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a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3324566/

 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 2

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1. the small world of bonobos

Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of their social relationships, and our own. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to follow, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller on average than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them closer to living examples of our direct examples than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 

 

References 

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

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

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/bonobo#:~:text=Total%20bonobo%20population%20numbers%20are,is%20rapidly%20destroying%20the%20rest.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/why-did-octopuses-become-smart/593155/#:~:text=Cephalopods%20do%20not.,that%20chimps%20or%20dolphins%20do.

Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 pm

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 1

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bonobo togetherness – who are the girls and who are the boys?

 

I’ve decided to focus on this very broad topic, and to write a book. Here’s my first (and in parts my second) draught

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

In these few introductory pages, I’ll be writing a little about myself, after which I’ll (try to) leave me behind. At least as a topic. Of course, I’m on every page, as is Max Tegmark in Our Mathematical Universe, or David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, or Johann Noah Harari in Homo Deus, or any writer of any other book of ideas, but in this opening I want to admit the lifelong passion I have for the set of ideas, or really feelings, I wish to explore here. They’re vital feelings, and big ideas, though they may come out as inchoate, or incoherent, in the telling. I probably feel most passionate about them because they seem so knocked about and pushed aside by the world I find myself in – though that world is always in flux and there are moments of inspiration.

 

It was in the mid 1980s that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I would have been in my late twenties, just beginning an arts degree as a ‘mature-age student’ at Adelaide University. I was living in a chaotic share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. Due to difficult family circumstances I’d left school at fifteen, and I’d fantasised for a while about being a complete auto-didact, the smartest fellow without a tertiary degree on the planet, or at least on the street, but I was frankly embarrassed at my poverty and my string of unpleasant and failed jobs in factories, offices, restaurants, and briefly, a hospital. My great solace, my way of maintaining pride in myself, was writing. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the books I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, reflections on the women I came into contact with – admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 13 years or so before I could buy my first computer.

 

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all despised or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

 

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy in these matters. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic airways condition – bronchiectasis – that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterest. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you perfectly,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

 

In fact I was obsessed to what I considered an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to pre-adolescence, when I imagined doing it, whatever it might be, with every attractive girl, and boy, within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly with my classmates, looking up and down the class line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

 

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and yes I did have one or two) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way. And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, and  a great motivator. But what if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

 

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the lifestyle and virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

 

So the following is an exploration of a world that seems worthy of study both for itself and for ourselves. We’re now the overwelmingly dominant species on the planet, and this is having strange contrasting effects, of hubris and despair. It’s also the case that we’re not one thing – our species is composed of cultures that seem to have little connection with each other, and multiculturalism is seen as having enriching as well as disastrous consequences. In such complex and dynamic circumstances, what do bonobos really have to teach us? The following is an attempt to answer that question in the most positive light.

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 pm

the bonobo world 4: more on Rapa Nui

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Easter Island – truly isolated

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

The above quote is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his seventies science series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Easter Island (known to Polynesians as Rapa Nui) and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo.

The Rapa Nui population, as mentioned, seems to have reduced from its height, perhaps in the 1500s, to Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. However, there’s a more or less total lack of agreement about the extent of that reduction, and therefore, whether it could be said that the population ‘collapsed’. We do, know, however, that the increasingly frequent visits of European adventurers and traders from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth had a devastating effect on Rapa Nui’s Polynesian inhabitants.

It’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts. No sooner do I read material about the hierarchical and destructively competitive nature of the population, than I find recently researched material arguing for necessary co-operation in creating and moving their statues from one part of the island to another. As to the deforestation, some have argued they destroyed their trees for canoe-building and also for the purpose of transporting their statues, using log rollers. Others have tried to show that trees were not used for moving the statues as they were created to be transported upright, using ropes to shuffle them along on rounded bases. Others have argued that plant species on the island weren’t suitable for boat-building. It’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

In the next part, I’ll look at the Ranga Nui people’s activities in providing themselves with the necessities before the eighteenth century, the tragedy of their post-European fate, David Deutsch’s treatment of the situation and … whatever.

References

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

Collapse, by Jared Diamond, 2005

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2020 at 4:13 pm

the bonobo world 3: other cultures – Rapa Nui

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Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern ‘Europeans’ transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

So I want to look at a topic I’ve stumbled upon often in recent times to see what I, if no-one else, can learn from it. It concerns the success or failure of a culture.

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyardahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, triangular in shape, and thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through . However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse.

Jared Diamond, with the help of scientific associates, examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that:

Deforestation is more severe on:

1) dry islands than wet islands. 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands. 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it 7) low islands than high islands 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed in this book, we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. There’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, though it may have been as much as 15,000. It was reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, or so the story goes – unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I’ll have more to say on this topic, and the fate of the Rapa Nui people, in my next post.

References

Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV, documentary video written and presented by Dr Jago Cooper

 Easter Island – Where Giants Walked: Fall of Civilisations, documentary video presented (and written?) by Paul Cooper

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

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2020 at 8:27 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility 2

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Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’re beginning to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared may be an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of our social relationships. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to compare themselves to, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows.

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the lager males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. I may look at sexual dimorphism more generally in a later post.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of his book She has her mother’s laugh, Carl Zimmer tells the tale of the ‘ill-fated’ Burke and Wills expedition which attempted to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/diet#:~:text=Honey%2C%20eggs%2C%20soil%2C%20mushrooms,small%20mammals%20(young%20duiker).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

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

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, 2018.

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

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

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.


Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.


There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am