an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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a bonobo world 34: bonobo and human families

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bonobos – family into community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Joyce Nicholson, The heartache of motherhood , 1983

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

April 12, 2021 at 3:27 pm

Posted in bonobos, community, family, work

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on blogging: a personal view

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I have a feeling – I haven’t researched this – that the heyday of blogging is over. Even I rarely read blogs these days, and I’m a committed blogger, and have been since the mid 2000s. I tend to read books and science magazines, and some online news sites, and I listen to podcasts and watch videos – news, historical, academic, etc. 

should read more blogs. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. Even out of self-interest – reading and commenting on other blogs will drive traffic to my own, as all the advisers say. Perhaps one of the problems is that there aren’t too many blogs like mine – they tend to be personal interest or lifestyle blogs, at least going by those bloggers who ‘like’ my blog, which which gives me the distinct impression that those ‘likers’ are just trying to drive traffic to their blogs, as advised. But the thing is, I like to think of myself as a real writer, whatever that is. Or a public intellectual, ditto. 

However, I’ve never been published in a real newspaper, apart from one article 25 years ago in the Adelaide Review (the only article I’ve ever submitted to a newspaper), which led to my only published novel, In Elizabeth. But I’ve never really seen myself as a fiction writer. I’m essentially a diarist turned blogger – and that transition from diary writing to blogging was transformational, because with blogging I was able to imagine that I had a readership. It’s a kind of private fantasy of being a public intellectual.

I’ve always been inspired by my reading, thinking ‘I could do that”. Two very different writers, among many others, inspired me to keep a diary from the early 1980s, to reflect on my own experiences and the world I found myself in: Franz Kafka and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s influence, I think, has been more lasting, not in terms of what he actually wrote, but his focus on the wider world, though it was Kafka that was the most immediate influence back in those youthful days, when I was still a little more self-obsessed. 

Interestingly, though, writing about the world is a self-interested project in many ways. It’s less painful, and less dangerous. I once read that the philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell, who had attempted suicide a couple of times in his twenties, was asked about those days and how he survived them. ‘I stopped thinking about myself and thought about the world’, he responded.

I seem to recall that Montaigne wrote something like ‘I write not to find out what I think about a topic, but to create that thinking.’ I strongly identify with that sentiment. It really describes my life’s work, such as it is. Considering that, from all outside perspectives, I’m deemed a failure, with a patchy work record, a life mostly spent below the poverty line and virtually no readership as a writer, I’m objective enough and well-read enough to realise that my writing stands up pretty well against those who make a living from their works. Maybe that’s what prevents me from ever feeling suicidal.  

Writing about the world is intrinsically rewarding because it’s a lifelong learning project. Uninformed opinions are of little value, so I’ve been able to take advantage of the internet – which is surely the greatest development in the dissemination of human knowledge since the invention of writing – to embark on this lifelong learning at very little cost. I left school quite young, with no qualifications to speak of, and spent the next few years – actually decades – in and out of dead-end jobs while being both attracted and repelled by the idea of further academic study. At first I imagined myself as a legend in my lunch-time – the smartest person I knew without academic qualifications of any kind. And of course I could cite my journals as proof. These were the pre-internet days of course, so the only feedback I got was from the odd friend to whom I read or showed some piece of interest. My greatest failing, as a person rather than a writer, is my introversion. I’m perhaps too self-reliant, too unwilling or unable to join communities. The presence of others rather overwhelms me. I recall reading, in a Saul Bellow novel, of the Yiddish term trepverter – meaning the responses to conversations you only think of after the moment has passed. For me, this trepverter experience takes up much of my time, because the responses are lengthy, even never-ending. It’s a common thing, of course, Chekhov claimed that the best conversations we have are with ourselves, and Adam Smith used to haunt the Edinburgh streets in his day, arguing with himself on points of economics and probably much more trivial matters. How many people I’ve seen drifting along kerbsides, shouting and gesticulating at some invisible, tormenting adversary.

Anyway, blogging remains my destiny. I tried my hand at podcasting, even vodcasting, but I feel I’m not the most spontaneous thinker, and my voice catches in my throat due to my bronchiectasis – another reason for avoiding others. Yet I love the company of others, in an abstract sort of way. Or perhaps I should say, I like others, more than I like company – though I have had great experience in company with others. But mostly I feel constrained in company, which makes me dislike my public self. That’s why I like reading – it puts me in an idealised company with the writer. I must admit though, that after my novel was published, and also as a member of the local humanist society, I gave a few public talks or lectures, which I enjoyed immensely – I relish nothing more than being the centre of attention. So it’s an odd combo of shyness and self-confidence that often leaves me scratching my own head. 

This also makes my message an odd one. I’m an advocate of community, and the example of community-orientated bonobos, who’s also something of a loner, awkward with small-talk, wanting to meet people, afraid of being overwhelmed by them. Or of being disappointed.

Here’s an example. Back in the eighties, I read a book called Melanie. It was a collection of diary writings of a young girl who committed suicide, at age 18 as I remember. It was full of light and dark thoughts about family, friends, school and so forth. She came across as witty, perceptive, mostly a ‘normal’ teenager, but with this dark side that seemed incomprehensible to herself. Needless to say, it was an intimate, emotional and impactful reading experience. I later showed the book to a housemate, a student of literature, and his response shocked me. He dismissed it out of hand, as essentially childish, and was particularly annoyed that the girl should have a readership simply because she had suicided. He also protested, rather too much, I felt, about suicide itself, which I found revealing. He found such acts to be both cowardly and selfish. 

I didn’t argue with him, though there was no doubt a lot of trepverter going on in my head afterwards. For the record, I find suicides can’t be easily generalised, motives are multifactorial, and our control over our own actions are often more questionable than they seem. In any case human sympathy should be in abundant supply, especially for the young. 

So sometimes it feels safer to confide in an abstract readership, even a non-existent one. I’ll blog on, one post after another. 

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2021 at 3:40 pm

A bonobo world, etc 16 – bonobo countries and leaders, nationalism and internationalism

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newspaper cover picture September 2015

If it’s reasonable to reduce the bonobo world to a few clichés  – caring and sharing, making love not war, sexual healing – then maybe it’s reasonable to describe the USA, with its overblown military capacity which empowers it to intervene in other nations unilaterally, and its puritanical religious heritage which seeks to narrow the very concept of love, as the anti-bonobo world. Of course the country has its doves and communitarians, but it’s surely become famous, or notorious in recent times for its anti-government individualism, its aggressive jingoism, its extraordinary incarceration rate, its rich-poor divide, its gun culture, and other such charms.

Of course we’re observing the country at a very low ebb, with its criminal President sulking and predictably refusing to concede that he has been soundly beaten in the recent election, and the worst is likely yet to come. Courts are being inundated, death threats are flying, and no doubt private arsenals are  being brought to a pitch of readiness. The Trumpets, or the Retrumplicans as some have called them, are preparing for their Alamo, but historians will look a lot less kindly on this one.

Certainly it’s a very diverse country, and many observers feel it would be better off if divided into two, or three, or more. This might encourage healthier competition and interaction between the Divided Nations. One nation might learn from its neighbour that being less punitive, say, in its drug or petty crime policies is ultimately more productive. Another might recognise that public-private partnerships in business are the key to revitalising its economy, and so provide a template for others to follow. Yet another might note that its severe anti-abortion policies are causing health and welfare problems not shared by its neighbours. 

Then again, there’s already division into states, which each have a fair degree of autonomy, and that doesn’t seem to have reduced the national mess. And the USA seems to pay little attention to Canada, a far less obnoxious country overall.

So is there any serious possibility that the USA can become more bonoboesque? Or should we simply abandon it and look to Europe, or New Zealand perhaps? Or, shock horror, one of the Asian countries, such as Japan, or Taiwan if it still exists as an independent country by the time this writing is done? What signs of bonoboism should we look out for? Of course we don’t want to become more like bonobos in any precise way – hanging out in treetops isn’t really a human thing these days. But curbing our aggression, mainly though female power and the power of numbers or group support, and becoming more genuinely community oriented, sharing resources and tasks (including children and child-minding), and generally being more touchy-feely, these are real possibilities, and some might argue necessities, for a successful human future on a successful planet, that’s to say a planet we share with, and want to keep on sharing with, as many other forms of life as possible. If we look at nations, those rather artificial entities, for examples of the turn towards bonoboism, we find pluses and minuses everywhere. Japan is a more community-oriented nation than most, but its history of international violence and failure to come to terms with that history pose a serious problem, and overall its record on protecting and supporting other life forms, especially in the oceans, is pretty abysmal. It also has a problem with a dearth of women in leadership roles, in business and politics, which is particularly disappointing considering the country’s low birth rate. Women are staying in work longer, putting off or abandoning the idea of having children, so you might expect their leadership opportunities would be greater. This needs to be explored further in future posts.

The USA, though rather late in giving women the vote, no doubt considers itself a bastion of modern feminism, and as I write, President-elect Biden is seeking or being pressured to make his administration the most female in the country’s history. Yet the rugged individualism that the country still espouses has always had a male cast, with its gun ownership obsession and its dark, thuggish sub-cultures. The Me-Too movement also appears to have its typically American puritanical side, which I also intend to explore, with fearful delicacy, in future posts. 

So my search for bonobo-world promise should take
me to places where female leadership has already been achieved, though more often than not by more or less solitary women in a largely male ocean. The most long-lasting female leader in recent times, in undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential countries, is Angela Merkel, who has been Germany’s Chancellor for over 15 years. She appears to be a centrist – a liberal leading a conservative government – and clearly a survivor, though that’s probably understating her effectiveness. Merkel landed herself in trouble of sorts during the 2015 European migrant or refugee crisis, when over a million refugees flooded Europe, fleeing from war-torn or highly destabilised countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems her own uncertainty as to how to handle the crisis reflected to a fair degree that of the German people. The country accepted a large number of refugees, and within a couple of years the flood had subsided, as had the crisis over Merkel’s leadership. One way in which she mollified the concerns of nationalists was to insist on Germany’s unity under Christianity. No doubt she is a sincere Christian, but as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in Homo Deus, religion is very far from being the force it one was in Europe, and appealing to the best human values of tolerance, compromise and acceptance of diversity should suffice.

All this raises the question of whether there really are German or Australian or British values. As a teacher of international English who has taught students from scores of countries, I’ve found that it isn’t difficult to develop relations based on entirely human elements, such as trust, curiosity, humour and pride. Leaders for some reason like to speak of national characteristics, one hears this all the time. But are that nation’s neighbours really so very different? And is it better to emphasise our differences, or our similarities?

References

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

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

https://theday.co.uk/stories/europe-engulfed-by-migration-crisis

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2020 at 7:49 pm