an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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do bonobos love each other?

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Fly with me, lift me up to my feet, set me free from this skin I’ve been too long in

Leddra Chapman, ‘Picking Oranges’

I got to know that your heart beats fast, and I got to know I’m the only one for you. What have I become? I’m a fucking monster, when all I wanted was something beautiful. My love, too much. Your love, not enough

Meg Myers, ‘Monster’

It wasn’t that I didn’t wanna hold your hand, I just knew if we held tight once, we would never let go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call you mine – but, you’re not mine

Liza Anne, ‘Watering Can’

right… but why only two?

Canto: So bonobos have been called the ‘make love not war ‘ apes, a joke moniker in a way, but I’ve been thinking about that in an attempt to be more serious about love, fellow-feeling and all that stuff, in bonobos, humans, and other species.

Jacinta: Yes, the idea of ‘true love’, which involves some kind of eternal monogamy, and is seen as peculiarly human, and sells ye olde penny romances, is still with us, and whole governments are raised around it – the couple, the nuclear family and such. Of course, in the WEIRD world, there are increasingly diverse ‘household arrangements’, but they still generally involve separate, enclosed households. Ye olde hippy free love encampments, if they were anything other than an imaginary figment, seem as distant now as our connection with bonobos. A while back we read Ferdinand Mount’s 1982 book The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage, a fairly well-reasoned defence of marriage and monogamy, and its glorious survival in spite of the free love mini-revolution, but of course he didn’t mention bonobos or speculate about the domestic arrangements of australopithecines.

Canto: Mount was – still is – a lifelong conservative, so his history was always going to be tendentious, and as you say, limited to more recent times, so it didn’t really address how we came to be monogamous, if that’s what we are. And just to set the scene with our loving cousins:

Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous sexual relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age, with the possible exception of abstaining from sexual activity between mothers and their adult sons.

Wikipedia entry: bonobo sociosexual behaviour

 

Jacinta: Conservatives wouldn’t be too happy about that sort of indiscriminate behaviour among humans, but they’d be hard pressed to argue that bonobos are ‘immoral’ or selfish, or dysfunctional and a behavioural threat to the well-being of their own society.

Canto: No, they’d probably just argue that they’re not humans and we have nothing much to learn from them. We’re 8 billion, after all, and they’re just a few thousand. We win! But I don’t think our success has much to do with our domestic arrangements. It presumably has more to do with the enlargement of our prefrontal cortex, and the causes of that, which were presumably numerous and incremental, may have also brought about an increasing division of labour along patriarchal lines.

Jacinta: Certainly our history, at least since it has been recorded, has been overwhelmingly patriarchal. Hunting as a largely male activity, as I believe it also is in chimps, could be kind of brutalising, as it’s a kill-or-be-killed activity at its worst.

Canto: Meanwhile bonobos have been evolving in their own way over the past few million years. Or not. I mean, they’ve been content to stay in the forest, in a pretty lush part of the Congo, consuming a very largely vegetarian diet, not exactly requiring a lot in the way of muscles and physical prowess. And get this, again from Wikipedia:

Bonobo clitorises are larger and more externalized than in most mammals; while the weight of a young adolescent female bonobo “is maybe half” that of a human teenager, she has a clitoris that is “three times bigger than the human equivalent, and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks”

As they say ‘exercise makes the clit grow longer’. Dunnit?

Jacinta: Well, it’s true, bonobo females engage in genito-genital rubbing more than males do, and this seems to form the basis of female group dynamics, which has led to female dominance. Unfortunately in humans, clothing creates a major barrier to this activity, at least in public.

Canto: Ahh, the terrible price of civilisation. But what I’m interested in is the effect of female dominance. Yes, it’s mediated to a large degree by sexual play, and a general closeness, which we don’t seem to have the maturity to adopt, so obsessed have we been with sexual possessiveness and jealousy, to the point of stoning people – sorry, women – for adultery. Death by drowning was the punishment back in Hammurabi’s day, almost 4000 years ago. Under Ancient Greek and Roman law, women could be executed for adultery, while the men would rarely get more than a smacked bottom.

Jacinta: Actually, stoning is still a punishment, for both genders, in countries that apply strict Shari’ah law. But in the WEIRD world, where no-fault divorce is increasingly accepted, adultery has faded as an issue. And generally we’ve become more relaxed about sexuality in all its varieties, and more sceptical about ‘love’, of the everlasting and exclusive type.

Canto: Yes, and yet… love, whether it’s a human invention or not, or whether it’s just hormones – it really hurts. You develop this ridiculous passion for someone, her movements, her smile, her vitality – though she has as much interest in you as in a rotten egg. Or she takes a general interest but backs off when she senses your need. And that’s just ‘unrequited love’. Even when it’s a mutual passion it can sooner or later turn to shit. The quotes above are just three of thousands that could be mined from songs, stories, legends and our own lives. Great expectations, dashed, sublimated, given up on, nursed in solitude. A tension between the cult of individuality and its freedoms and the love that loves to speak its name, where those individuals go together like a horse and carriage, like fire and ice, Batman and Robin, Venus and Mars…

Jacinta: Well, humans do tend to overthink these matters, or over-feel them perhaps, what with our heightened sensibilities. And our civilisations have tended to push us towards exclusive ‘love relations’, and the concept of ownership:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)

So it’s not just that we’ve fallen for the myth of true love and the ideal partner – our society has created a monogamous reproductive norm, and for a good few millennia (not really so long in human history, but we know hardly anything about our sociosexual behaviour beyond the last 10,000 years or so) we’ve fallen in with it – leaving aside sultans, random monarchs and the odd billionaire entrepreneur. Our homes have, over time, become designed to largely rule out even extended family togetherness. Bonobos don’t have homes and they’re not particularly territorial….

Canto: Well, to change the subject, I’m interested in that description of bonobo clitorises. It sounds wild -so to speak. And of course it sounds very much like a penis. It all makes me think of the whole penis envy malarky of Freudian psychotherapy. Not a problem for bonobos, clearly. If we get our social evolution right, our female descendants in the non-foreseeable future (if that makes any sense) will be waggling those clits about most merrily.

Jacinta: Hah, makes a change from current-day ‘clitoridectomy’ aka FGM.

Canto: Well, they could give em a trim, like modern-day circumcision. Or have em shaped and coloured, like orchids….

Jacinta: Lovely. Interestingly, Simone de Beauvoir touches on this in The Second Sex, probably influenced by the penis envy ideas of the time. Writing of woman:

her anatomy condemns her to remain awkward and impotent, like a eunuch: the desire for possession is thwarted for lack of an organ to incarnate it. And man refuses the passive role.

No organ permits the virgin to satisfy her active eroticism; and she does not have the lived experience of he who condemns her to passivity.

the second sex, trans. C Borde & S Malovany-Chevallier, vintage books 2011

 

But in the WEIRD world, things have changed, or are changing, and hopefully girls are much more expert at playing the organ. Though, unlike bonobos, it’s largely done in solitude.

Canto: But do bonobos love each other, or just each others’ organs? It’s probably as uninteresting a question as What’s this thing called, love? 

Jacinta: Well, that’s it, bonobos just get it together, not just for sex, but for safety in numbers, for huddling and cuddling, for play, for warmth, food-sharing and back-scratching. I doubt if they wonder if it’s really love, or how selfish or selfless they’re being. It’s their life – one of community rather than pairing off – as long as they can be left to get on with it.

References

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/adultery

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1982

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2023 at 12:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second sex, pp 394-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

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

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2022 at 11:41 am

Freudian chitchat, sex and bonobos

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Sigmund and Anna Freud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freud’s women, p 400

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

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

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

Freud’s women, p 414

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

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

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

The second sex, p 348

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

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

penis envy mushrooms – another story altogether

References

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2022 at 12:13 pm

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

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just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

bonobos, humans, sex, kids, community and work: an interminable conversation 1

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just being cosy

 

Canto: We need to face the sex issue, which is such a problematic one for humans, and far less problematic, it seems, for bonobos.

Jacinta:Yes, they don’t need a Me Too movement, coz the males are already scared of them. I mean the boss females.

Canto: Well it’s not just the males hitting on the females. In bonobo societies, it’s males on males, females on females, old on young, kids on kids, but with a minimum of fuss and bother, it seems to me. And it’s not all the time, I don’t want to exaggerate anything. There are no nymphomaniacs, whatever that means.

Jacinta: A pejorative term. The male equivalents are called studs.

Canto: Well, not always. Sometimes called sex addicts. And paedophiles of course. Suitable cases for treatment. And I remember a group calling themselves ‘sluts on bikes’, seeking to retool the term for their own benefit somehow. I think there’s a lot of confusion or uncertainty out there, about whether an overdeveloped interest in sex is good or bad. And of course there’s a big issue about sexual victims, which doesn’t seem a problem for bonobos.

Jacinta: Not a major problem, but the females appear to keep the males in line, if they go too far. After all much of the sexual stuff is just mutual masturbation.

Canto: Yeah, nowadays, human males – and maybe females – get off on porn, or their own fantasies, wanking in the safe confines of their bedrooms, imagining touchy-feelies rather than experiencing them. It’s quite sad. Bonobos don’t have that problem.

Jacinta: It’s certainly true that there are plenty of sexually unsatisfied human apes around. But maybe if they weren’t so aware of sex – especially the hypersexuality of porn – they wouldn’t be so obsessed with what they’re missing out on. Take orangutans. They’re mostly isolated, and I doubt if they spend much time masturbating…

Canto: Ah but they do spend some time on it. If the Gizmodo website is to be trusted, masturbation has been observed in at least 80 types of male primates, and 50 types of female primates, including orangutans. And I don’t quite trust that male-female disparity.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s odd. And the point is that the crotch area is the most erogenous zone for all mammals, surely – and then some. And it doesn’t require fantasising about sexy other members of your species. Think of the first time you masturbated…

Canto: I really can’t recall the first time….

Jacinta: It’s highly likely you found your pubes rubbing against something, and it felt, well, stimulating, so you rubbed some more. Nothing directly to do with sex, for us or for other mammals. When a dog starts humping your leg, it’s not actually humping, or thinking of humping, presumably.

Canto: So it’s all about chemicals, fireworks in the brain, or something? A dog humps your leg because he’s excited, and humping gets him more excited. But it’s the old chicken and egg – does it start with the humping or the excitement?

Jacinta: Well I suppose the main point for us is that masturbation is natural and common for many species, given the evolution of erogenous zones, especially the zone associated with reproduction. But I’m more interested in another phenomenon – reproduction. In spite of their interest in sex, bonobo females are unable, it seems, to produce more than a few offspring in their lives. According to Wikipedia, the most offspring produced by a human female, that we know of, is 44, 43 of whom survived infancy. That’s a woman in Uganda, whose last child was born in 2016. There are recordings of greater numbers in previous centuries, but they’re insufficiently verified. And this woman, Mariam Nabatanzi, wasn’t just showing off, she had a rare condition that caused hyperovulation. Her births included 3 sets of quadruplets, 4 of triplets and 6 of twins, and she might’ve added to the number but a procedure she underwent in 2019, at age 40, put a stop to it all.

Canto: Elon Musk would’ve been proud of her.

Jacinta: Yeah, well, I wonder if he’s helping pay Ms Nabatanzi’s food bills, though hopefully her unwonted fame would help with that. It’s interesting that both Franz de Waal and Jane Goodall mention, in the beautifully photographed Deutsche Welle documentary referenced below, that the ability of humans to reproduce rapidly compared to other primates has been a vital factor in our dominance of the biosphere, with its positive and negative impacts. De Waal suggests that this high reproductive rate is somehow due to the family structure we’ve developed, with the father helping out the mother, not so much directly as indirectly, as material provider and support. But I think this claim needs more support or more fleshing out.

Canto: Yes, it seems to fly in the face of what we know about bonobo culture, where the mother seems to be helped out by other females, and males, in a tight-knit community. Or is this an exaggeration? I recall reading that this community care, or extended family care, occurs in corvids as well. I don’t know how many chicks the average crow gives birth to in a lifetime. Anyway, it seems that the long intervals between births in chimps and bonobos is more psychological, or cultural if you like, than physiological. The mothers do much of the caring and feeding, and it’s exhausting. Humans have bottle-feeding for instance, and anyone can be in charge of that. I did it for my little brother when I was a kid, and even learned to change nappies. Human mothers are sometimes back at work weeks or even days after giving birth.

Jacinta: Which would require other carers. Maybe we’re not so selfish as we think. But then again, in the WEIRD world we’re having fewer children, and as other regions become more well-off they’re having fewer children too.

Canto: Except for Elon Musk.

Jacinta: Crows generally lay a clutch of 2-7 eggs every nesting season – that’s one clutch every year. About 40 percent of all the corvid species are co-operative breeders, a much bigger percentage than other bird species. Crows’ lifespans can vary wildly – some can live for more than twenty years, and of course it’s hard to say how many offspring they produce in a lifetime, never mind how many of their chicks survive to adulthood. But returning to humans and bonobos, both species make a habit of having sex for fun, though with bonobos it’s more of a standard thing – they don’t have killjoy religious figures or ’empowered’ celibates spoiling the party.

Canto: We’re certainly a long way from public sex. Even nudist colonies now seem a distant memory, and they were about as sexy as an old fart’s farts.

Jacinta: Well, that’s a bit rough. We’re just so much more diverse than bonobos, you can’t compare. Everything from lifetime vows of celibacy to sex dungeons, about which I know nothing.

Canto: We’ll explore them, no doubt. But of course bonobos, when they’re not eating and sleeping, have a lot of time for play. They’re not trying to create the next exciting technology or to quantise gravity or to become the richest entrepreneur in the jungle or to take over their neighbours’ territory or whatever. All play, even sexual play, and no work can be a bit mind-numbing perhaps. A bit of your old Freudian sublimation isn’t such a bad thing.

Jacinta: How about getting AI to do all the smart stuff and we just play?

Canto: Ahh, now you’re talking about the future, beyond where we’ll be, unless those longevity diets really kick in…

References

https://gizmodo.com/9-animals-that-masturbate-other-than-humans-1723592357

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2022 at 8:48 pm

a bonobo world: sex, at last

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Japanese women discuss exploitation in the sex industry

Decades ago I was attending a session at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, a discussion with the author of a fairly sexually explicit and popular novel. During question time, someone came out, in ‘a voice peppered with petulance’ (a favourite phrase of an old friend), with this query: Why this modern obsession with sex? After all, he opined, the sexual act is trivial and perfunctory, it’s over in minutes, it’s of no greater significance and of probably lesser value than teeth-cleaning. Why not focus on more important matters?

The author and other panellists seemed non-plussed, to say the least, and certainly didn’t find any memorable rejoinder to this attack upon the source of all animal life. I myself was both amused and enraged – amused, because I’d immediately recognised the questioner as a history lecturer at the nearby University of Adelaide, where I was then a student. As it happened, a friend of mine had been dating the lecturer’s daughter, but he’d given up on her, telling me that she was the most sexually indifferent person he’d ever met. A chip off the old bloke, apparently. 

But I was angered and a little shocked at the panellists’ meek reaction to this – misunderstanding? – of the sex act. This obliviousness? This lifelessness? This lack of imagination? My mind spluttered to comprehend such a different mind. I spent the next few days thinking up a series of responses. ‘Well, if you’d care to read Jared Diamond’s pleasant little book Why Is Sex Fun? you might …’ (actually that book hadn’t been written then). ‘Have you never heard of The Joy of Sex? We had that book kicking around our house in the seventies, how about yours?’ ‘Well sex may be perfunctory for you, but many species put a helluva lot of energy into having it – far more than into keeping their teeth clean. Australia’s little antechinuses actually fuck to death when the time is ripe. And what about octopuses?….’

Anyway, trying to convince the odd oddity of the pleasures of rumpy-pumpy is probably a waste of time. Today there’s a massive sex industry catering for the converted and perverted, and it doesn’t seem to have led to the fall of civilisation. At least, not yet. 

Today’s online sex video industry (I eschew the term ‘pornography’) is clouded in myth and misinformation. For example, just how exploitative/life-affirming is it, compared to say, other service jobs such as bar or barista work? What does it mean for the status of women? And of course – just how ‘big’ is it? In the following posts, I’ll explore this minefield as best I can. 

First, let’s look at the question of the bigness of the business. As anybody who has ‘looked into it’ knows, anyone, young or old, with an electronic device, can access more sex video material than they could consume in a lifetime for absolutely free, to the point that one would have to question the sanity of anyone who would bother paying for the stuff. So my first question would have to be – how do these businesses make any money at all? 

From what I can gather, the sex video industry (which for brevity’s sake, I’ll call the SVI) is mostly divided into two spheres of production, Euro-American and Japanese. At least those are the two areas I’ll be focusing on – I suppose anyone, in any country, can put their own videos online, as long as they don’t have a heavy-handed government to deal with. 

I note that most articles I’ve looked at use the term AVI – for adult videos – bur as a teacher for many years of NESB young people, and also as a former foster carer, I can categorically state that non-adults are accessing sex videos online in large numbers. These sites used to ask viewers about their age, a kind of autumnal fig leaf, but this has since died of shame. Of course, there is the question of SVI performers, and the concern that young people, whether above or below the 18-year-old divide, are really giving free consent to have their bodies and antics gawked at. This is a vital issue given the given the rise of child sexual exploitation via social media in recent times.

But to return to the mainstream SVI, I’m not so much interested in how lucrative, or not, it is, as in how popular it is. First, I want to look at the Japanese industry, which, it strikes me, is less extreme, more accepted by the community, and generally more story-driven and certainly more eccentric and comedic than its Euro-American counterpart. This isn’t to say there aren’t disturbing elements, including a lot of fake-rape scenes, in a nation where rape stats are only one twenty-seventh those of the USA. In fact, reported cases of rape in Japan reduced by some 50% in the decade between 2003 and 2014, though they have increased slightly since then, probably due to a widening of the legal definition of rape in 2017.  

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get reliable data on the Japanese SVI. One website, for example, claims that about 14,000 sex videos are produced annually in Japan, compared to about 2000 in the USA, but provides no references. Still, it’s pretty clear that Japan has a massive sex video market, probably the biggest market in the world – certainly for its size.

To me, the most interesting feature of the Japanese SVI is that it appears to be less hidden, more mainstream than the Euro-American. It’s more ‘ordinary’, with scenes taking place in basic homes and hotel rooms rather than in the ‘palatial’ seaside residences of, presumably, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Many of the young women look like any attractive youngsters you might find in any shopping mall, and don’t feel the need to be tizzied up with ‘pornstar fingernails’ or revealing outfits. In fact, some are also in J-pop bands or mainstream movies. The atmosphere in these videos seems collegial, with a lot of beforehand-chit-chat and laughter. Yet, there are signs throughout of a male-dominated society, not so much in the role-playing – the female stars are often teachers or office managers, as well as ‘schoolgirls’ or bewhiskered cosplay cuties – as in certain giveaway behaviours, such as putting their hand in front of their mouths and giggling shyly when, presumably, asked a sexual question in interviews (I don’t understand Japanese). This may seem a minor thing, but in fact it’s endemic in Japanese SVs, and not found in other cultures. The noise they often make during intercourse  – squealing like a stuck pig, if I may be so blunt – is also something of a problem. It just doesn’t happen with Euro-American performers, and it’s surely not a sign of empowerment. It also tends not to be such a feature with veterans of the industry. 

The story-lines of Japanese sex videos are mostly absurd and somewhat formulaic. There’s the time-stop vids, the bus or train frottage leading to full-blown sex vids, the classroom-rape vids (whether of teacher or student), the vids of the kids having sex on the sofa while the family is chatting, oblivious, at the dining table in the same room, and so on. All good dirty fun, no doubt, but though the Japanese SVI world is almost mainstream, it still involves the compartmentalism that bedevils the human approach to sexuality, where there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. Is this compartmenting, or closeting, of sex, absolutely necessary to human civilisation? Opening the closet would surely reduce the exploitative aspect of the business – and allow us to examine just how exploitative it is, compared to say, the gig economy that many young (and older) people have to negotiate today. That’s an issue worth exploring.  

References

https://www.statista.com/statistics/864883/japan-reported-cases-rape-and-forcible-indecencies/

https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Japan-have-such-a-big-porn-industry

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

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/japan-porn-industry-preys-young-women-113928029.html?_fsig=agO9hQSFSs0hFQMNGJpBIw–&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALzI-DHcjFzVb52FKmkx_tAu21KNRP60E0o6Dy3BWkf5IYShInY8XWZDAVbzL7z1vHXkT7LeHtbOLJhDlGNtAykE7h2zbTCWFM9ceEVoW0d-zArmS6W2Zyiv06ZtKO9Wx092okhIV5CAP3UTpP8GBXjNfOnpLPByie1afoWV5V15

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2021 at 6:51 pm

a bonobo world 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.

References

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

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29187881

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

https://www.upworthy.com/female-bonobos-shut-down-violent-males-heres-what-humans-can-learn-from-them

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm

a bonobo world 60?: sex, gender and other species

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matriarchs in a complex society

Jacinta: So we need to talk about sex. Though of course bonobos never talk about it.

Canto: Yes, bonobos appear to have sex to calm each other down, and perhaps just for fun or because they’re bored.

Jacinta: I prefer to read books. It’s all about sublimation, they say.

Canto: Ahh sublimation. We had a lot of Freudian stuff around the house when I was a lad. So eros and thanatos, the superego and the id, polymorphous perversity and the Oedipus complex, these were some of the first smart-alecky terms I ever learned. And sublimation was a big favourite. The idea that all our creative and scientific activities were just a way of channelling or subverting the massive force of our sex drive seemed perfectly coherent to a horny teenager. I thought I’d found the secret of life – just stop channelling and subverting, get our perversity back to being unimorphous, and the life of sexual bliss would be ours.

Jacinta: Yeah – I don’t know where to begin. Humans have created effective theories about the universe, about species diversity, about nanoscale quantum behaviour and whatnot – I mean, would we ever have developed the means to have this conversation if we’d never managed to separate our brains from our genitals?

Canto: Okay, back to bonobos. Of course sex doesn’t completely dominate their lives, but what makes them so attractive to many of is the fact that they’re so relaxed about it. I blame religion.

Jacinta: Hmmm, but it’s entirely possible to have a religion that’s pretty relaxed about sex.

Canto: Okay, I blame those religions that are not relaxed about sex – that’s to say, most religions that have dominated our species, at least recently.

Jacinta: Well, my question is, can we as a species ever evolve to be as relaxed about sex as bonobos, without giving up on fully understanding or exploring life, the universe and everything?

Canto: Ah but, though it might be true that we are but one species, we’re tremendously diverse. There are doubtless many individual humans that are just as relaxed and free about sex as bonobos, and even the odd sub-culture that takes sex far further than any bonobo ever would.

Jacinta: Well, no doubt, but they tend to be underground – in dungeons with leather, chains and whips. Weekend fun, and then back to the office on Monday. We tend to cut sexual play off from the rest of our activities, if we engage in it at all. That’s not the bonobo way.

Canto: Well, even bonobos probably recognise there’s a time for every purpose, under heaven. But apart from the problems of sex in the workplace and the school playground, there’s also the interesting question of the relationship between bonobo sexual activity and the prominent role of females. Presumably that’s not coincidental. Do you think our sexual sides will get more airplay with the coming matriarchy?

Jacinta: Well, male societies seem to be more aggressively controlling. And more hierarchical. Controlling the females would’ve been a priority from the start. Making them feel inferior and dirty during menses, taking advantage of their reduced capacity during late pregnancy and the postpartum period, when they’d be reduced to ‘menial chores’, which would gradually – since they performed them so well – be seen as the chores they were designed for. And so the division of labour would result in more hierarchy.

Canto: And with bonobos female supremacy, if that’s not too strong a word, seems to have been the result of female-female bonding. Hard to know how that got started, but I imagine that the move, in humans, to separate unit housing and nuclear families would’ve militated against such bonding. And with bonobo promiscuity, males wouldn’t know which children were theirs, if any. One of the major purposes of human monogamy, I presume, would be to ensure that males would know who their children were, for patrilineal purposes, among others.

Jacinta: Yes, and certainly monogamy is still very much the norm, though it has become slightly less patriarchal in the wealthier economies. I do think the key to women getting on top is sisterhood, but not an exclusive sisterhood. We need to encourage men to realise that it’s in their interest to join us, and do what we tell them to do. But really we’ve got a long way to go. Men have been dominant for a very long time, and they still are.

Canto: There’s also the blowback from feminism. Men with guns, proud boys, oath keepers and shitkickers. And men who have been ‘stiffed’, according to the book by Susan Faludi.

Jacinta: Yes, men who feel their purpose in life has been shattered because their kids’ school principal is a woman. It depresses me to think about the enormity of the challenge, when female leadership seems so obviously superior by and large, and yet this superiority is so regularly denied.

Canto: This is an interesting question. Women generally talk about gender equality, while men – some men – worry about women taking over, as if we’re anywhere near that happening. But actually gender equality isn’t a thing among our primate cousins – that’s to say, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utangs and gibbons. They’re either female-dominant, like bonobos, or male-dominant, like more or less all the rest. And if you look at the multifarious human cultures, its probably the same thing – 99% patriarchal, 1% matriarchal, 0% gender-equal. It’s a bit like a see-saw, the guys at each end are virtually never exactly the same weight, so the see-saw has almost zero chance of being equally balanced.

Jacinta: So, might as well be honest and go for female supremacy. But maybe we should look more closely at your claim, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to primate examples. Take dolphins, for example. We’ve had huge difficulties in studying them, gender-wise, because it’s so hard to tell the sexes apart. All they’ve been able to find is that male dolphins tend to range more widely from the pod than females, which doesn’t appear to say anything about dominance.

Canto: Hmmm. Isn’t that the same with cats – I mean the domesticated types? The males range more widely at night, presumably for sexual purposes.

Jacinta: Males chase, females choose? It’s a thought. Anyway, elephants are essentially matriarchal, and as to birds, some species of which are now regarded as having smarts that are up there with the smartest monkeys, many of them seem to fit the bill for gender equality, but they’re maybe too far removed from us to provide us with too much guidance.

Canto: Well, hang on a minute. Corvids are a super-social lot, with a lot of extended family support in bringing up chicks, warning of danger and so on.

Jacinta: Yes but elephants are at least mammals, and they also live in extended families, and what with the obesity epidemic, we’re beginning to look more like them.

Canto: Okay, so next time we’ll talk about gender roles in other species, particularly primates, at least for starters. That’ll allow us to avoid the sticky subject of sex for a while longer.

References

https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html

9 of the Biggest Lies Christianity Tells Us About Sex and Marriage

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The betrayal of the modern man, 1999

https://phys.org/news/2016-06-world-dolphin-gender.html

https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-sense-a-sociality-4/elephants-are-socially-complex.html

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2021 at 2:35 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

22 – sex, reproduction, science, bonobos

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the act, depicted by Leonardo, along with his intriguing mirror writing

Thinking on dolphins again, I remember reading claims about sophisticated dolphin language, at a vocal range beyond human hearing, and I’ve also read scientific dismissals of such claims. I’m thinking again about these questions (the communications of some birds also comes to mind) because the communicative complexity of language would have enabled human apes to, among other things, be species-aware of the connection between sex and reproduction – though unfortunately failures in that communication still result in unwanted teenage pregnancies. 

But I don’t seriously imagine that any other species – on this planet at least – knows that the joys of rump-pumpy lead to the much-later popping out of wee human replicants. For one thing, Matthew Cobb’s book The egg & sperm race provides an account of how confused we humans were, even at the time of Leonardo, about ‘the exact relationship between male, female and offspring’. They were particularly confused with regard to non-human generation. Ideas about barnacle geese being hatched from barnacles, mice being generated from wheat and vipers from dust were entertained at the highest level, even at the Royal Society in the 17th century. The spontaneous generation of the tiniest creatures was essentially a given for millennia. But human generation was also much of a mystery until relatively recently. Here’s a little summary from Cobb:

Although the real situation now appears obvious, discovering exactly what goes on was a long, complicated process. Even what might seem to be the most obvious step in generation – the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy in humans – is really quite difficult to demonstrate. Part of the problem is that the clear signs of pregnancy do not immediately follow the sexual act. Even menstruation does not necessarily appear to be directly linked to pregnancy: although women stop menstruating when they are pregnant, some women always have irregular periods, while teenage girls can get pregnant without ever having menstruated. The link between sex and generation is so unobvious that in the 20th-century the Trobriand Islanders in the Pacific Ocean were said to be very surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two. All around the world, folktales of conception taking place in the most astonishing ways, such as by eating fruit (mango, lemon, apple, orange, peach ..), accidentally swallowing crane dung, or, more politically, being touched by the rays of a dragon.

The late 17th century, however, was the period in Europe when most of this confusion was cleared up, at least in the so-called developed world, thanks mainly to the work of four gifteded individuals, Francesco Redi (1626-97), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Nicolas Steno (1638-86) and Reinier de Graaf (1641-1673). Much of this work took place in the Netherlands, a major progressive and scientific nation in this period, backed by massive profits from the spice and slave trades. Of course another power of the period was England, and one of the most important figures in researching ‘generation’, as the problem of sorting out the reproductive process was then called, was William Harvey, famous mostly for working out the role of the heart in circulating the blood. Harvey was a pioneering experimentalist, and his approach to the issues was essentially correct, and quite revolutionary, but he lacked the necessary to work out the detail of generation. In particular, he lacked a microscope. His late work, de generatione animalium (1651), though mostly a restatement of Aristotelian doctrine, was inspirational in that he emphasised, through experiment, the importance of the egg in generation, regardless of species. Without a microscope, however, this claim couldn’t be fully verified. Microscopes, or magnifiers of various kinds, had been used since antiquity, but their full development came only after the invention of the telescope. Galileo built his own compound microscope in the 1620s but they remained largely a novelty until later in the 17th century, with the founding of scientific societies and academies, and the sharing of scientific experiments and tools. 

The four above-mentioned intellectuals (the word scientist didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century) – one Italian and three Dutch – were friends, colleagues, and sometimes frenemies at a time when being first with scientific breakthroughs was even more important than during the covid19 era. There were no professional researchers of course, so you had to publish to get recognition and encourage patronage (and you often needed patronage to get published).

Francesco Redi, who combined a more rigorous experimentalism than was common at the time with the wit and urbanity that made him a mainstay at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, to whom he acted as physician among other things, carried out careful research on insects which proved that they weren’t generated spontaneously in rotting foodstuff or anything else. His interest in the subject was inspired by Steno who had come to Tuscany from his studies in Leiden, via Paris, with a reputation as an expert in dissection and cutting-edge experimentation. Steno was in turn influenced by the greater mathematical rigour of the intellectuals at Ferdinando’s court. The two worked together on fossils and geology as well as animal anatomy. Steno was interested in the difference between viviparous and oviparous reproduction – that’s to say, between creatures who produce live young and those who lay eggs – and stumbled on a new, decisive insight, that female ‘testicles’, at the time believed to be internalised versions of male testicles, were in fact ovaries, a housing for the female’s eggs. This was an insight from observation, rather than experiment, but it was of course correct, and revolutionary.

Steno, Swammerdam and de Graaf had all met in Leiden where they engaged in their first adult studies (Leiden University in the mid 17th century had more student enrolments than Cambridge and was one of the most progressive learning institutes in Europe), and Steno and Swammerdam, being in the same year, became firm friends and collaborators there. After their Leiden studies, all three went to to France, a common destination for young Dutch intellectuals. Swammerdam and Steno were attracted there by an extraordinary French polymath, Melchisédech Thévenot, who had visited Leiden during their studies there, and who was head of a private academy in Paris, which eventually morphed into the Académie Royale des Sciences. 

But I’m getting bogged down in fascinating detail. Read Cobb’s The egg & sperm race for the story of how these individuals, and others, sorted out the story of ovaries, testes, semen and the equal contribution of males and females to offspring production. It’s a story of collaboration, rivalry and the struggle for both knowledge and recognition that captures much of scientific activity, then and now. 

The point of all this is to recognise how difficult it was for even the most complex species on the planet to work out the relationship between the pleasures of sex and the rather more mixed experience of childbirth – deadly for many, including my own grandmother. 

And yet, bonobos do it for pleasure and relief, openly, and manage to avoid having endless pregnancies, unlike  Anne Stuart, queen of Great Britain (18 pregnancies, none surviving to adulthood) and Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, and many other regions (16 pregnancies, only 3 of whom died in infancy), not to mention a horde of less ’eminent’ catholic martyrs to the world’s peopling. Bonobos have between five and seven infants, on average, in a lifetime, which is certainly more than enough. I’m not sure of the survival rate of offspring, but it would probably be higher if not for human depradations. 

References

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race 

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

January 18, 2021 at 7:18 pm