an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘masculinity

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

leave a comment »

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

Sherwood Anderson

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 14

leave a comment »

graph showing the rising number of PhDs in neuroscience compared to other sciences

is it all about sex? a few thoughts on sex and behaviour

When I was young there were always a lot of books around, fortunately. My mother was a psych nurse who went on to be a teacher of nursing, so psychology textbooks were plentiful, and I learned with some fascination early on about the id, the ego and the superego. But my greatest excitement was reserved for two other Freudian terms, sublimation and polymorphous perversity. They allowed me to think of sex in a kind of superior way. 

Sublimation refers to the process of transformation from a solid to a gas, without the intermediate step of melting into a liquid. You can observe it simply by opening your freezer door, especially if you have an old-style freezer caked with ice. But Freud’s use of the word was much hotter, to my teenage self. To Freud, there were two driving instincts, eros, the sex drive, and thanatos, the death drive. That’s enough about thanatos. Freud proposed these two opposing drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other essays, but I probably got them from pamphlets floating around the house, summarising Freud’s ideas in a few paragraphs. As I understood it, eros was life-affirmative, but it needed to be harnessed, reigned in, sublimated to a more general, civilising and creative (rather than procreative) force. So it was all just sex diverted to science, technology, empire-building and the like. Sounded perfectly cromulent to me, even before that word was invented. So everything was polymorphously perverse; church spires, slippery-dips, kindergartens and business schools, they all manifested the perversity of our drive, in an infinitude of stop-thinking-about-sex-but-do-this-instead ways. Having discovered the secret of civilisation thanks to Meister Sigmund, I took great secret pleasure in upending said civilisation by masturbating like there was no tomorrow. 

I realise now of course that sublimation isn’t always about channelling out the sexual impulse, it’s about any equally unacceptable impulse, such as murderous rage. But being me I wanted to keep the sex, and stuff all the civilisation. Or couldn’t we somehow keep both sex and civilisation, and dispense with the murderous rage? 

Many anthropologists would agree that bonobos have a culture, but none would say they have a civilisation. So what exactly is the difference, and does civilisation require the degree of sexual repression that we generally suffer from? Though there are the odd erotomanic subcultures, in no established nation is it acceptable, or legal, to walk about naked, let alone have sex, in public. It’s generally called indecent exposure. A loincloth, and some extra bits of cloth for females, might protect you legally if not socially, but what precisely is so upsetting, currently, about those parts we’re obliged to hide, and will we ever socially evolve out of this condition?

Freud believed we were born polymorphously perverse, little libido capsules, and some of his observations – such that we’re all born bisexual, seemed obvious to me from the get-go. However, Freud knew nothing about bonobos, who were barely known to humanity at the time of his death. His theories of masculinity might have benefitted from such knowledge, and in fact the incredibly rapid pace of our neurological knowledge from the beginning of the 21st century – as the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in his monumental book Behave – has wrought havoc with psychoanalytic and other theories that seek to understand human behaviour without attending to their detailed neurological underpinnings. The shaping of masculinity and femininity by culture has been a problem that psychologists, feminists and all other interested parties have long wrestled with. Which culture, after all? And are there differences beyond culture? Can culture be separated from biology?

I don’t think so. Our brains function the way they do because of the environment in which they were nurtured since conception – every environment different of course. And there’s also evolution – what might be called pre-conceptual, or historical, or prehistorical influences. Researchers have often tried to pinpoint essential differences between the male and female brain in humans. They’re far less concerned to pinpoint such differences between male and female cats, dogs or mice, presumably because their overall catty, doggy and mousey natures tend to overwhelm minor gender differences. Recent research has found statistical differences only, rather than categorical differences between male and female brains. In other words, female brains don’t have a vagina and male ones don’t have a penis. Even if you’ve devoted a lifetime to neurological research, studying the brain in all its white-and grey detail, you wouldn’t be able to state categorically that the warm, disembodied human brain placed in your hands to somehow keep alive and probe its electrochemical circuitry and its hormonal flow, belonged to a male or a female. Researchers who want to find key differences between Venus and Mars will find them, but the differences among female brains are greater than those that separate them from male brains. 

And yet, statistics are important. Statistically speaking, males are more violent than females, regardless of nation, culture or time period (going back to the first days of statistical data). It seems to have to do with hormones, and group behavior. Young males often join gangs – bikie gangs, street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, white supremacist gangs, nogoodnik gangs, whatever. Females, not so much. The largest cause of violent death and injury in long-peaceful countries such as Australia is a young male aged 15-24 or so behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This is about risky and show-offy behaviour – they kill and injure themselves as much as others. Such behaviour is seen too in male chimps, in young bull elephants during musth, and in male dolphins – all very smart and social animals. Does all this relate to sex? Apparently, in more or less roundabout ways. For chimps it’s not so roundabout. It’s called the sexual coercion hypothesis, for which much evidence has been collected from various East African field sites:

Males who directed aggression at certain females mated more often with those females than did other males. Moreover, these aggressive males were actively solicited for mating by those females at the time of peak fertility. Critically, aggression over the long term had a greater effect than violence in the immediate context of mating. 

This aggressive disposition apparently leads directly to reproductive success. So male domestic violence isn’t all bad?

Elephants in musth – which literally means ‘drunk’ – have very highly elevated testosterone levels, but how this links to aggression is unclear. Sapolsky has much to say about cause-correlation between testosterone -and androgens generally – and aggression in humans, which is relevant here. Social learning appears to play an important role in male aggression, which raises testosterone levels, and so we have a chcken-and-egg issue. As to elephants, the aggression they display during musth makes close scientific analysis a bit problematic, but it’s known that the secretion of temporin from the temporal glands in this period, and the accompanying swelling of those glands, causes irritation, which can be acute in some cases. This extreme irritation may cause aggressive behaviour, as when Dad kicks the cat after Mum has berated him for the previous two hours. Interestingly, aggressiveness, sometimes murderous, in young bull elephants, most often happens in the absence of older males. Their presence has a tempering effect. In any case, the violence displayed during musth, which is the male reproductive period, seems more of a side-effect than a ‘turn-on’ for females. Older males learn to use this period effectively, becoming more energetic in moving around and increasing territory in search of females, and preserving their energy during the warmer, non-musth months. 

Dolphins are not generally the fun-loving joyful creatures of contemporary myth, and male dolphins often gang up on females and rape them, to use a term humans like to reserve for themselves. I could go on, but the general point is that we, as humans, might want to learn how not to behave as well as how to behave from other species, especially those most like us – not just in their closeness genetically, but in their smarts, and in their negative or positive treatment of others, of their own and other species. 


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head 2017

Written by stewart henderson

November 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm