy has been the norm, even if hedged around by clan and kinship expectations. Henrich puts it this way, while incidentally making perhaps the only reference to bonobos in his book:

From among our closest evolutionary relatives – apes and monkeys – guess how many species both live in large groups like Homo sapiens and have only monogamous pair bonding?

That’s right, zero. No group-living primates have the non-cultural equivalent of monogamous marriage. Based on the sex lives of our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, the ancestor we share with these apes was probably highly promiscuous and likely didn’t form pair bonds at all, let alone enduring, monogamous pair bonds. Nevertheless, since we diverged from our ape cousins, our species has evolved a specialised psychological suite – our pair-bonding psychology – that can foster strong emotional bonds between mates that remain stable for long enough to encourage men to invest in their mate’s children. This pair bonding psychology provides the innate anchor for marital institutions. However the nature of this anchor biases marital institutions toward polygynous pair bonding. In contrast, our innate mating psychology doesn’t usually favour widespread polyandrous mean marriage – that’s one wife with multiple husbands – although there are good evolutionary reasons to expect this to pop up at low frequencies in societies lacking prohibitions against it.

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, pp 258-9

Now, I’m a wee bit miffed here that bonobos etc are described as ‘non-cultural’, though of course they don’t have marriage, or language, or religion, quite. But the emergence of patriarchy, or possibly its intensifying as we trace our ancestry back to the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor) is still something of a mystery. Henrich’s analysis really only takes us back several millennia, at the very most. Bonobos are, in a sense, hunter-gatherers, and their diet has never included large game, so the relatively rare hunting events would’ve involved speed and dexterity more than brute strength. Bonobo matriarchy, if that’s what it is, appears to be an outcome of the female-female bonding that arguably comes more naturally to human females than to males.

The concept of property is key here. Think of the commandment – don’t covet your neighbour’s wife, or any other property belonging to him. Property emerged from the depths of time as very much a male thing – and so, polygyny as a status symbol. Henrich has an argument as to why polyandry never became much of a thing:

Our ‘polygyny bias’ arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his ‘fitness’. By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own foetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair bond with the most capable, resource full, and highest status man she could find by making clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could ‘run in parallel’ by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be ‘working’ on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 259

Henrich goes on to argue for the unsustainability of polygyny due to the lack of wives or breeding partners for low-status males in an increasingly hierarchical social system, but I should note here that bonobos have managed to develop a female-dominant culture despite all the issues of mothering, or most of the issues, faced by humans. Of course, they don’t have to worry about clothing, and shelter is less of a problem. ‘Cultural know-how’ is of course matched to species complexity – how to survive and thrive in their particular social world. In a talk given at Harvard, the linguist Daniel Everett defined culture thus (quoting from his own 2016 formulation):

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is only found in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviour of its members.

He also states in his talk that culture is always changing, and of course he’s talking about human culture. And this raises again the question of bonobo (or cetacean, or corvid) ‘culture’. We see our culture changing generationally – that’s to say, before or very eyes – but only a few centuries ago, as David Deutsch points out in The beginning of infinity, human culture, even in the WEIRD world, was much more static, and, although we don’t have clear evidence, it seems that Australian indigenous culture maintained itself largely unchanged for tens of millennia.

So, the way culture works depends a lot on context, and rapidity of change has much to do with interaction between and across cultures, due not just to immigration but, perhaps more importantly, to the rapid technological connections across the globe that have occurred since the middle of the 20th century,

Let me give you some of my personal story as an example. In the mid-sixties, as a kid of around ten, I was on a backyard swing listening to the radio blasting out, one after another, the five or so songs, all by the Beatles, that were topping the charts, in Australia and the other side of the world, at the time. I was thinking how vital and exciting those songs seemed to me in comparison to the hymns we were asked to sing at Sunday School. Over the next few years, the Beatles exchanged their matching suits and mop haircuts for long, wild hair, colourful eastern silks, beads and ‘love, man’. The ‘hippie generation’ seemed to explode into life. Free love and flower power, vaguely defined, were being spruiked everywhere, and songs referencing revolution – by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Thunderclap Newman, Barry McGuire and others – all gave the impression of a world turning upside-down. Caught up in the zeitgeist, I let my hair grow as long as it could, wore my older sister’s cast-off blouses and jackets, became a massive Bowie fan and reflected obsessively on gender-bending, marriage and monogamy.

The marriage and monogamy issues exercised me most, as my parents, it seemed, had trapped themselves in a loveless marriage which only came to an end shortly after I left home at eighteen. And because my mother was very much the head of our household, and because my sister was as strong-willed as my mother, feminism was also a major theme. We lived in a household full of books, with a library just down the road, so I was able to escape into a less fraught intellectual world. One book that greatly exercised me was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Children of the Dream, about the Jewish kibbutz system. While I was too young to understand much of the analysis, the very fact that there was a radical alternative to my form of upbringing hugely exercised me. I imagined the kibbutz system to be something like bonoboism long before I’d ever heard of those treasured apes.

Also, because our family had moved to Australia from Scotland when I was five, we’d pretty well dispensed with broader kinship connections, making us particularly WEIRD. It was all about ‘elective affinities’, as Goethe put it, and in fact I read his book of that title as a young person, probably due to the WEIRD title, though I found the content rather baffling. I was trying to tease out the differences between sexual attraction, love, and affinity, if they existed. I recall reading, I think in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, of this made-up love obsession which was enough to drive us mad. I had felt it myself of course. How could I feel so intensely about this girl I barely knew? How could a way of walking, a flicker of hands, make me feel that some force had reached into my heart and squeezed it, making me stagger and look round to see if anyone had noticed? And then later I learned of hormones – phenylethylamine and cortisol running wild, triggering the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, toxins of hope and their antidotes – all the result of unbidden thought, or something like…

Then of course, the world must be peopled, and we’ve done an all too brilliant job at that. As Henrich’s research indicates, with the agricultural revolution more or less complete in many parts of the human world around 8,000 years ago, property and its associated prestige led to an increasingly hierarchical, and patriarchal society – mostly monogamous, but then nothing displays male power more than possession of a bevy of the brightest and most beautiful as breeding partners. It’s worth noting just how extreme this ‘sexual prestige’ system became in some parts of the world. Here’s Henrich again:

In the South Pacific at the time of European contact, Tongan chiefs had a few high-ranking wives, who helped solidify alliances with other powerful families, and a few hundred secondary wives. In Africa, Ashante and Zulu kings each had 1000 or more wives. However, these are just the paramount chiefs or kings; there was usually a fleet of lesser elites who maintained smaller harems for themselves. Zande kings, for example each had more than 500 wives, but their chiefs also each maintained about 30 or 40 wives, and sometimes as many as 100. In Asia, things were even more extreme: medieval Khmer kings in Cambodia possessed five elite wives and several thousand secondary wives who were themselves graded into various classes…

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 261

And so on. However, this kind of extreme, and graded, polygyny was barely sustainable as it led to a multitude of aggrieved, partnerless males at the bottom of the pyramid, ripening for rebellion. The ‘European contact’ Henrich mentions here would’ve added to the pressures on this ultra-polygynous situation. These European colonisers, or conquerors, would’ve been keen to impose the True Religion wherever they went, and with it the proto-WEIRD values of the time. Today, in post-colonial Africa and Asia, there is a fluctuating and often awkward and barely workable mix of WEIRD and clan-based values and lifestyles, which likely contribute to the political instability we often find in these regions.

Meanwhile, in more established WEIRD nations, nothing is static. Only a little over a century ago, no woman could vote in any ‘democratic’ country, of which there were very few in any case. Female political leaders are still rare, though a little less rare in the last fifty years than the previous fifty. Perhaps the biggest change in relatively recent times has been in female education and employment, which is slowly changing the scientific, legal and business landscape. Arguably women, by and large (there are plenty of exceptions), are less interested in hierarchical than collaborative enterprises, and their growing input will lead to a gradual improvement in political decision-making, international relations and less adversarial approaches to business and the law…

And as for monogamy – okay, ‘free love’ hasn’t taken off as I thought it might, but at the same time, things aren’t as they were in the fifties and before. Single parenthood has been on the rise for decades in the WEIRD world, for males as well as for females, and though the supports available aren’t quite as nurturing as those available for bonobos, they’re enough to enable a ‘normal’, stigma-free childhood. The concept of illegitimate children is more or less dead, and maybe one day the notion of illegitimate immigrants will go the same way. Passports and visas are a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise, and they may turn out to be fleeting in the long run, especially with the advent of climate migration in the now foreseeable future. All of this, and a recognition that we’re all in this together as a culpable species, will be better facilitated by a more caring, less combative attitude to our fellows, human and non-human.

Taken all in all, women are the better angels of our human nature. Yes, we’ve moved very very far from our bonobo cousins, and we regularly and even obsessively pat ourselves on the back for that. But all of our best instincts tell us that collaboration, mutual appreciation, and recognition of ourselves in others, including other species, are key, not to just our survival, but to our thriving in a richer, more sustainable environment.


Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020

Bruno Bettelheim,The children of the dream, 1970

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the underground, 1864

Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am

soccer bonoboism leads the way

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I’m writing this on the day that Australia plays England in the FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final, and I’ve been a soccer aficionado, and mediocre player, from my earliest youth, when no such competition for women existed. In fact the women’s game had a rather messy start internationally in the 1970s, when many countries first ‘permitted’ women to play the game. The first fully-fledged FIFA World Cup was held in 1991, and the women’s game has caught on rapidly since then, with soccer now registering as the most popular sport for women in this country. The current competition, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, was being judged the most successful in its brief history before even the halfway point was reached.

All of this is intrinsically interesting to me of course, but it also allows me to expatiate once more on female-male differences and the advantages of a female-dominated WEIRD future.

But before continuing, I’d like to reflect on the ‘WEIRD’ acronym. I adopted it some time ago without giving it too much thought, as a semi-useful term encountered in my readings, somewhat synonymous with the terms ‘Western’ and ‘First World’ (as opposed to ‘Third World’, but I’ve no idea what happened to the Second one). None of these terms really fit, and as for WEIRD, ‘western’ seems meaningless in global terms, ‘educated’ depends on the type of education being posited, but literacy and numeracy would be included, and a modicum of scientific knowledge, and some analytic skills. ‘Industrial’ now quite likely refers to more or less post-industrial societies such as Australia, and ‘democratic’ might even include such quasi-democracies as the USA. Yet the term does have some value, as long as you don’t scrutinise it too closely, and its currency influenced me to buy and, so far, learn much from Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest people in the world, an exploration of the generally more individualist, non-clan, non-lineage based world it refers to, and its recent history of success. So that’s my excuse.

So the first point I would make re women’s soccer compared to the men’s game, is an elaboration of an earlier point I’ve made about women hugging and men shaking hands when meeting or parting. This is on a spectrum of course but there’s no doubt that women are more often huggers and men shakers. The World Cup is of course the most high-stakes soccer tournament there is, so the competition is especially fierce, with every game after the group stage being ‘winner take all’. And very few players will get to  play in such a tournament twice, so losing isn’t a viable option. It’s been remarked on more than once how often the winners in this year’s tournament have huddled together with the losers, comforting and supporting them in their despair. Of course it’s only a game and all, but it’s just an addition to the multifarious examples of women supporting women, in matters great and small. Not that the games themselves aren’t fiercely competitive, with fouls aplenty, but generally without the biffo that sometimes spoils the male game, both on the field and among the supporters.

I also note that the game has helped to normalise female-female sexual relations, as one might expect in a microcosm in which females dominate – a bonobo humanity, so to speak. Of course, it’s a tiny-teeny microcosm, but it’s growing, and it’s getting more attention worldwide. All of this is a good, for more than just soccer.

Australia lost its semi-final, but let’s embrace the cliché, soccer, and female empowerment, is the winner.



Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020


Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2023 at 10:08 am

how can we learn from bonobos?

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Today I’ve decided to change my blog title, and to drop the conversational form of writing, though all my writing is a kind of internal conversation (channelling Adam Smith), informed by various external media.

I really want to get into this patriarchy thing more, because, in spite of all the changes that have occurred since the days of the suffragettes – and it has to be admitted that that was only a little over a century ago, in a human history that goes back 300,000 years, and a few thousand years in terms of states and ‘civilisation’ – it’s still very much a man’s world, with massive male dominance in terms of political leadership and wealth. The exceptions only tend to prove the rule.

Outside of the so-called WEIRD world, and on the fringes of it, we have Xi and his Chinese Testosterone Party, the Putinland thugocracy, little Donny Trumpet and his band of (mostly) male white mice, molto-macho politics in Burma, Tanzania, Latin America, New Guinea, Cuba, the Middle East, much of eastern Europe, and so on. Australia might like to see itself as an island of gender-equal WEIRD sanity, but it’s worth noting where the wealth lies, because there has always lain power. It’s true that Australia’s richest person is a woman, Gina Rinehart (at one time the richest woman in the world), but she began with wealth inherited from her father Lang Hancock, a fact that, unsurprisingly, she’s extremely sensitive about. Hancock was an ebullient and very racist operator, much beloved by his daughter (Hancock produced no sons), who was clearly much influenced by his style and politics. We need of course to recognise that, male or female, we’re hugely influenced by our background, and much of our character is set by our earliest years, as the Dunedin longitudinal development study has shown. Of course, that study, particularly the ‘personality’ aspects of it, is very WEIRD. In non-WEIRD cultures, most of which are highly patriarchal, female power is essentially covert, and even today, in the WEIRD world, Rinehart’s situation is highly unusual.

Outside of Rinehart and family, the top 20 richest Australians include only one woman (Fiona Geminder, daughter of the late billionaire Richard Pratt), at number 19. And as is to be expected, those at the top of these rich lists are exponentially wealthier than those at the bottom.

Of course, not all of the super-rich are interested in political power and influence in the manner of Murdoch, Trump et al, and many women, in particular, who inherit wealth through family or marital connections, have an interest in using it benefit the health and welfare of others. A Forbes article from 2018 claimed that, statistically, ‘women give almost twice as much of their wealth away as men (3.5% vs. 1.8%)’. It’s a most bonoboesque trait, as is their tendency to ‘be more co-operative in work teams’ (also from Forbes).

Developing more co-operative political environments is becoming more essential than many realise. Generally speaking, the Covid-19 pandemic would surely have been more devastating without the global co-operation managed in terms of accurate messaging and fast-paced biochemical development. And would’ve been less devastating if we’d had more of it. I recall some years ago reading about wealthy philanthropists providing interest-free loans to women in ‘third-world’ countries, because they were seen as better money managers, and less selfish in that management, than males. A quick internet search shows that this approach is still in play, though some of the sites advocating and supporting micro-loans seem out of date, and there’s a worry that this may just have been a passing trend. In any case it’s a far cry from women having their hands on the global purse-strings.

I think the WEIRD world needs to set the example here, as it is less constrained by patrilineal kin affiliations and patriarchal religio-spiritual beliefs, and has been motivated in recent decades by a lot of female empowerment rhetoric. My expectation for the future, however distant, is that female dominance will come from large-scale female-female bonoboesque bonding (with or without the sex).

Which takes me back to the bonobo world. How did their female-dominated culture come to be? How did the chimp-bonobo common ancestors live, communally? I’ve been wondering about this for some time, but all the experts I’ve read on bonobos, including Frans De Waals, confine themselves to description, as well as pointing out how their society overturns ideas of inevitable human patriarchy. We need to work out the evolution of their society, if we can, in order to effectively take advantage of it for our own sakes, for if ever there has been a time for female leadership in the human world, it’s now.

One key is to promote the kind of female-female bonding we know bonobos engage in, and we know women are capable of, given half the chance. Angela Saini, author of Inferor, an examination of patriarchy and the scientific treatment of women, provides echoing sentiments from Amy Parish, a leading expert on bonobos:

“Certainly I think when we only had chimps in the model, it seemed like patriarchy was cemented in our evolutionary heritage for the last five to six million years,” Parish says. “Now that we have an equally close living relative with a different pattern, it opens up the possibilities for imagining that in our ancestry that females could bond in the absence of kinship, that matriarchies can exist, that females can have the upper hand, that societies can be more peacefully run.”

And observing bonobos can offer inspiration to those who want to carve out a different future. “For me as a feminist,” says Parish, “it’s really interesting. Because the goal of the feminist movement is to behave with other females as though they are your sisters”.

I note that, among younger generations of women, going out in more or less large groups ‘for fun’ has become more common. This has been exploited in the sex video world with the ‘party hardcore’ set of videos, in which a disco/hotel room full of drinking and dancing women get to ‘take advantage’ of a handful of male strippers distributed around the space, for sexual purposes. Female-female sex is also featured, but, rather revealingly (so to speak), no male-male stuff. That’s apparently a step too far for us benighted humans.

The sexual side of all this is always going to be a touchy topic however. We’re the only animal to wear clothes, and to use complex language, with which we tell our kids that we have naughty private bits, and our adults that public nakedness is indecent. We create religions that tell us that sex outside of ceremonially anointed relationships is forbidden, and that reference to the sexual act and the body parts related to that act should be spoken of as rarely as humanly possible. And of course how could we engage together in scientific research, business conferencing, artistic projects or goat-herding with all our dangly stuff showing?

We don’t need to go that far, though, at least not in the short term. After all, it’s already clear that women are more touchy-feely than men. How often have we been at gatherings of friends, at the end of which the women have parted with hugs and the men with handshakes? In this we’re more like bonobos than we know. And as in bonobos this kind of sensual closeness leads to food-sharing and other forms of co-operation, and a reduction of aggression in general, it would seem to me that female leadership, and the encouragement of the female side of male humanity, is what is most needed for a human future that no longer relies on brute strength, or purely physical skills, but more and more on working together, finding common solutions, helping and caring – and not just for our fellow humans.

In the WEIRD world we have largely left behind patriarchal tribal values and the veiled, secreted women that greatly predate Islamic societies. Of course our societies are more blended than ever before (though DNA and historic research assisted by genetics has made us aware that we moved and mixed in the past more than we’d ever thought possible), and this may hinder the inevitable transition to female supremacy, but in the long run it will happen, as needs must. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, and I’m not talking about some ‘hidden hand’ theory, I just feel that for us to survive, and with us as much of the biosphere that can be saved, female supremacy, or feminisation of the human population, will be essential, and a good.






Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2023 at 9:24 pm