an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.

Reference

Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

a bonobo world 32: bonobos and us

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female-dominated society (male version)

So let me look at the role of the adult female in the bonobo world. Why do they tend to be the bosses, in spite of being smaller on average than the males, and how did this come to be? If we can trace this, maybe we can find out how to live in a more female-dominated, peaceful, integrated and – yes maybe a more loving, even sexy community. 

Frans de Waal has described bonobo society as a gynecocracy, a pre-feminist term which simply means a society or culture governed by women, without going into detail, for example about matrilineal descent or inheritance. De Waal’s findings, mostly drawn from captive bonobos, have been criticised, but further confirmed by wild studies. 

Bonobos are initially hard to distinguish from chimps, from whom they separated, species-wise, 1.5 to 2 million years ago. They’re officially described as more gracile, meaning a little more slender, less robust, but I can’t easily see it myself. What I do notice is their charming middle-parted hairstyle, a la Marcel Proust or Oscar Wilde, which has earned them the title the gay ape. Or should have. Although omnivorous like clothed apes and chimps, they have a more vegetarian diet in practice than the other two, probably because they tend to be more arboreal and inhabit a more restricted area, south of the Congo River. The name bonobo is of course human-created, possibly deriving obscurely from a misspelling of Bolobo, a Congolese town. We don’t know how they refer to themselves. 

There’s been a lot of contentious but fascinating debate about the dating of the last common ancestor between clothed apes and the chimp-bonobo line. For a time the consensus seemed to be converging around a date of 6-7 million years ago, but the doubtless contentious work of Madelaine Bohme, published in a book, Ancient bones (2019)  pushes the date back by a few million years. 

Bonobos weigh on average between 35 and 40 kgs, and, standing, measure about 110cm. The females have prominent boobs compared to other unclothed apes, but nothing a human ape would want to slobber over. Generally they’re more physically divergent than chimps – so you’ve got your plain Janes and your beauty queens, your Adonises and your ghouls. Their bipedalism – or their use of bipedalism – varies with habitat and habituation. In captivity they use it more, as they spend less time in trees. 

It’s argued that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in a more stable, less threatened environment – the threats to them in the wild are entirely due to clothed, and weaponised, apes, against whom they are, of course, entirely defenceless. Chimps, on the contrary, occupy a wider range, and so, like clothed apes, tend to separate into distinct, competitive communities, who fight over resources and territorial ascendancy. The difficulty here is that, due to the dangerous conditions that have pertained in the Congo for many decades due to long-term clashes and survival struggles among clothed apes, bonobo behaviour has been difficult to analyse outside of zoos. But even under captivity, bonobos clearly behave differently and have a different societal structure than their close cousins the chimps. And this is what should get feminists much more excited than they are, IMHO. 

So, among the higher primates – humans, bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orangutans – bonobos are the only species in which the females have an equal or dominant role in the social organisation. I should perhaps make an exception of orangutans, the most solitary of all the higher primates. For this reason, the question of social hierarchy isn’t so relevant fo this species, though it’s notable that orangutan males are two to three times larger than females. Certainly there’s no question of females being dominant. 

The key, it seems, to the more prominent position of females in bonobo society, is female-female bonding, and female alliances. That’s why, I would argue, nothing is more important to the future of human apes than female alliances. It may take time, but I’m hoping we’ll eventually wake up to the essentiality of this phenomenon, for our continued success. The tight social bonding between bonobo females seems to have had a more general socialising effect, something that human apes, who have become increasingly isolated, competitive, covetous and demoralised by new class divisions, would do well to take note of.

In terms of what we need for a more successful, harmonious future, within and beyond our own species, I’m arguing for female prominence rather than dominance (though I do believe we’d be better off with the latter), and I believe we’re inching – with agonising slowness – in that direction, especially in so-called advanced, more science-based societies. Here’s part of Wikipedia’s most up-to-date account of bonobo social behaviour.

Different bonobo communities vary from being gender-balanced to outright matriarchal. At the top of the hierarchy is a coalition of high-ranking females and males typically headed by an old, experienced matriarch who acts as the decision-maker and leader of the group. Female bonobos typically earn their rank through age, rather than physical intimidation, and top-ranking females will protect immigrant females from male harassment. While bonobos are often called matriarchal, this is a trend rather than an objective fact. It is not unheard of for some communities to have a male who decides where the group travels to, and where they feed. However, these male leaders never harass or coerce the females, and they can choose to ignore his suggestions if they feel like it. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. A male derives his status from the status of his mother. The mother–son bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, and although the son of a high ranking female may outrank a lower female, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Relationships between different communities are often positive and affiliative, and bonobos are not a territorial species. Bonobos will also share food with others, even unrelated strangers. Bonobos exhibit paedomorphism (retaining infantile physical characteristics and behaviours), which greatly inhibits aggression and enables unfamiliar bonobos to freely mingle and cooperate with each other.  

I quote this passage at length because I feel there are various clues here to creating a more effective human society, on a global scale. Let’s be ambitious. Here are some of the clues:

  • respect for our elders, and keeping them within the community, rather than shuffling them off to nursing homes. This includes allowing them the right to die, when or if they feel their time has come
  • respecting knowledge and experience rather than physical strength or military might. Finding strength in unity of purpose, shared goals and experience in achieving those goals
  • recognising over-arching concerns shared by all nations, whether these be nations with officially-drawn (but often artificial) boundaries or nations of cultural identity – the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Cherokees, the Pitjantjatjara, etc – while recognising, respecting and learning from different cultural perspectives and methodologies.
  • respecting experience and knowledge over rank, and so creating a greater communal fluidity, and avoiding the accumulation of resources by a small elite group 
  • encouraging play and playfulness, youthful exuberance (especially among the no-longer-youthful) and free expression
  • being generally more forgiving and less punitive

Are such clues to an improved human society dependent on a more prominent role for females in that society?

Do bears shit in the woods? 

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm

A bonobo world 31: are bonobos people?

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William Damper’s Aussie disappointment


Apparently, under current US law at least, there is a clear distinction between people, or persons – that’s to say, all human animals – and everything else, with the emphasis on thing. From a legal perspective, bonobos, chimps, rats and lice are things. This of course raises questions about a human embryo or blastula or morula etc, which I won’t explore here.

Clearly bonobos, chimps and our pet birds and animals aren’t things, except in the sense that we’re all things – living things. It’s also clear that many non-human animals do many of the things people do, such as feeling angry, sad, bored, scared, tired, confused etc. With these obvious facts in mind, a US organisation called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought habeas corpus hearings in a New York State court ‘to determine whether Kiko and Tommy, two captive chimpanzees, should be considered legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty’. The chimps, who have different owners, are each kept in conditions which any reasonable person would describe as inhuman – but then, they’re not humans. According to current US law, they’re human possessions, subject no doubt to certain animal welfare laws, but arguably not to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking to strengthen their case, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought together a series of amicus curiae (friends of the court) essays by philosophers and ethicists, published in 2019 in a booklet, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosopher’s Brief. 

All of this should make us wonder what a person actually is, and whether there are degrees of personhood. On this point I want to share an anecdote. 

I was walking my young dog in the park, and she was bouncing and darting about friskily in front of me. We passed two women on a park bench, and one of them beamed at me, ‘I bet she’s a girl!’ ‘Yes, she’s a girl’, I smiled. ‘Yeah, they’re always the lively ones,’ she asserted. Being ever a contrarian, as I’ve been told, I wondered about the truth of this assertion, which led to a far more interesting question – was Mulan (the dog) still a girl? A quick calculation, using the human-to-dog years rule-of-thumb, told me that she was now in her early-mid twenties, just that age when it starts to become dodgy, PC-wise, to keep using the girl moniker.

So, this dog was a woman now?

We actually call our pets girls or boys even deep into old age. Isn’t this a form of infantilism? It goes with the word ‘pet’ of course. So what about, say, lions? Do we condescend to confer adulthood on those regal animals? Well, sort of. We use male and female, and of course him and her, and personal names if we’ve thought ones up. But the terms man and woman are only for us.

This is understandable, while at the same time it has the odour of human specialness. I imagine that zookeepers or zoologists who get friendly with wild animals might employ the term girl or boy to refer to them, a term of affection laced with superiority. We just can’t allow them to rise to our level. That’s why, with bonobos, it’s okay, and indeed very fruitful, to learn about them, but to learn from them is a step too far, is it not?

And yet. Gillian Dooley, a research fellow at Flinders University, and Danielle Clode, of the same university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, recently co-edited The first wave, a collection of writings on Europeans’ early contacts with Aboriginal cultures in Australia. The book’s cover features ‘the first known illustration of the Aboriginal people of Australia, which appeared in a rare 1698 Dutch edition of William Dampier’s 1697 New voyage around the world.’ It was only recently brought to light in the library of the University of Hawaii. The image depicts a confrontation of sorts between Dampier and his crew and the Aborigines, in which the Europeans tried to get them to carry barrels of water, perhaps in exchange for articles of clothing, as one Aborigine is depicted sporting a European jacket. It seems the Aborigines didn’t ‘get it’ and were unwilling to comply. Dampier wrote umbrageously that ‘we were forced to carry our water ourselves’.

The scene beautifully illustrates the European attitude, over many centuries, to the people of what they liked to call ‘the new world’ – which effectively meant the world beyond Eurasia. The term savage, noble or ignoble, was first applied to human apes (of a certain condition), as far as we know, by John Dryden in a 1672 play, though the idea goes back to Montaigne and beyond. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Europeans of the last few centuries, with their elaborate clothing and appurtenances, their monumental architecture, their complex religious rituals and beliefs, their technological developments and political systems, would mostly see the ‘natives’ as part of the fauna of these exotic    new lands. And history tells us that it doesn’t even take a sense of their inferior otherness to turn our fellow humans into beasts of burden or slaves. Aristotle defended slavery and believed that some people were ‘natural slaves’. Athenian soi-disant democracy was entirely dependent on slaves, who vastly outnumbered citizens. Many of the indigenous nations of the Americas had slaves before they themselves were enslaved by the Conquistadors. The feudal system that pervaded Europe for centuries was essentially a slave system. Montaigne was able to retire to his castle and write the essays that inspired me decades ago because he inherited that castle, the productive lands around it, and the people who worked the land. They were his. If he asked them to carry water for him, they would feel obliged to do so. 

I imagine that if we travelled back in time and asked Aristotle whether slaves were people, that he would come up with a long complicated discourse to the effect that there were natural slaves who were best suited to be beasts of burden, and that these natural slaves beget more natural slaves, entirely suited to serve their masters – which is essentially the basis of the feudal system. What has, of course, blown all this type of thinking away (though fragments still remain) is modern biology, especially neurophysiology and genetics. Our understanding of human connectedness has been raised by these disciplines, as has our understanding of the connectedness of all species. So we look at ‘first nation’ culture and technology and its adaptation to environment with more enlightened eyes, and we see other species more in terms of family, culture and problem-solving, even if in very different contexts from our own. But the human context is constantly changing. For seventy-odd years now, we’ve built and maintained the weaponry to destroy human and other life on a grand scale. the USA alone has over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Surely there’s nothing more to achieve on the warfare front. Our survival is assured against all comers, except of course, ourselves. The future has to be about making peace, making connections, learning how to do things more cleverly, more supportively, more sustainably for all the life forms we’re connected with. 

Which returns me to bonobos. The question, of course, isn’t whether they are people. They’re in many ways like us, as are their chimp cousins. I just happen to think they’re more worth learning from than chimps (though I must say, I always feel guilty about dissing our chimp rellies – they’re not that bad!). They know how to nip violence in the bud, they’re relaxed and open about sex (though not obsessed, either positively or negatively), they keep their menfolk – sorry, males – in line, and in all those things they do better than we human apes. If we can follow bonobos in these ways – and maintain and build on the best of what’s human – our curiosity, out ingenuity, our sympathy, and our extraordinary creative capacity – I think we’ll be around for a long time.

savages – or maybe just greeny nudists – upholding Denmark’s coat of arms

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2021 at 1:57 pm

a bonobo world? 9 – humanism, bonoboism, doggism and science

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a caring and sharing bonoboist society – and these are all females, except maybe the kiddy

In Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes rather disparagingly of humanism. Here he goes: 

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion, namely humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas not in order to question those dogmas but rather in order to implement them.¹

And so on.

So what exactly is humanism? I should probably make the fuck-nose sign here, but let me write about my personal interaction with the concept. Of course I’d heard of humanism but hadn’t really given it much thought before entering university in my 30th year, in spite of having read a few philosophy books etc. At uni I fell in with a few eager-beavers with whom I entered into D&Ms on politics, ethics and the meaning of life. One day in the midst of an intense session, one interlocutor pulled back, gazed at me with furrowed brow and said ‘You’re such a humanist’. I could only shrug and I truly didn’t know whether he was insulting or commending me. Montaigne-like, I was ever drawn to matters pertaining to myself, especially when others appeared to express an interest. I’d noticed, in my regular browsing at the uni bookshop, a book with the title On Antihumanism or Towards Antihumanism or something similar. This was the mid-80s and post-modernism was unfortunately still thriving. It seemed the book was treading that path – Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ tweaked to ‘death of the human’, opposition to any anthropological defining of the Homo sapiens category, muddied with much Foucauldian, Derridean and Lacanian rhetoric. 

So I began to feel much sympathy for humanism, and I was drawn particularly by two negatives: it wasn’t religious and it wasn’t nationalistic.

So, religion – and what does Harari mean when he says that humanism is a religion and a dogma? Well, it seems nothing more than the bleeding obvious: that humanism replaces worship of gods with blind worship of humanity. Now, I admit that there’s an element of truth in that. Witness, again Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity (and no amount of mathematising can can obscure the connection between infinitude and godliness) and Bronowski’s heaven-bent Ascent of Man. In fact I recall, during my period of membership in a humanist organisation (I’m rarely a joiner of such groups and it rarely lasts for long), an attempt to create a kind of humanist church with cheery singalongs and happy clapping. It all sounded naff as taffy to me. 

But my own take on humanism was that it involved the realisation that we humans were on our own, and reliant on each other, for better or worse. And that we were one species, and as such needed to take collective responsibility for our damages and to build on our strengths. I also thought it was bleeding obvious that we were above all self-concerned, even self-obsessed. This strikes me as nothing more or less than a biological fact. Bonobos are the compassionate apes, so they say, but the compassion ends mostly – perhaps not entirely – with their own species. You might call this bonoboism, and it makes a lot of biological sense. My pet dog goes apeshit on spotting another dog during our walks, it never fails. She wants to get close, to sniff, to fight, to fuck, who knows? You might call this doggism, but it’s not doggy dogma. It’s funny – humans have interfered with dogs phenotypically for centuries – flattened faces, lengthened legs, bent backs, tufty tails and much nasty neotenising, but dogs never cease to recognise their own polymorphous kind. Of course they have a nose for that kind of thing, but it’s the sight of their fellow beasties that sets them off. I wonder what the science says?

Anyway humanism. Of course, we don’t have to be invested in our own species. I recently heard an interview with a softly spoken, very reasonable-sounding gentleman who is dedicated to the extinction of Homo sapiens, reckoning that the species has done far more harm than good. He’d done his bit, not by knocking off his neighbours, but by getting himself desexed. Only 7.8 billion more to go – ok, maybe only half that number, but then with sperm banks… it’s all so hard. 

There are videos around, depicting what life might be like in the future if human apes suddenly disappeared. All very verdant and lush and lovely, but they don’t dare to visualise forward for more than a few decades. How about a couple of million years hence? Not so long, geologically speaking. We’ve been a most unusual apex predator, but there’s no reason not to assume that an even more unusual and rapacious predator will evolve. So I wouldn’t give up on our species just yet. 

Still, I’ll never feel entirely comfortable with identifying as a humanist. I just don’t like isms much, they make me reach for my water pistol. 

Anyway, returning to Harari, what’s to be made of humanism’s apparent deal with science? His argument is that science is really not so much about knowledge as about power. The power to produce more answers, and more stuff. To win the race against hunger, you find ways to produce more foodstuff. To reclaim land, you find ways to produce more foodstuff using less land. To reduce toxic or climate-affecting emissions, you find, or produce, new forms of energy with fewer nasty emissions. Yes, there will be vested interests blocking production and denying problems, but science will always find a way, and we’ll always go that way, eventually. Or so the deal has it.

Of course, Harari is right. I don’t happen to agree with his definition of humanism, but that’s really a minor issue. To me, it’s a deal science makes with a certain kind of self-confident optimism. A ‘we will overcome’ jingoism, for our species. And I must say, I have mixed feelings about all this, because my view of science has a personal element, for I have something of an unrequited love affair with science. I think she’s brilliant, sexy and endlessly enthralling. To me, she’s the gift that keeps on giving. Through her machinations, unknown unknowns shift into known unknowns or unknown knowns, and in the future more unknown unknowns will begin to be known, and yet we won’t quite know what we don’t know about them, even if we know what we don’t know. And really, I don’t even know whether I know what I’m saying. 

So science, with its how questions, is a quest to give us more power, over life, the universe and everything, for knowledge is power. But we’re not going to stop travelling down that road. As many have pointed out, to have the power to create something you need to know how it works, from photosynthesis to viruses to intelligence or consciousness. And we’re working on all this stuff, for better or worse. 

Are we working on creating a more compassionate society, a bonobo society or something like? Sort of – and many are passionate about this. But I’m not sure we even know what society is, let alone how to make it better. 

  1. Y N Harari, Homo Deus, p 231

References

Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, 2016

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012 

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

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

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

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.

Stephen-Hawking-AI-2

At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.

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The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am