an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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Imagining a Bonobo magazine, then back to harsh reality – Taiwan, Iran, Cuba, the UAE

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Jacinta: I have this fantasy of going back in time to my younger self, a few decades ago, knowing what I know now (so that I could invest in companies I now know have been successful, and wouldn’t have to work ‘for the man’). I’d start a magazine promoting female empowerment, highlighting female high achievers in science, art, politics and business, and I’d call the magazine Bonobo. It would of course be ragingly successful, promoting the cause of women and bonobos in equally dizzying proportions…

Canto: Yeah, and I have this fantasy of going back to pre-adolescent days and changing sex. Gender reassignment and all that, but I’d definitely be a lesbian.

Jacinta: And later you’d land a plum job, working for Bonobo. But returning to the 21st century, and I’m disappointed to hear that Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, recently resigned as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, due to its poor showing in recent local elections. The opposition Kuomintang, a party with a pretty dubious history, tends to be pro-China – that’s to say, the Chinese Testosterone Party – so I’m not sure what’s going on there. I’ve read that the elections were fought mostly on local issues, but it’s still a worry. We might do a deeper dive on the topic in the near future. I read about Taiwan’s new democracy in Glimpses of Utopia, by the author and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, Jess Scully, and it sounded exciting – I recall one Taiwanese commentator saying something like ‘because we’re a new democracy we’re not hidebound by tradition [unlike the USA with its revered and hopelessly out-dated constitution etc etc], we can be more innovative’. But the forces of conservatism are always there to drag us back.

Canto: And speaking of conservatism, or more like medievalism, how about Iran?

Jacinta: Well I don’t feel optimistic, at least not for the near future. Of course the enforcement of the hijab is pure oppression, but these male oppressors have been in power since 1979, and before that the Shah had become increasingly oppressive and dictatorial, so one kind of quasi-fascism was replaced by an ultimately more brutal religious version. The recent protests were sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman in custody, but unrest has been brewing for some time, not just over the hijab and the disgusting treatment of women, but the increasingly dire economic situation.

Canto: Meanwhile Iran is supplying drones to Russia, to help them kill Ukrainians. WTF is that all about?

Jacinta: Well mostly it seems to be about the fact that both nations have an obsessive hatred, and I suppose fear, of the USA. So ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. That’s how the New York Times puts it, though I’d say it’s not just the USA, it’s democracy and ‘western values’. Iran and Putinland have worked together before, to decimate the opposition to that Syrian dictator, Whatsisface, for whatever reason. Interestingly, though the Iranian dictatorship’s support for Putin is another cause of domestic dissent – the Iranian people tend to favour the underdog, unsurprisingly.

Canto: And many of the most seasoned experts believe this war – essentially between Putinland and NATO, but with most of the victims being Ukrainians – could drag on for years. Putin is stuck with a predicament of his own making, having gotten away with similar behaviour in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and of course Ukraine back in 2014. This time has been disastrously different, but he won’t let go before killing as many Ukrainians as he possibly can. And having created a macho thugocracy, it’s likely his main adversaries within Putinland are those even more thuggish than himself.

Jacinta: Yes, all claims that he’s about to flee the country, or that he has testicular cancer of the brain or whatever, are nothing more than phantasy. Still, as we’re a little younger than he is, and imbibing a less toxic atmosphere, it will be a joy to witness his last end.

Canto: It’s funny but of all the current crop of malignant male ‘leaders’, the one that, for some reason, fills me with the most uncontrollable rage is Xi Jinping. I’m not sure why. I’m clearly not cut out to be a diplomat, my fantasies are way too nasty.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Possibly because he, and the Chinese thugocracy in general, are much more low key and business-like in their campaigns of oppression and mass-murder. Xi, of course, is an admirer, or pretends to be, of old Mao, the greatest mass-murderer of his own people in the history of this planet. I can hardly imagine Xi flying into a Hitlerian rage about anything. It makes him see all the more inhuman. I’ve been hoping, without much hope, that the USA – the only country Xi might be a little afraid of – would elect a female leader in the very near future, and that she would then slap him about in a well-publicised heads-of-state meet-up.

Canto: Haha, now that’s a fruitier fantasy I must say. So what about the USA, supposedly our ally? Are we supposed to accept their hubristic jingoism – with a pinch of salt? Clearly we want to be on their side against the different varieties of thugocracy on offer, but this obsession with dear leaders instead of parties and policies and negotiations and compromises and dialogue, it’s pretty tedious. Maybe we need female leaders to slap sense into all these partisan screamers….

Jacinta: There are plenty of female partisan screamers actually. With female leadership it’s a matter of degree. There are publicity hounds who make a lot of partisan noises, but most of them are male. Many of them are female of course, and I have no illusions about that, but all the evidence shows that by and large women are more into mending fences rather than smashing them, but that’s not what gets the publicity.

Canto: I do feel inspired, in a small way, about the Australian situation, arrived at recently, with a substantial increase in female representation in parliament. This has been ongoing, but the May Federal election has boosted female numbers substantially. 38% female representation, the highest in Australian history. Compare that to 27% in the US Congress, and 35% in the UK Parliament – another all-time high.

Jacinta: Well here’s a story, from the Washington Post:

New Zealand made history — or herstory — this week as female lawmakers became the majority, narrowly outnumbering their male counterparts in Parliament for the first time. On Tuesday, Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in as a lawmaker for the Labour Party, tipping the country’s legislative body to 60 women and 59 men.

That was posted in late October. And there were more surprises, for me at least:

Only five countries share Wellington’s achievement, with at least half of lawmakers being women, among them Rwanda, where more than 60 percent of its lawmakers are women, Cuba (53 percent), Nicaragua (51 percent), Mexico (50 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (50 percent), according to data from the [Inter-Parliamentary Union]. The countries that fall just short of 50 percent include Iceland, Grenada and South Africa.

Canto: Well, that’s surprising, even shocking. We don’t think of many of those countries as being enlightened or particularly pro-female.

Jacinta: Yes we’ll have to do a deeper dive. I have heard good things about the UAE, I think, but not so much about Cuba or Nicaragua. Think of Latino machismo and all that. So I’ve been reading a piece on Cuba from a few years ago, and plus ça change… or I could say, lies, damn lies, and statistics. Here’s a couple of quotes:

As far as power dynamics go, the machismo mentality ensures that men receive the upper hand. All you have to do is walk down the street to see machismo at work. Catcalls, or piropos, and other forms of (non-physical) sexual harassment are unavoidable for women, even on a five-minute walk. This culture of machismo is deeply embedded in Cuban society and indicative of deeper, institutionalized gender inequalities as well.

And forget all that apparent parliamentary representation:

In actuality, employed women in Cuba do not hold positions of power—either political or monetary. The Cuban Congress, although elected by the people, is not the political body that truly calls the shots. The Cuban Communist Party—only about 7 percent of which is made up of women—holds true political power. Markedly, the systems of evaluating gender equality in other countries around the world aren’t universally applicable, as women are much less represented in the true governing body of Cuba than we are led to believe. In addition, the professions that are usually synonymous with monetary wealth and the power and access that come with it (doctors, professors, etc.) do not yield the same financial reward here. Doctors and professors are technically state-employed and, therefore, earn the standard state wage of about $30 per month. This means women employed in these traditionally high-paying fields are denied access to even monetary power as a form of establishing more of an equal footing with men.

Canto: Yes, cultural shifts happen much more rarely, or slowly, than we always hope….

Jacinta: So now to check out the UAE, where I expect to find my hopes dashed once more. But it seems the UAE definitely stands out, at least a bit, in one of the world’s most ultra-patriarchal regions. The website of the UAE embassy in Washington has a puff piece in which it proudly references the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index, in which the UAE is ‘ranked first in MENA [the Middle East and North Africa] and 24th globally on women’s inclusion, justice and security’. However, it’s a Muslim culture, and culture rarely shifts much with the political winds, as DBC Pierre eloquently argues in a brief piece on Kandahar and the Afghan wars in volume 34 of New Philosopher. It might be argued that even Islam is a Johnny-come-lately in the tribal traditions of these desert regions. The Expatica website, which is designed to prepare workers for the challenges of living and working within a foreign culture, also argues that many of the political changes represent the thinnest of veneers. For example, female genital mutilation is still relatively common in rural areas, and Islamic Law is followed in the matter of domestic violence, to the detriment of women. This website claims the UAE ranks 49th in the world for gender equality, somewhat contradicting the embassy site, but without reference.

Canto: Hmmm. I’d rather work with bonobos. But they don’t really need us, do they?

References

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63768538

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/26/new-zealand-women-parliament-gender/

Glimpses of utopia, by Jess Scully, 2020

https://www.britannica.com/event/Iranian-Revolution/Aftermath

https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2022/12/16/iran-questions-and-answers-about-the-situation-and-sanctions

https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking?month=1&year=2022

https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/the-truth-about-gender-equality-in-cuba

https://www.uae-embassy.org/discover-uae/society/women-in-the-uae

‘Hidden truths’, by DBC Pierre: New Philosopher 34: Truth

https://www.expatica.com/ae/living/gov-law-admin/womens-rights-in-the-united-arab-emirates-71118/

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 23, 2022 at 9:20 pm

erogenous zones, domination, submission, bonobos and other sexy stuff

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Jacinta: So Simone de Beauvoir has a section in The second sex called ‘Sexual initiation’, which seems to me much influenced by all that Freudian stuff we’ve been exploring in Freud’s women, particularly all that clitoral versus vaginal malarky. However, she does try to get to the bottom of the physiological aspects rather than the psychological, which the Freudians (and many of their opponents) seemed to be stuck on. Still, she seems overly influenced by the passive-active distinction that Freud, especially in the early years, assumed as ‘natural’ vis-a-vis the female-male attitude to coitus.

Canto: Well, to be fair, in much mammalian coitus, the male ‘mounts’ and the female assumes the ‘lordosis position’, according to zoologists. It all appears a bit dominant-submissive to me.

Jacinta: Yeees, sort of, and this seems to have much to do with the evolved features of the sexual apparatus. Think of birds – the male jumps on top, wiggles around and that’s it, it lasts a couple of seconds. Consider that birds generally bond in lifelong pairs, with the odd bit on the side, and the males aren’t generally dominant, though it varies a lot species-wise, and birds, at least some species, are quite intelligent…

Canto: Yeah we don’t tend to think of the lifelong psychological effects of the physical act, or positioning, of sex in birds, or cats and dogs. We’re very speciesist that way.

Jacinta: Which reminds me of another story – actually a memory, of a dog we had, a female who regularly masturbated on top of her favourite fluffy toy, when she wasn’t ‘fighting’ with it all over the house. I can’t remember whether she’d been desexed or not, but clearly her erogenous zones were still intact. Was this clitoral or vaginal stimulation? Does it really matter? But of course for we humans it’s all so much more complex, apparently. Especially for us women. Here’s what Beauvoir has to say – and I sympathise to some extent:

The act of love [sic] finds its unity in its natural culmination: orgasm. Coitus has a specific physiological aim; in ejaculation the male releases burdensome secretions; after orgasm, the male feels complete relief regularly accompanied by pleasure. And, of course, pleasure is not the only aim; it is often followed by disappointment: the need has disappeared rather than having been satisfied. In any case, a definitive act is consummated and the man’s body remains intact: the service he has rendered to the species becomes one with his own pleasure. Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation…. instead of integrating forces of the species into her individual life, the female is prey to the species, whose interests diverge from her own ends; this antinomy reaches its height in woman; one of its manifestations is the opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina.

The second sex, pp 394-5

Canto: Yes… well, if dogs don’t much care if it’s clitoral or vaginal pleasure, why should women? It’s all an erogenous zone, some parts more than others maybe, but when the ‘act is consummated’, who cares? And the remark that ‘the female is prey to the species’ presumably refers to pregnancy and all its attendant issues. Beauvoir was writing before the contraceptive pill, which changed so much, at least in the WEIRD world.

Jacinta: Well, yes but there’s the whole issue of teen pregnancy, due to rape, ignorance and the like, and abortion and its enemies. Look at the USA today, still messed up about this issue. But, yes, this clitoris-vagina stuff is largely a red herring to me.

Canto: Yes it all smells a bit fishy.. oh sorry that was a bit below the belt…

Jacinta: Haha I recall an American sex video actor saying all her male co-performers’ dicks stank of marihuana – which may or may not be worse depending on your taste. But speaking of sex, there is an obvious imbalance in the sex game. How often do women rape men? Or even ‘coerce’ men into having sex. And think of gang rape. And the horrific consequences for women. And of course most men don’t rape, or even give it a moment’s thought – at least I hope they don’t – but I know the danger is often on the minds of women when they’re having a night out.

Canto: Safety in numbers, and that seems to be the bonobo way too, and getting back to other mammals again, it’s generally the case – think dogs, horses, any four-legged beastie – that the male mounts the female. Often from behind, like sneakily, creepily. Males on top, and females more or less taken unawares, more or less unwillingly. It seems like the urge to copulate invariably comes from the male.

Jacinta: Yes, evolution appears to have worked it that way, though social evolution can turn this around, at least somewhat. Not just safety, but power in numbers, that seems to be the bonobo way.

Canto: So how exactly do bonobos deal with the sex issue? I’d like some details. I know they engage in regular stimulation of each others’ erogenous zones, aka masturbation, but what about actual copulation, for the purpose of reproduction, though presumably they don’t make the connection. And when did we humans make the connection, when it comes to that?

Jacinta: Well bonobos reproduce at the same rate as chimps, despite all their sexual shenanigans. Humans differ from our primate cousins in that we don’t ‘come into season’ with ‘attractive’ pink swellings, which have an effect on the males, that’s both visual and probably chemical – pheromones and all.

Canto: And if we did – I mean if you females did – it might well be covered up, not only with clothing but deodorants and the like. I wonder if there’s any vestigial elements of being ‘in heat’. as they say, in humans.

Jacinta: Well this is where we move onto hormones. Here’s a quote from a sexual health website, which is pretty reliable:

Medical experts associate changes in sex drive with changes in the ratio of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are produced by the ovaries. These shifts occur at different phases of your monthly cycle. During your period and for a few days after, the concentration of both hormones is low, resulting in less sexual desire. By the time ovulation rolls around, estrogen peaks, naturally increasing libido. Once the process of ovulation wraps up, there’s a boost in progesterone production, and you might notice a dip in your sex drive.

Canto: Ah yes, menstruation – I don’t recall Freud saying much about that. Do bonobos menstruate?

Jacinta: Do bears shit in the woods? We should do a whole interaction on the menstrual cycle, for your benefit. Anyway, here’s a useful brief guide to bonobos and chimps:

  • Bonobos are sexually receptive for a large portion of their reproductive cycle, even when not near the time for ovulation.
    • This trait has sometimes been called concealed ovulation because the male has no clear signal for the optimum time for mating.
    • Bonobos also engage in sex in non-swelling phases of their cycle in about 1 out of 3 copulations.
    • Chimpanzee females tend to be sexually active only during their maximum swelling phase.

Canto: Right. Uhhh, no mention there of menstruation. Forgive my ignorance but what’s the difference/connection between ovulation and menstruation?

Jacinta: Okay here’s the story with us humans. Ovulation starts at puberty. It’s when an egg is released from one of the ovaries (we have a left and right ovary). You can say this is when we’re fertile, when we’re liable to get pregnant. Ovulation occurs at around day 14 of the 28-day menstrual cycle, on average. The cycle starts, and ends, with that thing called ‘the period’, when material from the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, is shed, along with blood and other yucky stuff. You can imagine the psychological impact that might have on girls when they’re not prepared for it. It can be a real trauma. So menstruation strictly refers to the whole cyclical process, but it’s often used to refer to that flushing out ‘period’. All of this is mediated by hormones. Estrogen is the main builder of new endometrium – the biochemistry of it would require a whole other conversation.

Canto: Yes that’s enough for now, but it seems that oestrogen also boosts libido…

Jacinta: Yes, that’s important, the urge to copulate doesn’t just come from the males. And this physiological stuff seems like solid ground after all the flights of psychoanalysis we’ve been trying to get our heads around recently.

Canto: And we haven’t yet gotten onto what has been made of Freudian and post-Freudian theory by the likes of Lacan, Kristeva, Irigary, Cixous, Derrida, Deleuze, and of course Guattari, among many others…

Jacinta: Yeah, mostly French – funny that. It seems Freud’s influence has waned, though, in the 30 years since Freud’s women was published. The broad Freudian notion of the unconscious – rather than the unconscious processes that go on through our nervous and endocrine systems – has been buried, it seems, by neurological advances, which, as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, have been fast and furious in the 21st century. But that period, and that physical and metaphysical region centred around Vienna when Freud was active in the first decades of the 20th century, was very fruitful, and in many ways revolutionary. Anil Seth, one of today’s leading researchers into human consciousness, paid tribute to it in his book Being you:

In the fluid atmosphere of Vienna at that time, the two culture of art and science mingled to an unusual degree. Science wasn’t placed above art, in the all too familiar sense in which  art, and the human responses it evokes, are considered to be things in need of scientific explanation. Nor did art place itself beyond the reach of science. Artists and scientists – and their critics – were allies in their attempts to understand human experience in all its richness and variety. No wonder the neuroscientist Eric Kandel called this period ‘the age of insight’, in his book of the same name.

Canto: Well, that’s a nice conciliatory note to end this conversation on.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud’s women, 1992

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

https://flo.health/menstrual-cycle/sex/sexual-health/sex-and-menstrual-cycle-are-they-connected

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/reproduction

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/menstrual-cycle-an-overview

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Anil Seth, Being you: a new science of consciousness, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2022 at 11:41 am

Freudian chitchat, sex and bonobos

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Sigmund and Anna Freud

As previously mentioned, the world of Freudian categories was one of my first interests as a teenager. I loved the simple division, as I imagined it, between the id (our uninhibited ‘animal’ urges and appetites), the superego (the parental leash, restraining, guiding, forcing) and the ego (some sort of more or less stable truce between these forces). It was neat, and still allowed for freedom of sorts – the leash could be stretched or even snapped depending on the nature of our parents, the weakness or strength of our bond with them, and the changing nature of our relations over time. It all sounded right somehow, or at least it opened up powerful insights.

Other Freudian categories also attracted, more or less. The Oedipus complex, which I naturally reduced to killing Dad and fucking Mum, had less appeal. I was, at the time, more interested in the idea of killing Mum, but I was smart enough to realise that this was because Mum was the Dad in our house – dominant, remote, scary. At the same time, but never at the same time, she was the nurse, the comforter, the defender. If only I could explain this to Sigmund or his analyst friends.

Being, as mentioned, a teenager, I loved the sexual undertones, overtones, and basic in-your-face tones in Freud’s treatment of – what? The unconscious? Motivation? Human life? Whatever, ‘polymorphous perversity’ meant, I presumed, that we had the tendency, or ‘ability’ to be turned on by any activity or percept, but ‘sublimation’, a product of our superego, could transform that perverse energy into something productive rather than reproductive, like art or relativity theory.

Bonobos, it seems, just stick with the polymorphous perversity. But beware of what is seeming so. All animals strive to be more than what they already are. That is, to thrive. That’s what evolution is all about.

All of this is prologue to the fact that, after many decades, I’ve been revisiting Freudian ideas through Freud’s women, a fiendishly complex book written some thirty years ago, cataloguing Freud’s life and developing ideas, but more interestingly, his impact upon the next generation of analysts, all of them former patients (or analysands), as seemed to be Freud’s rule. That’s to say, the next generation of female analysts.

The generation of women after that of Freud, the generation that came of age in the early 20th century, whether born in Vienna or attracted to it by Freud’s growing superstardom, couldn’t be said to have an easy time of it. A depressing rate of childhood (and maternal) mortality, sudden changes of fortune due to cataclysms such as the Great Depression, two horrific European wars, the Nazi anti-Semitic frenzy of the thirties, and an obsession with female ‘hysteria’ and other mystery ailments, all created complications, to put it mildly, for upwardly mobile female intellectuals. Professional careers as doctors or academics were still largely closed to them, and it’s noteworthy that many, such as Lou Andreas-Salomé, turned to writing to establish their intellectual reputations. Others, such as Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte, had clear birthright advantages. Other important female figures for this generation of psychotherapy were Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, Alix Strachey, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot and Ruth Mack Brunswick, to name a few, but many analysands were touched by this (occasionally vicious) circle, including the brilliant if mystifyingly mystical writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

What is fascinating about this little ecosystem that had come to thrive under Freud’s benevolent paternalism is its openness to the wiles of sexuality, while always maintaining an un-bonoboesque primness. Of course, bonobos weren’t fully identified as a species until 1929, and nothing was then known of their lifestyle, and nor was evolution and our connectedness to other species fully accepted, or its consequences much explored in Freud’s lifetime. But the circle of analysts, analysands and their companions, spiced with more or less explicit notions of childhood sexuality, latent lesbianism, father fixations and the like, seems like a simmering pot under the cover of polite society. Largely all talk no action. The talking cure? The talking distraction? The talking disorder? To read some of the writings of these analysts, well they often make heavy work of everyday life, its thoughts and feelings, as they seek to frame experience within one particular theory or another. It reminds me of other forms of over-intellectualising – it’s fascinating how dated and more or less quaint seem arguments regarding the philosophy of ‘mind’ and ‘free will’ of several decades ago.

Bonobos, of course, have no language. They can’t tell us how well- or mal-adjusted they are. All we have is our own observations. Bonobos aren’t always lovey-dovey, they sometimes fight, though not as often or as viciously as chimps. They suffer more from human raids than from their own species, which has led to a lot of orphans and ‘childless mothers’. At a stretch, you could argue that these threats have something in common with those experienced by Anna Freud and the Jewish or pro-Jewish psychoanalyst community of the twenties and thirties. An article from Discover magazine describes bonobo responses after a bit of rough tangling in the treetops:

The researchers found that those young bonobos that were able to calm themselves down most quickly after altercations were also those most likely to console another individual in distress. What’s more, these socially well-adjusted bonobos were far more likely to have been raised by their mothers. Orphaned apes, on the other hand, were less likely to offer consolation. This consolation behaviour through contact, such as by touching, embracing and kissing, suggests that the young bonobos are expressing empathy.

Some researchers aren’t entirely convinced that consolatory behaviour is going on, I’m not quite sure why, but it seems to me that consolatory behaviour (and the need for it among the suffering) in these non-speaking relatives of ours has something in common with the ‘talking cure’ that became so sought-after in early twentieth century Europe. What’s also interesting is the focus on sex, albeit in very different ways, in relation to stress, and effective function, in humans and bonobos. Here are some examples of Freud’s ‘sex talk’, in written form, from Freud’s women. First, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897:

the main distinction between the sexes emerges at the time of puberty, when girls are seized by a non-neurotic sexual repugnance and males by libido. For at that period a further sexual zone is (wholly or in part) extinguished in females which persists in males. I am thinking of the male genital zone, the region of the clitoris, in which during childhood sexual sensitivity is shown to be concentrated in girls as well. Hence the flood of shame which the female shows at that period – until the new, vaginal zone is awakened, spontaneously, or by reflex action.

Freud’s women, p 400

This is all a bit below the belt for the late 19th century, and the male/female generalisations are questionable, but the fact that such matters are being aired feels like enlightenment. The difficulty I find with Freud, from many of these writings, is that he expresses himself with an air of certitude in so many works which, as his ideas ‘evolve’, contradict previous works, no doubt influenced by the enormous variety of analysands and their neuroses, or simply their backgrounds, as presented to him. The Oedipus complex, for example, appears to be enormously flexible in this way. You could say that his theories, or theory, if there is one, is so open to be tailored to the Individual that it’s unfalsifiable. Though I’m not particularly au fait with Karl Popper’s falsifiability test, I’m betting that he would have used Freud’s theories as a perfect example of work which fails that test.

Having said that, I’m not about to give up on old Sigmund, who perhaps unwittingly inspired many feminist intellectuals in the first decades of the 20th century, if only because he genuinely admired them, took them seriously and was influenced by their experiences and critiques. Perhaps also because his focus was on the internal and domestic world, the world of repressed desires, parental struggles and the great variety of female entanglements with male power, implicit and explicit. I’ll quote another, typically convoluted excerpt (to me at least), this time from 1926, in which Freud discusses castration anxiety:

there is no danger of our regarding castration anxiety as the sole motive force of the defensive processes which lead to neurosis. I have shown elsewhere how little girls, in the course of their development, are led into making a tender object-cathexis by their castration complex. It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is make a slight modification in our description of their determinant of anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing the object’s love [emphasis added]

Freud’s women, p 414

WTF, think thou? Firstly, an ‘object cathexis’ is apparently an ‘investment of libido or psychic energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, goal, idea, or activity’. But what exactly is a ‘castration complex’ in little girls? Apparently it’s the discovery that they don’t have the dangly stuff of their male counterparts (if they ever discover such a thing in childhood). This makes what follows a little complicated – they (the girls) lose the object’s (the penis’s) love? And so the theory, if it can be called that, gets more ‘flexible’.

All of this of course raises the putatively vexed issue of penis envy, which surely doesn’t have to be such a serious thing. De Beauvoir describes a cute example of this in The Second Sex, quoting from Frigidity in woman, a book by the Freudian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, published in 1926. The reminiscence is from a 21-year-old:

‘At the age of 5, I chose for my playmate Richard, a boy of 6 or 7… For a long time I had wanted to know how one can tell whether a child is a girl or a boy. I was told: by the earrings…. or by the nose. This seemed to satisfy me, though I had a feeling they were keeping something from me. Suddenly Richard expressed a desire to urinate… Then the thought came to me of lending him my chamber pot… When I saw his organ, which was something entirely new to me, I went into highest raptures: ‘What have you there? My, isn’t that nice! I’d like to have something like that, too.’ Whereupon I took hold of the membrum and held it enthusiastically… My great-aunt’s cough awoke us… and from that day on our doings and games were carefully watched.’

The second sex, p 348

I can well imagine a non-verbal experience of a similar sort among juvenile bonobos – though given that bonobos, like every other non-human mammal, never ‘cover-up’, the surprise and delight would’ve occurred at a very early stage of development, and there’d be no elder relatives keen to prevent further explorations. Which brings me to civilisation – and its discontents.

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough, but the issues raised are important to me, and I’ll pursue them further in later posts.

penis envy mushrooms – another story altogether

References

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/like-humans-young-bonobos-comfort-those-in-stress

Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Virago Press 1993

The second sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949: Vintage books 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2022 at 12:13 pm

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

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/synergistic-effect

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

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

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22513-neurotransmitters

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

feminism in China? Must be too busy holding up half the sky…

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Chinese feminists, happily out there, but sadly not in China

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not just religion that’s providing a brake to the progress of female empowerment. The Chinese ‘Communist’ Party, which seems to be religiously opposed to religions of all kinds, with their popes and patriarchs, hasn’t benefitted from this opposition by promoting any of its female citizens to leadership positions.

I say ‘communist’, because  there’s surely no organisation on the planet that’s less communist than the thugocracy that currently rules China, and has done for the last seventy-odd years, since Mao bludgeoned his way to power. If we take communism to mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, clearly it will only happen when ‘prole’ and ‘dictator’ mean the same thing – that’s to say, never. And it’s a sad irony that any nation with any reference to communism in its title has always engaged in the most brutal – and very macho -authoritarianism. So basically I’ve come to consider both communism and fascism as synonymous with thugocracy.

So Mao’s statement that woman hold up half the sky was just patronising claptrap, apparently. Xi Jinping, the unutterably worthless bag of scum that is China’s latest dictator (I’m sorry, but I always get emotional where thugs like Mr Pudding and his Chinese mate – can’t think of a nickname just yet – are concerned. My anti-authoritarianism goes back to earliest childhood and is deeply ingrained), is suppressing the equality of women as part of his corruption campaign. It doesn’t seem to be phasing outspoken women in China, most of whom are destined to outlive the scumbag. Still, for the time being, they’re being muzzled, their Weibo accounts suspended, and their harassment by Party goons adds another layer to the harassment they’ve lately been experiencing on campuses and in workplaces.

These are backward steps for women in China. It was the fascinating Empress Dowager Cixi, one of China’s most under-rated political leaders, who first banned foot-binding back in 1902, a ban that was overturned, probably because it was instituted by a woman, but later reinstated. Even so, China was at the forefront of women’s rights in the early twentieth century. A researcher on women’s rights in China, Emeritus Professor Louise Edwards of the University of NSW, points out that early progress in equality and supportive legislation came from within the system rather than from grassroots activism:

If you were working in the state sector in China, as a woman in the 1950s, you had access to maternity leave, breastfeeding leave — these kinds of protections were way ahead of Australia at the time.

But the Party has become more repressive and ‘anti-western’ since the events of 1989, and especially since the rise of Mr Pingpong (okay this needs a bit of work). Clearly the Party has become more macho (there has never been a woman on the politburo standing committee, in its almost 70-year history), so feminists have had to work from outside that framework, and are more of a threat, and therefore more ‘western’. It’s all rather predictable in its stupidity. So China has dropped down the rankings for gender equality, temporarily. But Mr Pingpong will be dead meat soon enough (actually, not soon enough), and women will rise again, inevitably. The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice, in spite of these pingpongy, Mr Puddingy gremlins in the works. In fact, once Pingpong is out of the way, hopefully without being able to secure another fascist to replace him, feminism will likely burst into the public sphere with a vengeance, as identification with feminism is increasing big-time in China. Lu Pin, the founder of Feminist Voices, an influential media outlet shut down in 2018, remains confident about the future. An ABC article, linked below, quotes her:

Today, more young people than before agree that they are feminists. Today, the debate on feminism in Chinese society is unprecedentedly fierce.

Again, it’s a matter of nature eventually overcoming oppressive cultural artifice, but meanwhile the attitude of the Party towards increasing sexism and male brutality is to downplay the violence and to avoid at all costs any mention of feminist values and aspirations. It’s a very backward move considering that, by the 1970s, Chinese women, who in ancient China often didn’t even have their own names, formed the largest female workforce in the world. The one-child policy, introduced in 1979, led to abortions and abandonment of female infants, and a noticeable gender imbalance problem into the 21st century. Although the policy has since been relaxed, women are reluctant to become ‘baby factories’ for the Party, given the lack of support for child-rearing, and the current patriarchal fashion.

China’s first ever law dealing with domestic violence was enacted in 2016, over 40 years after Australia’s Family Law Act (1975) defined and legislated against domestic violence. However, it appears that the law is largely a well-kept secret. Frida Lindberg, in an article on women’s rights and social media for the Institute for Security and Development Policy (a Swedish NGO), writes this:

Despite the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, domestic violence cases have nevertheless continued. Some argue that the law is ineffective due to low public awareness about the issue and punishments that are too lenient. In addition, the law has been criticized for promoting family harmony and social stability, a principle that stems from Confucianism, as this seems to contradict the law’s principle of preventing domestic violence.

Lindberg’s article shines a light on current obstacles to female participation and progress in the Chinese workforce, obstacles that many WEIRD women now in their sixties and seventies (my generation) experienced regularly four or more decades ago. But of course the social media issue is new. Weibo and other social media sites became a vital outlet for women after the treatment of the so-called feminist five were muzzled, at least partially, after street protests in 2015 over domestic violence and the lack of public facilities for women. Unsurprisingly there was a backlash against feminist posts, which many in the movement saw as a good thing – any publicity being good publicity –  but the Party decided to put a stop to the argy-bargy, removing many social media accounts of prominent feminists in 2021. It also appears to be lending support to anti-feminist nationalists, who have been trolling outspoken women for anything they can find, including sympathy for Hong Kong and for oppressed minorities. The Party has used the excuse of ‘disrupting social order’ to harass and shut down whistleblowers who’ve posted about sexual harassment, but the number of views these posts garnered argues for a groundswell of concern about the issue, one way or the other. Feminists have fought back by coding their messages to avoid censorship, but this obviously has its limitations for attracting public attention, and is usually identified and reported by the ‘nationalists’.

So, it’s a ‘watch this space’ situation, or rather, watch this region. Having taught scores of Chinese women over the years, I know all about their intellect, their passion and their power. In his book Asia’s reckoning, the Australian journalist Richard McGregor described the irony of how conformist Japan has become a liberal democratic country of sorts, while the more liberal and individualist Chinese are saddled with the Party and its goons. It’s surely a temporary situation, but just how temporary is temporary?

References

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-08/feminism-in-china-internet-crackdown-erase-womens-voices/100165360

Click to access Lindberg.-2021.-Womens-Rights-in-China-and-Feminism-on-Chinese-Social-Media.-1.pdf

Richard McGregor, Asia’s reckoning, 2017

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 23, 2022 at 6:43 pm

democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. According to Wikipedia, ‘The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture’. The nations are divided broadly into four ‘types’. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

on the history and future of human beans…

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

David Christian, Origin Story p169

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto: That’s so naughties…

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

Canto: Hmmm. Tell me more about the sex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References 

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

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2017.22114

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317834148_New_fossils_from_Jebel_Irhoud_Morocco_and_the_pan-African_origin_of_Homo_sapiens

https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-sapiens

https://theconversation.com/when-did-we-become-fully-human-what-fossils-and-dna-tell-us-about-the-evolution-of-modern-intelligence-143717

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

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‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller

 

It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am

capitalism, bonobos and feminism

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really?

I’ve been getting stuff in my Youtube feed from Chris Hedges and Richard Wolfe, for some reason. Noam Chomsky comes up too, of course. And because I’m writing about bonobos and a dream of a female dominated society, I’ve grabbed a book from our shelves by Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl, just one of many feminist texts waiting around for my consumption. And the above-mentioned individuals all have one obvious target in common – capitalism.

So what is capitalism? I’ll try to give my take. Capitalism isn’t a political system, except in the broadest sense. And it isn’t a system, or a behaviour, limited to humans. Birds seek to capitalise, bees seek to capitalise, even the plants and the trees seek to capitalise. Sometimes individually, sometimes in collaboration. The exploitation of solar energy, for example, is pure capitalism, capitalising on a more or less free resource. Shocking. As the most hypersocial of all species, we collaborate in capitalising, to the benefit of some of our own, to the detriment of others. Feudalism was essentially a capitalist system, the primary capital being land, or territory. It wasn’t a fair system – humans have never been fair, any more than any other species has. They’ve sought to optimise opportunities, for themselves and their rellies or in-group. It’s hardly surprising that we only really conceived the concept of human rights in the 20th century, after a few hundred thousands of years of existence as a species. It took two brutal world wars and the threat of being obliterated by a nuclear holocaust to bring us to our collective senses. Human rights are of course an artifice. We’re not created equal, we’ll never have equality of opportunity, and we’re only free to be human, which is quite a limitation. If you think we’re free to do whatever you want, try it and you won’t last long. In this we’re no different from elephants, hyenas and other highly social species.

The political pundits mentioned above rage a lot against capitalism, and prognosticate its overthrow in tomorrowland. What will replace ir? That’s a bit more vague, but they have faith in the young and the oppressed, who they consider a lot nicer than their overlords. Now I have to admit I haven’t met too many capitalist overlords, but I’ve met a few proles and strugglers, and I’d describe them as a mixed bag. In fact, that’s how I’d describe everyone I’ve met, including myself. This is surely why every state that has tried to institute ‘socialism’, some kind of fake equality sent down from above, ends up devolving into dictatorship. There’s a great line from Immanuel Kant, which roughly translates as ‘from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing was ever made straight’. It follows that no political system fashioned from crooked timber will ever be more ‘true’ than its rough constituents – but timber is valuable for all that.

The bonobo world isn’t free of violence, hierarchy or, if we can call it that, capitalism. It simply seems, from all observations, rather less violent, hierarchical and exploitative than the chimp world, out of which we appear to have grown, at least until recently. Now, after, it seems, eons of male-dominated human societies, which have mixed ingenuity and inventiveness with warfare and oppression, we are, at least in the WEIRD world, talking about female empowerment, and witnessing effective female leadership in government, science, business and other human affairs. We’re witnessing, I think, feel and hope, the start of something big. Leaving the sexual stuff to one side – though I wouldn’t mind a bit on the side – bonobos have learned to live within their means, to support each other in child-rearing, foraging and play. Humans are, of course, far more ambitious, and our hypersociality has brought about a biosphere-transforming dominance of the planet, for better or worse.

We’re recognising, now, the dangers posed by our own dynamism. ‘Disposable’ plastics everywhere, mountains of abandoned clothing and other rubbish, the consumption of millions of years of transformed carbon-based life-forms in the form of fossil fuel, the destabilisation and contamination caused by fracking, the deforestations and thoughtless reforestations that are destroying essential, age-old habitats, the warming and volatilising of our atmosphere and oceans, all of this is being increasingly brought to our generally limited attention. Ambitious solutions are being sought, fixes that will enable us to continue our rapacity regardless. Others suggest that we should pull our collective head in and live within our means. But how will we ‘begin infinity’ if we do that? By terraforming other planets and starting the same thing over again?

The current usage of terms such as capitalism and socialism, even of conservatism and liberalism, tend to get in the way of our future needs. There are no magic solutions to how we might negotiate our hypersocial future. Jess Scully’s book Glimpses of Utopia is excellent and highly recommended, my only slight quibble is with the title – there are no utopias in the real world. The book’s subtitle – ‘real ideas for a fairer world’ – is far less catchy but a more accurate description of the book’s contents. Scully recounts collective solutions to problems of housing, decision-making, taxation and financing in such far-flung countries as Iceland, Taiwan, Australia and India. They aren’t all being led by women of course, but they’re a great antidote and counter-example to the top-down, know-it-all macho thugocracies that have failed so miserably in dealing with the current pandemic – a failure whose history has, of course, yet to be written, and will, I’m sure, prove to be more devastating than we currently realise.

I need to point out that I have no dewy-eyed admiration of the superior capacities of human females – or of bonobo females, for that matter. Both genders are no doubt as diversely repellant as they are diversely inspiring, on an individual level. I’m impressed, though, with the ‘natural experiment’ presented to us by bonobos and chimps in negotiating their collective existence and their habitat. As we’ve come to question patriarchy only in the past 150 years or so, and to undermine it, to some small degree, in the last few decades, we’re seeing suggestive signs that female leadership in sufficient numbers – and we’ve yet to experience those numbers, and are in fact far from having that experience – makes a real difference in well-being, inclusivity and support. Will it diminish human creativity? To believe so assumes that creativity is dependent on competition, but the fruits of creativity rely on communication and collaboration – and in any case there’s no reason to believe that female humans are less competitive than males – just a little less murderously so.

So this is the point – bonobo society isn’t utopian, and overthrowing ‘capitalism’, or human behaviour, isn’t going to lead to utopia, or anything other than another capitalist arrangement. It’s just that bonobo society is happier, calmer, sexier and less destructive than chimp society, and this is clearly connected to the position of females in that society. Who doesn’t want that?

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2021 at 12:12 pm

bonobos, religion and feminism

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bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm