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more oxytocin fantasies: an interminable conversation 3

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not sure if this measures a significant difference


Canto: So, as it turns out, the bonobo-oxytocin connection is all the rage on the internet. I mean, there are at least two articles on it. Here’s a quote from a PubMed article called ‘Divergent effects of oxytocin on eye contact in bonobos and chimpanzees’:

Previous studies have shown that bonobos and chimpanzees, humans’ two closest relatives, demonstrate considerable behavioral differences, including that bonobos look more at others’ eyes than chimpanzees. Oxytocin is known to increase attention to another’s eyes in many mammalian species (e.g. dogs, monkeys, and humans), yet this effect has not been tested in any nonhuman great ape species.

Jacinta: Hmm, so how do they know this? Presumably they’ve dosed subjects with oxytocin and measured their eye contact against controls?

Canto: No no, they know that bonobos have more eye contact than chimps, simply from observation. So they might infer from this that bonobos produce more oxytocin naturally than chimps…

Jacinta: So do women produce more oxytocin than men I wonder? I presume women make more eye contact than men.

Canto: Well in this study they dosed both bonobos and chimps with oxytocin, and the effect – more eye contact – was greater in bonobos than chimps. In fact, chimps even tended to avoid eye contact when shown images of conspecifics.

Jacinta: So, it’s a matter of interplay between this hormone/neurotransmitter and social conditioning?

Canto: Maybe, but you’d think that an increase in this supposedly touchy-feely hormone would act against social conditioning. Isn’t this the point of that drug, ecstacy? That it reduces social inhibitions…  But presumably nothing is ever so simple. Being poor, I only have access to the abstract of this paper, but another abstract, which looks at the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on chimps, describes them as neuropeptides, just to confuse matters. The abstract also refers to about a dozen brain regions, as well as specific oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, so it gets pretty complicated.

Jacinta: Okay, vasopressin… from Wikipedia:

Human vasopressin, also called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), arginine vasopressin (AVP), or argipressin, is a hormone synthesised from the AVP gene as a peptide prohormone in neurons in the hypothalamus, and is converted to AVP. It then travels down the axon terminating in the posterior pituitary, and is released from vesicles into the circulation in response to extracellular hypertonicity (hyperosmolality). AVP has two major functions… etc etc

Canto: Okay thanks for that, let’s stick with oxytocin for now. It’s produced in the hypothalamus, a smallish region buried deep within the brain, just below the larger thalamus and above the even smaller amygdala. It releases and manages a variety of hormones. Brain signals are sent to the hypothalamus, exciting it to release oxytocin and other hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland….

Jacinta: Can you tell me what oxytocin is actually made of? Its structure? The term ‘hormone’ is just a black box to me.

Canto: Okay, here’s a diagram of oxytocin to try and make sense of:

It’s a polypeptide. A peptide is basically an amino acid chain. FYI:

An amino acid is an organic molecule that is made up of a basic amino group (−NH2), an acidic carboxyl group (−COOH), and an organic R group (or side chain) that is unique to each amino acid. The term amino acid is short for α-amino [alpha-amino] carboxylic acid.

Jacinta: So these are coded for, ultimately, by genes?

Canto: Yes, we’re heading backwards here, but each amino acid is encoded by a sequence of three of the four base pairs in our DNA. Anyway oxytocin, among other things is sometimes given to women while in labour. It helps with the contractions apparently. I’ve also heard that the recreational drug ‘ecstasy’, or MDMA, works essentially by releasing oxytocin.

Jacinta: It just so happens I’ve found an interesting 2014 paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology, my new favourite journal, called ‘Effects of MDMA and Intranasal Oxytocin on Social and Emotional Processing’, and here’s a quote from the abstract:

Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.

Canto: That is interesting. If that finding can be replicated, I’d say forget the MDMA, dose people with oxytocin. A small but significant increase in feelings of sociability might just be enough to transform our human world.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Small but significant – that sounds a mite contradictory.

Canto: Not the same as significantly small. That slightly significant dose, administered to Messrs Pudding and Pingpong and their enablers, might’ve saved the lives of many Ukrainians, Uyghurs and advocates of multiculturalism, democracy, feminism and other wild and woolly notions. And it doesn’t really transform characters, it just softens their edges.

Jacinta: Yes it’s a nice fantasy – more productive than butchering the butchers, a fantasy I occasionally indulge in. But not workable really.

Canto: Why not? We dosed petrol with lead, and look at how that worked out. It certainly had an effect. In Japan they still use radium baths (at very low levels) for health purposes, even claiming it as a cure for cancer. I’m not sure if oxytocin baths can ever be a thing, but if so I’m sure there will be early adopters.

Jacinta: Well, it’s good to think positively. Oxytocin is often thought of as a bonding hormone between mother and child. The key would be to ensure it facilitates a more general bonding: to cause Mr Pingpong, for example, to see Uyghur, Tibetan, Yi, Limi, and all the other non-Han ethnicities in China as his sisters – or lovers even, revolting as that would be to those peoples.

Canto: Better than being their oppressors and exterminators.

Jacinta: Slightly. But I wonder, quite seriously, if, assuming such a dose of bonding could be effectuated, we could still function as the sometimes rational, problem-solving, highly creative species we indubitably are. Would there be a price to pay for all that oxytocin? And how would this affect all those other hormones and neurotransmitters and all their myriad effects? Humans are notorious for causing extra problems with their solutions, e.g lead, DDT, etc etc.

Canto: Well, there’s no need to worry about the fallout from this solution as yet. I just googled Putin and oxytocin together and came up empty. Obviously we’re way ahead of the curve.

Jacinta: Haha, it’s not a curve these days, it’s a pivot. Get with the program!



Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2022 at 10:38 pm

leadership, thugs, hormones, bonobos, oxytocin and the future: an interminable conversation 2

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

Jacinta: So, in pointing out that, according to the democracy index, female leadership and some of the best democracies go together, I didn’t mention the fairly obvious chicken-and-egg issue. Does quality governance lead to more female leadership, or does female leadership lead to better quality governance?

Canto: Isn’t this called a synergistic effect? So it’s not quite chicken-and-egg. Or is it?

Jacinta: No matter, you’re right. The term’s generally used in science – here’s an overly-complicating definition from one scientific paper:

Synergistic effects are nonlinear cumulative effects of two active ingredients with similar or related outcomes of their different activities, or active ingredients with sequential or supplemental activities.

You need to learn that – it’ll be in the test.

Canto: The idea being that female leadership and good governance result in more than the sum of the two parts.

Jacinta: Well, when I wrote about the democracy index, I found that the countries near the top of that index, the best democracies, were top-heavy with female leadership, by which I meant Prime Ministers and Presidents, but I didn’t look more closely at the social make-up of those countries – the predominance of female business leaders, scientific team leaders, the percentage of women in other political or governmental posts and so forth. I made the perhaps reasonable assumption that those countries are also leading the world in every kind of leadership position for women.

Canto: To be fair, researching all those things for each country would be quite a job. We don’t get paid for this shit. I think we can at least assume that those Nordic gals are pretty formidable. Northern European countries feature heavily in the top twenty. Even the UK gets in there.

Jacinta: Australia squeezes into the top ten. And will only improve with the new diversity in government after the recent election. And the most women in our parliamentary history.

Canto: So, as this female empowerment continues apace, at least in the WEIRD world, what will this human world look like, in the 22nd century?

Jacinta: Well, it could be – and this wouldn’t surprise me – that the macho world, run by Mr Pudding, Mr Pingpong and their enablers, and possibly their successors, will do catastrophic things before the turn for the better, because out of catastrophes – the two world wars of the twentieth century, the holocausts in Europe and Africa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – come rude awakenings and changes for the better – the United Nations and a whole host of NGOs such as Amnesty International (1961), Médecins Sans Frontières (1971) and Human Rights Watch (1978), as well as various international defence and common interest groupings.

Canto: Yes, China and Russia – that’s to say their governments – are the scary ones, simply because they can do the most damage globally, though dog knows many African, Middle Eastern and Asian thugocracies are doing terrible things today.

Jacinta: Getting more female leadership into those countries that everybody pays most attention to – such as those with the greatest destructive ability (the USA, Russia and China) – that would be absolutely key.

Canto: The three countries most fond of interfering with other countries. Funny that.

Jacinta: What’s the point of having all that power if you can’t use it to push others around? Old Drivelmouth in the USA is a perfect example. Not to mention the Taliban, etc etc etc.

Canto: So you want female empowerment so you can push blokes around?

Jacinta: Ah, touché. Yes, there’s some truth to that – after all, we’ve had millennia of being pushed around by blokes. But I don’t want to resurrect the Society for Cutting Up Men, though I must say I’m glad that manifesto was written.

Canto: We need extremists so we can feel superior to them?

Jacinta: Haha well we can just about get rid of men, once we’ve drained them of sperm. Think of black widow spiders and such. There’s a strong argument that the basis of all life is female – turning Aristotle’s views upside-down. Anyway, we’re a long way from taking over the world, unfortunately.

Canto: And such a possible world makes me think of bonobos again, where the male life isn’t too bad at all. If you accept your place.

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

Canto: Well, no I wouldn’t be happy to be a bonobo after my life as a human, I’d want to do all the human things – sex of course, but also exploring where we came from, what makes us tick, how the self-animating came from inanimate matter, how the universe came to be, how we can solve all the problems we create for ourselves, and enjoying all the beautiful and amazing things, like birds and bushes, music, the sea breeze, the tastes of various cheeses, a good whisky, laughs with friends and so on. As long as my female overlords allow me these joys – and I know they would – I’d be happy as a bonobo with a perpetual hard-on.

Jacinta: Haha, I’m not sure if that’s the best definition of happiness. The spicy variety is more like it. And of course you’re right, human life is potentially much more varied and complex than bonobo life. The real point is that the potential is more likely to be realised, for more people, with less macho thuggery and more female-led community. And here’s another point: hierarchy isn’t a bad thing, or rather, it’s an unavoidable thing, because we’ll never be equal in skills and knowledge, due to age, experience and upbringing. And there will always be challenges to existing hierarchies, and changes to them. It’s a matter of how we manage those changes, and females are generally better at that. As to why, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s hormonal. In any case, that’s a generalisation, which admits of exceptions.

Canto: But those hierarchies are much harder to shift in those complex communities called nations, where there are entrenched classes, such as the Party in China, or the Military in Burma, or the Theocracy in Iran, or the Billionaire CEOs in the USA. These people tend to live as far from the great unwashed as possible, often in gated communities or their equivalents, even on physically Higher Ground, as Robert Sapolsky and others have noted.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. I was thinking recently of Nixon and his crimes, and of the USA’s ludicrous and shocking Presidential pardoning system, exposed even more in recent times. Nixon was merely ‘persuaded’ to resign, and would have spent his retirement in one of those gated communities, full of backslapping commiserators, and I have few expectations of Trump experiencing anything worse. Anyway, what we need is a society, and a political system, in which this kind of scum doesn’t rise to the top in the first place. I wonder if there have ever been any brutish alpha females in the bonobo world. It’s unlikely, but there may have been the odd one-off.

Canto: You mentioned hormones. You know, I’ve never really understood what they are. I recall Sapolsky warning us against over-simplifying – assuming that testosterone is the male hormone or the aggression hormone, and that serotonin is the relaxing hormone, mostly associated with females…

Jacinta: Serotonin’s a neurotransmitter. You might be thinking of oxytocin, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, apparently. Or, more likely, oestrogen?

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard of them all, but I don’t know what basket to put them in. Is a neurotransmitter a wave or a particle? Are hormones like cells, or molecules of some kind? Amino acid chains, like so much else in the body? We should do a whole self-educating conversation on that topic.

Jacinta; Absolutely. Anyway, we need more of an oxytocin-soaked society – without the downsides of drug induction, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sciencey rationality too much. Here’s something from a typical popular medical website about oxytocin:

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems.

Canto: Hmmm, doesn’t it just immediately make you think of bonobos? I bet they have no problems with their intestines.

Jacinta: Well it does make me fantasise about a touch of biochemical engineering, just to help the feminising process along. Whadya reckon?

Canto: Interesting. That’s for a future conversation.


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

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

bonobos, humans, sex, kids, community and work: an interminable conversation 1

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just being cosy


Canto: We need to face the sex issue, which is such a problematic one for humans, and far less problematic, it seems, for bonobos.

Jacinta:Yes, they don’t need a Me Too movement, coz the males are already scared of them. I mean the boss females.

Canto: Well it’s not just the males hitting on the females. In bonobo societies, it’s males on males, females on females, old on young, kids on kids, but with a minimum of fuss and bother, it seems to me. And it’s not all the time, I don’t want to exaggerate anything. There are no nymphomaniacs, whatever that means.

Jacinta: A pejorative term. The male equivalents are called studs.

Canto: Well, not always. Sometimes called sex addicts. And paedophiles of course. Suitable cases for treatment. And I remember a group calling themselves ‘sluts on bikes’, seeking to retool the term for their own benefit somehow. I think there’s a lot of confusion or uncertainty out there, about whether an overdeveloped interest in sex is good or bad. And of course there’s a big issue about sexual victims, which doesn’t seem a problem for bonobos.

Jacinta: Not a major problem, but the females appear to keep the males in line, if they go too far. After all much of the sexual stuff is just mutual masturbation.

Canto: Yeah, nowadays, human males – and maybe females – get off on porn, or their own fantasies, wanking in the safe confines of their bedrooms, imagining touchy-feelies rather than experiencing them. It’s quite sad. Bonobos don’t have that problem.

Jacinta: It’s certainly true that there are plenty of sexually unsatisfied human apes around. But maybe if they weren’t so aware of sex – especially the hypersexuality of porn – they wouldn’t be so obsessed with what they’re missing out on. Take orangutans. They’re mostly isolated, and I doubt if they spend much time masturbating…

Canto: Ah but they do spend some time on it. If the Gizmodo website is to be trusted, masturbation has been observed in at least 80 types of male primates, and 50 types of female primates, including orangutans. And I don’t quite trust that male-female disparity.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s odd. And the point is that the crotch area is the most erogenous zone for all mammals, surely – and then some. And it doesn’t require fantasising about sexy other members of your species. Think of the first time you masturbated…

Canto: I really can’t recall the first time….

Jacinta: It’s highly likely you found your pubes rubbing against something, and it felt, well, stimulating, so you rubbed some more. Nothing directly to do with sex, for us or for other mammals. When a dog starts humping your leg, it’s not actually humping, or thinking of humping, presumably.

Canto: So it’s all about chemicals, fireworks in the brain, or something? A dog humps your leg because he’s excited, and humping gets him more excited. But it’s the old chicken and egg – does it start with the humping or the excitement?

Jacinta: Well I suppose the main point for us is that masturbation is natural and common for many species, given the evolution of erogenous zones, especially the zone associated with reproduction. But I’m more interested in another phenomenon – reproduction. In spite of their interest in sex, bonobo females are unable, it seems, to produce more than a few offspring in their lives. According to Wikipedia, the most offspring produced by a human female, that we know of, is 44, 43 of whom survived infancy. That’s a woman in Uganda, whose last child was born in 2016. There are recordings of greater numbers in previous centuries, but they’re insufficiently verified. And this woman, Mariam Nabatanzi, wasn’t just showing off, she had a rare condition that caused hyperovulation. Her births included 3 sets of quadruplets, 4 of triplets and 6 of twins, and she might’ve added to the number but a procedure she underwent in 2019, at age 40, put a stop to it all.

Canto: Elon Musk would’ve been proud of her.

Jacinta: Yeah, well, I wonder if he’s helping pay Ms Nabatanzi’s food bills, though hopefully her unwonted fame would help with that. It’s interesting that both Franz de Waal and Jane Goodall mention, in the beautifully photographed Deutsche Welle documentary referenced below, that the ability of humans to reproduce rapidly compared to other primates has been a vital factor in our dominance of the biosphere, with its positive and negative impacts. De Waal suggests that this high reproductive rate is somehow due to the family structure we’ve developed, with the father helping out the mother, not so much directly as indirectly, as material provider and support. But I think this claim needs more support or more fleshing out.

Canto: Yes, it seems to fly in the face of what we know about bonobo culture, where the mother seems to be helped out by other females, and males, in a tight-knit community. Or is this an exaggeration? I recall reading that this community care, or extended family care, occurs in corvids as well. I don’t know how many chicks the average crow gives birth to in a lifetime. Anyway, it seems that the long intervals between births in chimps and bonobos is more psychological, or cultural if you like, than physiological. The mothers do much of the caring and feeding, and it’s exhausting. Humans have bottle-feeding for instance, and anyone can be in charge of that. I did it for my little brother when I was a kid, and even learned to change nappies. Human mothers are sometimes back at work weeks or even days after giving birth.

Jacinta: Which would require other carers. Maybe we’re not so selfish as we think. But then again, in the WEIRD world we’re having fewer children, and as other regions become more well-off they’re having fewer children too.

Canto: Except for Elon Musk.

Jacinta: Crows generally lay a clutch of 2-7 eggs every nesting season – that’s one clutch every year. About 40 percent of all the corvid species are co-operative breeders, a much bigger percentage than other bird species. Crows’ lifespans can vary wildly – some can live for more than twenty years, and of course it’s hard to say how many offspring they produce in a lifetime, never mind how many of their chicks survive to adulthood. But returning to humans and bonobos, both species make a habit of having sex for fun, though with bonobos it’s more of a standard thing – they don’t have killjoy religious figures or ’empowered’ celibates spoiling the party.

Canto: We’re certainly a long way from public sex. Even nudist colonies now seem a distant memory, and they were about as sexy as an old fart’s farts.

Jacinta: Well, that’s a bit rough. We’re just so much more diverse than bonobos, you can’t compare. Everything from lifetime vows of celibacy to sex dungeons, about which I know nothing.

Canto: We’ll explore them, no doubt. But of course bonobos, when they’re not eating and sleeping, have a lot of time for play. They’re not trying to create the next exciting technology or to quantise gravity or to become the richest entrepreneur in the jungle or to take over their neighbours’ territory or whatever. All play, even sexual play, and no work can be a bit mind-numbing perhaps. A bit of your old Freudian sublimation isn’t such a bad thing.

Jacinta: How about getting AI to do all the smart stuff and we just play?

Canto: Ahh, now you’re talking about the future, beyond where we’ll be, unless those longevity diets really kick in…



Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2022 at 8:48 pm

still bitten by the bonobo bug…

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Having written quite a few essays on a future bonoboesque world, I’ve found myself in possession of a whole book on our Pan paniscus relatives for the first time. All that I’ve gleaned about these fellow apes until now has been from the vasty depths of the internet, a gift that will doubtless keep on giving. My benefactor apologised for her gift to me, describing it as a coffee-table book, perhaps more pictorial than informative, but I’ve already learned much that’s new to me from the first few pages. For example, I knew from my basic research that bonobos were first identified as a distinct species in the late 1920s or early 1930s –  I could never get the date straight, perhaps because I’d read conflicting accounts. De Waal presents a more comprehensive and interesting story, which involves, among other things, an ape called Mafuka, the most popular resident, or inmate, of Amsterdam Zoo between 2011 and 2016, later identified as a bonobo. The zoo now features a statue of Mafuka.

More important, though, for me, is that everything I’ve read so far reminds me of the purpose of my bonobo essays, but also makes me wonder if I haven’t focussed enough on one central feature of bonobo society, probably out of timidity. Here’s how De Waal puts it:

It is impossible to understand the social life of this ape without attention to its sex life: the two are inseparable. Whereas in most other species, sexual behaviour is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it has become an integral of social relationships, and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on. The frequency of sexual contact is also higher than among most other primates.

In our own society, definitely still male-dominated but also with a legacy of religious sexual conservatism, this kind of all-in, semi-masturbatory sexual contact is absolutely beyond the pale. I’m reminded of the Freudian concept of sublimation I learned about as a teen – the eros or sex drive is channelled into other passionate, creative activities, and, voila, human civilisation! And yet, we’re still obsessed with sex, which we’re expected to transmute into sexual fulfilment with a lifelong partner. Meanwhile, the popularity of porn, or what I prefer to call the sex video industry, as well as the world’s oldest profession, indicates that there’s much that’s not quite right about our sex lives.

This raises questions about monogamy, the nuclear family, and even the human concept of love. This is ancient, but nevertheless dangerous territory, so for now I’ll stick with bonobos. As with chimps, female bonobos often, though not always, move to other groups at sexual maturity, a practice known as philopatry. Interestingly, this practice has similarities to exogamous marriage practices, for example among some Australian Aboriginal groups. It’s interesting, then, that female-female bonds tend to be the strongest among bonobos, considering that there’s no kinship involved.

Needless to say, bonobos don’t live in nuclear families, and child-care is a more flexible arrangement than amongst humans, though the mother is naturally the principal carer. And it seems that bonobo mothers have a subtly closer relationship with their sons than their daughters:

the bond between mother and son is of particular significance in bonobo society where the son will maintain his connection with his mother for life and depend upon her for his social standing within the group. For example, the son of the society’s dominant female, the strong matriarch who maintains social order, will rise in the ranks of the group, presumably to ensure the establishment and perpetuation of unaggressive, non-competitive, cooperative male characteristics, both learnt and genetic, within the group.

Considering this point, it would be interesting to research mother-son relations among human single-parent families in the WEIRD world, a situation that has become more common in recent decades. Could it be that, given other support networks, rather than the disadvantages often associated with one-parent families in human societies, males from such backgrounds are of the type that command more respect than other males? Particularly, I would suspect, from females. Of course, it’s hard to generalise about human upbringing, but we might be able to derive lessons from bonobo methods. Bonobo mothers rarely behave punitively towards their sons, and those sons remain attached to their mothers throughout their lives. The sons of high-status females also attain high status within the male hierarchy.

Yet we are far from being able to emulate bonobo matriarchy, as we’re still a very patriarchal society. Research indicates that many women are still attracted to high-status, philandering men. That’s to say, they’ve been ‘trained’ to climb the success ladder through marriage or co-habitation than through personal achievement. They’ve also been trained into the idea of high-status males as dominating other males as well as females. It is of course changing, though too slowly, and with too many backward moves for the more impatient among us. Two macho thugocracies, Russia and China, are currently threatening the movement towards collaboration and inclusivity that we see in female-led democracies such as Taiwan, New Zealand and a number of Scandinavian countries. It may well be that in the aftermath of the massive destruction wrought by these thugocracies, there will come a reckoning, as occurred after the two ‘world wars’ with the creation of the UN and the growth of the human rights movement and international aid organisations, but it is frustrating to contemplate the suffering endured in the meantime, by those unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now of course all this might be seen as presenting a romanticised picture of bonobos (not to mention female humans), which De Waal and other experts warn us against. The difference in aggression between bonobos and chimps is more a matter of degree than of type, perhaps, and these differences can vary with habitat and the availability of resources. And yet we know from our studies of human societies that male-dominated societies are more violent. And male domination has nothing to do with simple numbers, it is rather about how a society is structured, and how that structure is reinforced. For example I’ve written recently about how the decidedly male god of the Abrahamic religions, originally written as YWH or Elohim, emerged from a patriarchal, polygamous society in the Sinai region, with its stories of Jacob and Abraham and their many wives, which was reinforced in its structure by origin myths in which woman was created out of a man’s rib and was principally responsible for the banishment from paradise. The WEIRD world is struggling to disentangle itself from these myths and attitudes, and modern science is its best tool for doing so.

One of the most interesting findings, then, from modern neurology, is that while there are no categorical differences between the male and the female brain in humans, there are significant statistical differences – which might make for a difference in human society as a whole. To explain further: no categorical difference means that, if you were a professional neurologist who had been studying the human brain for decades, and were presented with a completely disembodied but still functional human brain to analyse, you wouldn’t be able to assert categorically that this brain belonged to a male or a female. That’s because the differences among female brains, and among male brains, are substantial – a good reason for promoting gender fluidity. However, statistically, there are also substantial differences between male and female brains, with males having more ‘grey’ material (the neurons) and females having more ‘white’ material (the myelinated connections between neurons), and with males having slightly higher brain volume, in accord with general sexual dimorphism. In a 2017 British study involving some 5,000 subjects, researchers found that:

Adjusting for age, on average… women tended to have significantly thicker cortices than men. Thicker cortices have been associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests.

This sounds promising, but it’s doubtful that anything too insightful can be made of it, any more than a study of bonobo neurophysiology would provide us with insights into their culture. But, you never know…


Frans De Waal & Frans Lanting, Bonobo: the forgotten ape, 1997.

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2022 at 2:43 pm

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. According to Wikipedia, ‘The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture’. The nations are divided broadly into four ‘types’. 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)

Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group

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