an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘futurism

Exploring the future of nuclear fusion

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Canto: So, with Christmas cookery and indulgence behind us, it’s time to focus on another topic we know little about, nuclear fusion – or I should say human-engineered nuclear fusion. Ignition has recently been achieved for the first time, so where do we go from here?

Jacinta: Well I listened to Dr Becky the astrophysicist on this and other topics, and she puts the ignition thing into perspective. So it occurred back on December 5 at the National Ignition Facility in California. As Dr Becky explains it, it involves ‘taking 4 atoms of hydrogen and forcing them together to make helium’, which is slightly lighter than the four hydrogens, and this mass difference can, and in this case has, produced energy according to special relativity. Of course fusion occurs in stars (not just involving hydrogen into helium) and it can potentially produce huge volumes of clean energy. But there’s a big but, and that’s about the high temperatures and densities needed for ignition. Those conditions are needed to overcome the forces that keep atoms apart. 

Canto: Yes they used high-powered lasers, which together focus on heavy hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – to produce helium. And this has been achieved before a number of times, but ignition specifically occurs when the energy output is greater than the input, potentially creating a self-sustaining cycle of fusion reactions. And the difficulties in getting to that output – that is, in creating the most effective input – have been astronomical, apparently. They’ve involved configuring the set of nearly 200 lasers in the right way, using ultra-complex computational analysis, recently guided by machine learning. And this has finally led to the recent breakthrough, in which an energy input of 2.05 megajoules produced an output of 3.15 megajoules…

Jacinta: 1.1 megajoules means ignition, though it’s nothing earth-shattering energy-wise. It’s apparently equivalent to about 0.3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) – enough energy for about two hours of TV watching according to Dr Becky. And also this was about the energy delivered to the particles to create the reaction, it didn’t include the amount of energy required to power the lasers themselves – approximately 300 megajoules. So, good proof-of-concept stuff, but scaling up will be a long and winding road, wethinks. 

Canto: Another favourite broadcaster of ours, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, also covers this story, and provides much the same figures (400 megajoules for the lasers). She also points out that, though it’s a breakthrough, it’s hardly surprising given how close experimenters have been getting to ignition in recent attempts. And she is probably even more emphatic about the long road ahead – we need to ramp up the output more than a hundred-fold to achieve anything like nuclear fusion energy at economically viable levels. 

Jacinta: I’m interested in the further detail Dr Hossenfelder supplies. For example the NIF lasers were fired at a tiny golden cylinder of isotopes. There must be a good reason for the use of gold here. She also describes the isotopes as ‘a tiny coated pellet’. What’s the coating and why? She further explains ‘the lasers heat the pellet until it becomes a plasma, which in turn produces x-rays that attempt to escape in all directions’. This method of arriving at fusion is called ‘inertial confinement’. Another competing method is magnetic confinement, which uses tokamaks and stellarators. A tokamak – the word comes from a Russian acronym meaning ‘toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’ – uses magnetism to confine plasma in a torus – a doughnut shape. A stellarator…

Canto: Here’s the difference apparently:

In the tokamak, the rotational transform of a helical magnetic field is formed by a toroidal field generated by external coils together with a poloidal field generated by the plasma current. In the stellarator, the twisting field is produced entirely by external non-axisymmetric coils. 

Jacinta: Ah, right, we’ll get back to that shortly. The Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for toroidal systems at 0.7, which presumably means they’re a little over two thirds of the way to ignition. 

Canto: A poloidal field (such as the geomagnetic field at the Earth’s surface) is a magnetic field with radial and tangential components. Radial fields are generated from a central point and weaken as they move outward.

Jacinta: PBS also reports this, citing precisely 192 lasers, and a 1mm pellet of deuterium and tritium fuel inside a gold cannister:

When the lasers hit the canister, they produce X-rays that heat and compress the fuel pellet to about 20 times the density of lead and to more than 5 million degrees Fahrenheit (3 million Celsius) – about 100 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. If you can maintain these conditions for a long enough time, the fuel will fuse and release energy.

Canto:  So the question is, does nuclear fusion have a realistic future as a fuel?

Jacinta: Well, did the internet have a realistic future 50 years ago? We’ve had a breakthrough recently, and the only way is up. 

Canto: Yeah the future looks interesting after I’m dead. Still, it’s worth following the progress. Back in February The Guardian reported that JET had smashed its own world record, producing ’59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power)’. Whatever that means, it wasn’t ignition – it might’ve been the .7 you mentioned earlier. Creating a mini-star for five seconds was what one experimenter called it, which I think was in some ways better than the current effort, in that it created more energy in absolutes terms, but less energy than the input. 

Jacinta: Perhaps, but what they call ‘gain’ is an important measure. This recent experiment created a gain of about 1.5 – remember just over 3 megajoules of energy was put out from just over 2 megajoules of input. It’s a start but a much bigger gain is required, and the cost and efficiency of the lasers – or alternative technologies – needs to be much reduced. 

Canto: Apparently deuterium and tritium are both needed for effective fusion, but tritium is quite rare, unlike deuterium, which abounds in ocean waters. Tritium is also a byproduct of the fusion process, so the hope is that it can be harvested along the way. 

Jacinta: Of course the costs are enormous, but the benefits could easily outweigh them – if only we could come together, like bonobos, and combine our wits and resources. Here’s an interesting quote from the International Atomic Energy Agency:

In theory, with just a few grams of these reactants [deuterium and tritium], it is possible to produce a terajoule of energy, which is approximately the energy one person in a developed country needs over sixty years.

Canto: Really? Who will be that lucky person? But you’re right – collaboration on a grand scale is what this kind of project requires, and that requires a thoroughly human bonoboism married to a fully bonoboesque humanism….


Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2022 at 6:26 pm

our electric future – is copper a problem?

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So I recently had a conversation with someone who told me that electric vehicles were not the future because – copper. I must admit that I immediately got tetchy, even though I knew nothing about the ‘copper problem’, or if there actually was one. My interlocutor wasn’t anti-green in any way, he was more into electric bikes, tiny-teeny cars, and people staying put – not travelling anywhere, or not far at least. Perhaps he imagined that ‘virtual travel’ would replace real travel, reducing our environmental footprint substantially.

It has struck me that his rather extreme view of the future was an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. I’m all for electric bikes, car-sharing and even a reduction in travelling, within limits (in fact migration has been associated with the human species since it came into being, just as it has with butterflies, whales and countless other species) but although I note with a certain disdain that family cars are getting bigger just as families are getting smaller (in our WEIRD world), I have no faith whatever that those family cars are going to be abandoned in the foreseeable.

But getting back to copper, the issue, which I admit to having been blind to, is that with a full-on tilt to electrification, copper, the world’s most efficient and cheaply available electric conductor, might suddenly become scarce, putting us in a spot of bother. But will it? That depends on who you talk to. Somehow the question brings back to mind David Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity, a super-optimistic account of human ingenuity. Not enough copper? No problem we can’t engineer our way out of…

Currently demand for copper is outstripping supply, but will this be a long term problem? CNBC made a video recently – ‘Why a looming copper shortage has big consequences for the green economy’ – the title of which, it seems to me, is more pessimistic than the content. Copper has been an ultra-useful metal for us humans, literally for millennia. But its high conductivity – second only to silver, which presumably is more rare and so far more expensive – has made it the go-to metal for our modern world of electric appliances. It also has the benefit of being highly recyclable, so it can be ripped out of end-of-life buildings, vehicles and anything else and re-used. But EVs use about four times more copper than infernal combustion vehicles, and wind turbines as well as solar panels require lots of the stuff, as do EV charging stations, and there aren’t too many new copper mines operating, so…

From what I can gather online, though, there’s no need for panic. Apparently, we’re currently utilising some 12% of what we know to be available for mining. The available stuff is the cheap stuff, and until now we’ve not really needed much more. But new techniques of separating copper from its principal ore, chalcopyrite, look promising, and markets appear to be upbeat – get into copper, it’ll make your fortune!

There’s also the fact that, though things are changing, the uptake of EVs is still relatively slow. People are generally talking about crunch time coming in that vaguely defined era, ‘the future’. High copper demand, low supply seems to be the mantra, and all the talk is about investment and risk, largely meaningless stuff to impoverished observers like me. In more recent times, copper prices have dropped due to ‘a manufacturing recession caused by the energy crisis’. I didn’t know about either of these phenomena. Why wasn’t I told? has this to say about the current situation, FWIW:

Copper prices typically react to the ebb and flow of demand in China, which accounts for half of global consumption estimated at around 25 million tonnes this year. But this time the focus is on Europe, accounting for 15% to 20% of the global demand for copper used in power and construction. The region is facing surging gas and power prices after energy supply cuts, which Russia blames on Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict. The European Union has made proposals to impose mandatory targets on member countries to cut power consumption.

Make of this what you will, I have quoted the most coherent passage in a mire of economics-speak. Presumably, supply is affected by the volatile conditions created by Mr Pudding’s testosterone. So everybody is saying that copper is falling in price, and this is apparently bad. Here’s another quote to make sense of:

Due to closing smelters and falling demand from manufacturers, an excess of copper stockpiles has been building up in a number of Shanghai and London warehouses, also contributing to downward pressure on prices.

Meaning copper isn’t worth much currently, though this is probably a temporary thing. Glad I haven’t anything to invest.

I think the bottom line in all this is don’t worry, be happy. Copper availability for the energy transition is subject to so many incoherent fluctuations that it’s not worth worrying about for the average pundit. Here in Australia the issues are – you can solarise your home no worries. Buying an EV is another matter, since none are being manufactured here, so governments need to be pressured to create conditions for a manufacturing base, and the infrastructure to support the EV world. Storage and battery technology need to be supported and subsidised, as is in fact starting to happen, with a more supportive federal government, and state Labor governments here in South Australia, and in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

So, to conclude, having read through quite a few websites dealing with copper as the go-to metal for the transition to green energy (some links below), I haven’t found too much pessimism or concern about Dr Copper’s availability, though there are clearly vested interests in some cases. Australia, by the way, has the second largest copper reserves in the world (a long way behind Chile), and this could presumably be turned to our benefit. I’m sure a lot of magnates are magnetised by the thought.


Europe’s energy crisis to drop copper price to two-year low

Driving the green revolution: The use of copper in EVs

Written by stewart henderson

October 26, 2022 at 10:09 pm

an interminable conversation 12: more on hydrogen, and wondering about local power costs

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filched from an anti-global warming dinosaur – all’s fair….

Jacinta: So we’ve learned a lot about the problems with hydrogen as a potential fuel, and its problems as a chemical, in the production of fertiliser, in the petrochemical industry, and the need to clean up such usage, for example the contribution of ‘fugitive methane’ to carbon emissions. We also learned that carbon capture and storage, mooted for decades, seems to be going nowhere, largely due to its unprofitability re the private sector…

Canto: So now we’re going to listen to Rosie Barnes, of “Engineering with Rosie”, at a Hydrogen Online Conference, one of many interactive conferences apparently being planned. I’ve heard Rosie before, expressing some skepticism about hydrogen in general, so I’m surprised that she’s prepared to enter the ‘lion’s den’ of what I naturally presume to be hydrogen advocacy.

Jacinta: Yes I’m not sure I want to listen to the post-talk interactive session of this video, as I’m a bit squeamish about confrontation. Why can’t everybody just be nice and agree about everything?!

Canto: Yeah well Rosie begins with the question – which hydrogen projects should we prioritise?  And she also mentions the hydrogen energy supply chain, which is apparently a liquid hydrogen transport project between Australia and Japan, about which I know nothing.

Jacinta: Though actually we did write about this before, in a piece that now seems haplessly naive (linked below, FWIW). Anyway, the ScienceDirect website has this ‘headline’ in its overview of liquid hydrogen:

Production of liquid hydrogen or liquefaction is an energy-intensive process, typically requiring amounts of energy equal to about one-third of the energy in liquefied hydrogen.

which don’t sound promising.

Canto: But Rosie seems to think the hydrogen future is a bit more rosy these days. Another focus of her talk will be ‘giga projects’, presumably meaning ginormous projects, such as the ‘Asian renewable energy hub’ and the ‘western green energy hub’, about which more research is needed – by us.

Jacinta: So she was hearing a lot of hype, mainly from politicians, a couple of years ago, about all sorts of hydrogen ‘applications’, but mainly about ‘power system balancing’, which hopefully we’ll hear more about – maybe to do with balancing for the variability of wind and solar –  and for vehicular transport. And clearly she didn’t get it, especially in respect of other applications, no doubt, such as home heating. I mean, why hydrogen?

Canto: Indeed. She identified four red flags at the outset – and we need to dig deeper into these. First, ‘will developers keep building wind and solar if prices are negative?’ I don’t know what that means…

Jacinta: Economics is definitely not our strong suit. Actually we don’t have a strong suit. So here’s Wikipedia:

In economics, negative pricing can occur when demand for a product drops or supply increases to an extent that owners or suppliers are prepared to pay others to accept it, in effect setting the price to a negative number. This can happen because it costs money to transport, store, and dispose of a product even when there is little demand to buy it.

Canto: So it’s not immediately clear what that has to do with hydrogen, but let’s mention the other 3 red flags: 2 – will negative electricity prices persist? 3 – round trip efficiency, and 4 – the head start for and rapid improvement of other renewable technologies. Just putting those out there for now.

Jacinta: The questionable nature of the first one is – if electricity production becomes virtually free (negative pricing) then hydrogen production will be virtually free too, using renewables. I think. So the first two red flags are clearly connected. Businesses need to be profitable, so they won’t build (wind or solar) if there’s no market or if the market is saturated. With green hydrogen anyway, the production costs are, or have been quite extreme and those costs would have to come down by a factor of three to be equivalent to ‘dirty’ hydrogen production, to say nothing of cheaper electricity competing for the grid. To wait for the energy to be ‘negatively priced’ and only then use it for electrolysis seemed risky and possibly unworkable. A lot of equipment, etc, for little return.

Canto: Much of this was looking back at 2020 – not so long ago – and looking to Germany as an example of a highly renewable grid, but now she considers our Australian state – South Australia, which produces a lot of wind, first, and solar, second. Over the past 12 months, 65% or so of our grid electricity has been from renewables. Largely wind and solar, rather than base-load renewables (meaning nuclear perhaps, in the case of Germany?)

Jacinta: Yes, presumably nuclear, also hydro could be base load, as presumably it is in Tasmania. Rosie mentioned that we don’t have a lot of geothermal, and that rather shocked me, as I thought there wasn’t much geothermal anywhere, that it was one of those eternally future technologies….

Canto: The USA’s EIA (Energy Information Administration) tells us more:

The most active geothermal resources are usually found along major tectonic plate boundaries where most volcanoes are located. One of the most active geothermal areas in the world is called the Ring of Fire, which encircles the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the geothermal power plants in the United States are in western states and Hawaii, where geothermal energy resources are close to the earth’s surface. California generates the most electricity from geothermal energy. The Geysers dry steam reservoir in Northern California is the largest known dry steam field in the world and has been producing electricity since 1960.

Jacinta: Well, thanks for that. Something new every day…

Canto: So Rosie tells us we have had persistent negative electricity prices in SA – which is interesting considering that our household bills are painfully high. She presents a couple of graphics that I don’t fully understand… I certainly can’t understand negative pricing. Clearly not talking about consumers…

Jacinta: I’d like to know why our electricity costs are so high. Right now please. We can get back to Rosie later.

Canto: Well it’s a worthwhile detour to pursue, but it’ll require a bit of research. So maybe next time. So having watched Rosie’s not-so-rosey presentation, without watching the Q & A, because I tend to be a bit squeamish about that format, I find myself wondering…. there was little mention of Prof Cebon’s concerns about the questionable future of blue hydrogen and CCS, or of the problem of fugitive methane in the production of hydrogen from natural gas, or of the obvious failure in the take-up of hydrogen for passenger transport, or of the cost and difficult logistics of hydrogen compression and transport. And as to its possible use in storage, the battery solution seems more likely, surely?

Jacinta: She did point out, either in this talk or her earlier one, that hydrogen often looks like a solution looking for a problem, and this seems surely to be the case for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. It seems that EVs have won that race, and the improvements continue to be rapid. Well, we might pursue the hydrogen issue, and why so many people are hooked on hydrogen, and the details of hydrogen production, and many other issues relating to renewables, for a while yet, but let’s have a look at the cost of energy here in South Australia, where rooftop solar is very popular, and wind farms are kicking up a storm, but our electricity bills are still painfully high….


a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?


Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2022 at 6:52 pm

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

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

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an artist’s impression of SA’s hydrogen power project

I recently received in the mail a brochure outlining SA Labor’s hydrogen energy jobs plan, ahead of the state election in March 2022. The conservatives are currently in power here. The plan involves building ‘a 200MW hydrogen fuelled power station to provide firming capacity in the South Australian Electricity Market’.

So, what does a ‘hydrogen fuelled power station’ entail, what is ‘firming capacity’ and what does 200MW mean?

A presumably USA site called tells me this:

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

This raises more questions than answers, for me. I can understand that hydrogen is a clean fuel – after all, it’s the major constituent, molecularly speaking, of water, which is pretty clean stuff. But what exactly is meant by ‘clean’ here? Do they mean ‘carbon neutral’, one of today’s buzz terms? Presumably so, and obviously hydrogen doesn’t contain carbon. Next question, what exactly is a fuel cell? Wikipedia explains:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Fuel cells are different from most batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy usually comes from metals and their ions or oxides that are commonly already present in the battery, except in flow batteries. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

So the planned 200 megawatt power station will use the chemical energy of hydrogen, and oxygen as an oxidising agent, to produce electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Paraphrasing another website, the electricity is produced by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This causes a reaction across an electrochemical cell, which produces water, electricity, and some heat. The same website tells me that, as of October 2020, there were 161 fuel cells operating in the US with, in total, 250 megawatts of capacity. The planned SA power station will have 200 megawatts, so does that make it a gigantic fuel cell, or a fuel cell collective? In any case, it sounds ambitious. The process of extracting the hydrogen is called electrolysis, and the devices used are called electrolysers, which will be powered by solar energy. Excess solar will no longer need to be switched off remotely during times of low demand.

There’s no doubt that the fortunes of hydrogen as a clean fuel are on the rise. It’s also being considered more and more as a storage system to provide firming capacity – to firm up supply that intermittent power sources – solar and wind – can’t always provide. The completed facility should be able to store 3600 tonnes of hydrogen, amounting to about two months of supply. There are export opportunities too, with all this excess supply. Japan and South Korea are two likely markets.

While it may seem like all this depends on Labor winning state government, the local libs are not entirely averse to the idea. It has already installed the nation’s largest hydrogen electrolyser (small, though, at 1.25 MW) at the Tonsley technology hub, and the SA Energy Minister has been talking up the idea of a hydrogen revolution. The $11.4 million electrolyser, a kind of proof of concept, extracts hydrogen gas from water at a rate of up to 480 kgs per day.

The difference between the libs and labor it seems is really about who pays for the infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the libs are looking to the private sector, while Labor’s plans are for a government-owned facility, with the emphasis on jobs. Their brochure on the planned power station and ancillary developments is called the ‘hydrogen jobs plan’. According to SA’s Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, up to 300 jobs will be created in constructing the hydrogen plant, at least 10,000 jobs will be ‘unlocked from the $20bn pipeline of renewable projects in South Australia’ (presumably not all hydrogen-related, but thrown in for good measure) and 900+ jobs will be created through development of a hydrogen export industry. He’s being a tad optimistic, needless to say.

But hydrogen really is in the air these days (well, sort of, in the form of water vapour). A recent New Scientist article, ‘The hydrogen games’, reports that Japan is hoping that its coming Olympic and Paralympic Games (which others are hoping will be cancelled) will be a showcase for its plan to become a ‘hydrogen society’ over the next few decades. And this plan is definitely good news for Australia.

Japan has pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, this is likely impossible to achieve by solar or other established renewables. There just isn’t enough available areas for large scale solar or wind, in spite of floating solar plants on its lakes and offshore wind farms in planning. This is a problem for its hydrogen plans too, as it currently needs to produce the hydrogen from natural gas. It hopes that future technology will make green hydrogen from local renewables possible, but meanwhile it’s looking to overseas imports, notably from Australia, ‘which has ample sunshine, wind and empty space that make it perfect for producing this fuel’. Unfortunately we also have an ample supply of empty heads in our federal government, which might get in the way of this plan. And the Carbon Club, as exposed by Marian Wilkinson in her book of that name, continues to be as cashed-up and almost thuggishly influential as ever here. The success of the South Australian plan, Labor or Liberal, and the growing global interest in hydrogen as an energy source – France and Germany are also spending big on hydrogen – may be what will finally weaken the grip of the fossil fuel industry on a country seen by everyone else as potentially the best-placed to take financial advantage of the green resources economy.


Hydrogen Jobs Plan: powering new jobs & industry (South Australian Labor brochure)

‘The hydrogen games’, New Scientist No 3336 May 2021 pp18-19

Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

June 24, 2021 at 7:49 pm

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.


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


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