an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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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

21 – dolphins, bonobos, sex and pleasure

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bonobos at Jacksonville zoo

I enjoyed a little boat trip off the north-east coast of Kangaroo Island recently. The owner, our guide, bounced us up and down the shoreline east of Christmas Cove to view caves in the limestone cliffs, seabirds such as wedge-tailed eagles on the cliff-tops, and above all to search for a pod of dolphins known to be using the area as a daytime resting-place.

After a few bouts of bouncing eastward and westward we were becoming skeptical, though by no means annoyed. A year before, the island, Australia’s third largest after Tasmania and Melville Island, had been ravaged by bushfires, devastating vegetation and wildlife, and seriously damaging the island’s fragile economy, not to say ecology, and we were happy to make our tiny contribution without great expectations of sighting fabulous beasties. 

So we were delighted, on heading eastward again, to spot a few fins bobbing and dipping in the water ahead. Slowing toward them, we were told there were about 25 dolphins in this pod (the term was first used by whalers in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown). I soon gave up trying to count them as identical-looking fins appeared and disappeared and vaguely discerned bodies twisted and turned just below the surface. They seemed to form pairs now and then, breaking the surface sleekly and synchronously in elegant arcs. Dolphins, I learned, spend their days lolling about near the shore in these pods after a night of hunting out at sea. They seemed aware but unconcerned about our presence, and at one time the whole group disappeared then reappeared on the other side of our boat, bobbing and slow-twirling as before. 

I was struck by a remark by our guide that dolphins are one of the few mammals that mate for fun or pleasure. Of course I made an immediate connection with bonobos, but then I wondered, what does the verb, to mate, exactly mean? We humans never describe ourselves as mating, that’s for the birds, etc. We fuck, screw, bonk, shag, hump and bone, we more coyly sleep together, and more romantically make love (not allowed for other species), but we’re way above mating.

‘Mating’ brings up two internet definitions, the action of animals coming together to breed, and copulation. So dolphins, and bonobos and humans, often come together to breed – but actually not to breed. As for copulation, that’s rarely used for humans, just as fornication is rarely used for non-humans. The latter is, of course, a term of mostly religious disapproval, and non-humans are too lowly to be worthy of moral judgment. 

Of course we do apply mating to humans with a pinch of irony, as in the mating game, and this blurs the line between humans and others, but not enough for me. The point is that dolphins and bonobos use sex, which may not be the full rumpy-pumpy (dolphins don’t even have rumps to speak of), to bond with each other, to ease tension, to have fun, as our guide said. But then, don’t all species have sex purely for pleasure, or at least because driven to do so, by sensation? Do cats, dogs, birds and flies have sex with the intention of reproducing? I don’t think so. 

Human sex is pleasurable, so I’ve heard, and I expect bonobo sex is too. Fly sex probably not, or so I thought, but I’m probably wrong. Researchers have found that male fruit flies enjoy ejaculating, and tend to consume alcohol when denied sex. I know exactly how they feel. Anyway, fruit flies have long been favourites for biological research, and more recently they’ve found that ‘a protein present in the ejaculate of male fruit flies activates long-term memory formation in the brains of their female partners’. It rather makes me wonder what effect this kind of research has on the researchers themselves, but I’m sure it’s all for the best. 

One thing is certain, cats and dogs, and I’ve had a few, feel pleasure. Cats are appallingly sensual, and I’ve probably had more sexual advances from dogs than from humans, though whether they involved pleasure I can’t be sure. Generally our understanding of non-human sex has expanded in recent decades, as our sense of our specialness in everything has receded. It’s also true that we’ve tended to look at other species with a scientific instrumentalism, that’s to say from the viewpoint of evolution, breeding, genetics and other forms of categorisation, rather from an emotional or sensory viewpoint.

When I was very young I read a book by Ernest Thompson Seton called The biography of a grizzly. This story of Wahb, a male grizzly whose family was wiped out by hunters, and who survived to become the most powerful bear in the region, before inevitable decline and death, had an unforgettable emotional impact. I’m glad I read it though, as, sentimentalised though it might’ve been, it inoculated me against the scientific tendency, now changing, to see any animal as an it, rather than he or she or dad or mum or brother or sister. So this idea of putting oneself in the paws of a grizzly or the feet of a bonobo has long been perfectly legitimate to me. 

In 2014 Jason Goldman wrote an article entitled Do animals have sex for pleasure?, in which he cited many instances of other species – bonobos of course heading the list – engaging in oral and penetrative sex ‘out of season’, when pregnancy is precluded. They include capuchin monkeys, macaques, spotted hyenas, bears, lions and fruit bats. It stands to reason that the physiological, whole-of body pleasure we derive from sex is shared by other species, and is indulged by them, and this includes what we call homosex, and masturbation. Australia’s premier science magazine, Cosmos, claimed a few years ago that some 6000 species (or was it 600?) have been observed engaging in homosexual activity, which does sound funny when talking about what we would habitually call lower life forms. 

All of these findings have had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of loosening our uptight attitudes toward sex, as well as upending our notions of human specialness. But the behaviour of bonobos, who at times look strikingly like us, is more immediately impactful than anything fruit flies or fruit bats might do. Just the other day I watched a video of bonobos in Jacksonville zoo, Florida. Two of them were lying on the ground close together, and kissing each other, on the lips, again and again. Were they male? female? one of each? Who knows, it was so beautiful to watch.  

References

Ernest Thompson Seton, The biography of a grizzly, 1900. 

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/male-fruit-flies-take-pleasure-in-having-sex-30867

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/sex-promotes-lasting-memories-in-female-flies-66763

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3324566/

 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

a bonobo world? 10 – the clothed ape

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Michel de Montaigne, aka Monty, endlessly honest, curious, humane and inspiring – to whom I dedicate my work, such as it is

I’ve observed that some humans don’t like being reminded that they are apes. They become scornful and dismissive, even while admitting that this might be so. I presume they consider it irrelevant. We’ve fallen far from the monkey puzzle tree after all. 

Of course we’ve built universities and particle accelerators and space stations, and ribbonworks of roads and rails connecting city to blazing city, but on sports fields we inflate ourselves and bump chests and chew cud and suck on straws and huddle together like a few other primates I know. So I often like to undress people, so to speak, in pubs and restaurants and classrooms and city streets, picturing them naked and never-shaven, with wobbly and dangly bits, flabby or skeletal, greying or balding, or pre-pubescently hairless, exposed, vulnerable, yet still humanly savvy. 

Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay, On the custom of wearing clothes, which I was keen to read in my twenties, both as a fanboy of Monty and as someone who’d long wondered about this custom myself. As children we come at some stage to the liberating realisation that we can question everything in the great sanctuary of our heads, where nobody else can trespass. At least, this happened to me. So I enjoyed this question – why do we wear clothes? And of course, I rehearsed the typical adult answer. We wear them for warmth, comfort and protection. But on a warm day, on the front lawn where we always run barefoot anyway? Or indoors, where there were no thistles, three corner jacks or rusty nails? And I knew that these were mostly bogus reasons, that there was a tabu about exposing ourselves – ‘Quick, we’re having visitors, go to your room and make yourself decent’. To be naked, or even half-naked, was indecent. Why? Of course as I grew older I realised it had much, perhaps everything, to do with sex. Sex was naughty, diabolically naughty, I knew that even before I knew what it was. It certainly involved the private parts, for decency was all about hiding those parts. Wearing a swimsuit was fine, at the beach and other appropriate places, and girls could wear bikinis, even though they actually accentuated the parts that we weren’t supposed to think about, but revealing or displaying those parts in public was verboten as verboten could be. 

And so I learned that sex was private, and perhaps rare.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people walked around naked in public, and had sex in public too? Presumably, that would be the end of civilisation. We would become like animals. But then, we are animals.

I really felt that I’d hit upon something profound, if perhaps a bit too obvious to be really profound. Could it be that the whole of civilisation depended on us wearing clothes, or at least covering up our supposedly naughty bits? And yet it was about more than just the naughty bits. Teachers didn’t teach us in their underwear after all. But could it be that adults wore full, formal outfits to teach classes or to work in offices or department stores, to disguise the fact that they were really just hiding their naughty bits? I mean, were those bits really so dangerously naughty? Bonobos seem not to think so.

Montaigne’s clothes essay, though as fascinating as any other of his other essays, is more titillating in its title than its contents (I’m easily titillated), which are mostly about weather conditions, class, and the best kits for warfare. A lot of modern essays on the topic, however, fare no better in addressing the clothing-and-sex issue. Of course it’s true that clothing would’ve been protective against bugs as well as animal bites – attacking and scavenging animals tend to go for the dangly bits – and that over time clothing would have had important decorative purposes, associated with in-group hierarchy as well as raising humans in their own eyes above their ape and animal nature. We’ve been doing this for at least 100,000 years. 

So human clothing has become habitual and near-universal over time. It’s embarrassing to be different, not only in going naked – which is also illegal, and the term indecent exposure is more revealing than anything that’s exposed – but in wearing the wrong outfit. Clothing has become extremely complex in that regard. I’ve lived long enough to observe my slight elders from the early seventies, with fabulous flowing locks and dazzlingly vibrant embroidered shirts, scarves and flares, gradually transforming into besuited computer techies and company directors, with children kitted out in Edwardian beards and long-suits, which somehow lack the sparkle of sexual spontaneity. 

And yet, we did undergo a sexual revolution, allegedly, which coincided with second-wave feminism, if I’m not mistaken. Widely available contraception helped, presumably, to allow women as much or little philandering as males. All-female sex parties have become fashionable, as have orgy-style sex parties with male strippers and female perps, victims and happy-clapping onlookers. But these are very much niche scenes, somewhat ritualised and behind closed doors, nothing like the bonobo world of spontaneous, open, all-community based sexual healing that is but one characteristic of a caring and sharing environment. The closest I’ve seen to this bonobo world is observing young women out on the town in supportive gangs, arms linked, laughing and chatting, rosy and cuddling. Males form their own groups, loving or at least appreciating each other in their own noli me tangere way. Not quite so inspiring. 

The problem of returning to our naked original state is, of course, the problem of returning the omelette back to the state of the uncracked egg. It ain’t gonna happen, and it’s arguable that this is a good thing. But that won’t stop me dreaming about a bonobo world, unclothed or otherwise, and finding and encouraging instances of bonobo behaviour among humans anywhere. And also trying to identify and critique trends that militate (good word) against the bonobo lifestyle, such as extreme libertariansm, macho-thug political leaders, zero-sum nationalism and divisive religious zealotry. Altogether, with of course many notable exceptions, there are encouraging signs. We are family, after all.   

References

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/210885

https://www.popsugar.com.au/love/What-Like-All-Female-Sex-Party-43589464

http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/custom_of_wearing_clothes/

Written by stewart henderson

November 12, 2020 at 4:51 pm

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 1

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bonobo togetherness – who are the girls and who are the boys?

 

I’ve decided to focus on this very broad topic, and to write a book. Here’s my first (and in parts my second) draught

Introduction – a slow-burning inspiration.

In these few introductory pages, I’ll be writing a little about myself, after which I’ll (try to) leave me behind. At least as a topic. Of course, I’m on every page, as is Max Tegmark in Our Mathematical Universe, or David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, or Johann Noah Harari in Homo Deus, or any writer of any other book of ideas, but in this opening I want to admit the lifelong passion I have for the set of ideas, or really feelings, I wish to explore here. They’re vital feelings, and big ideas, though they may come out as inchoate, or incoherent, in the telling. I probably feel most passionate about them because they seem so knocked about and pushed aside by the world I find myself in – though that world is always in flux and there are moments of inspiration.

 

It was in the mid 1980s that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I would have been in my late twenties, just beginning an arts degree as a ‘mature-age student’ at Adelaide University. I was living in a chaotic share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. Due to difficult family circumstances I’d left school at fifteen, and I’d fantasised for a while about being a complete auto-didact, the smartest fellow without a tertiary degree on the planet, or at least on the street, but I was frankly embarrassed at my poverty and my string of unpleasant and failed jobs in factories, offices, restaurants, and briefly, a hospital. My great solace, my way of maintaining pride in myself, was writing. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the books I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, reflections on the women I came into contact with – admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 13 years or so before I could buy my first computer.

 

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all despised or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

 

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy in these matters. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic airways condition – bronchiectasis – that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterest. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you perfectly,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

 

In fact I was obsessed to what I considered an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to pre-adolescence, when I imagined doing it, whatever it might be, with every attractive girl, and boy, within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly with my classmates, looking up and down the class line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

 

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and yes I did have one or two) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way. And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, and  a great motivator. But what if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

 

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the lifestyle and virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

 

So the following is an exploration of a world that seems worthy of study both for itself and for ourselves. We’re now the overwelmingly dominant species on the planet, and this is having strange contrasting effects, of hubris and despair. It’s also the case that we’re not one thing – our species is composed of cultures that seem to have little connection with each other, and multiculturalism is seen as having enriching as well as disastrous consequences. In such complex and dynamic circumstances, what do bonobos really have to teach us? The following is an attempt to answer that question in the most positive light.

Written by stewart henderson

October 19, 2020 at 11:52 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility: part 1

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To say that culture is an important part of our lives doesn’t do the word justice. Culture is not a part of our life. We are a part of it.

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh.

bonobos refusing to physically distance at San Diego zoo – what are they planning?

I plan to turn the following into a book.

I think it was 1984, some 36 years ago now, that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I was living in just another share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. I wasn’t a student myself, in the formal sense. I was a sometime kitchen-hand with a patchy history of work in factories, offices, restaurants, and, briefly, a hospital. My favourite activity, my daily need in fact, was to write. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the things I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, elusive, admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable women. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 15 years or so before I bought my first computer.

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all hated or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy vis-a-vis the opposite sex. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic chest or airways condition that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, and which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterestedness. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you down to the ground,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

In fact I was obsessed to what I felt was an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to childhood, or adolescence, when I imagined doing it with every attractive girl within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly in a line with my classmates, looking up and down the line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and I had few) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way! And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, but then – a change is as good as a haircut. What if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

Since then, my thoughts, my reading and my writings have taken a more scientific and historical turn, perhaps as something of an escape from the tribulations and disappointments of the self, and the bonobo world has always been a touchstone. Of course I don’t want to be a bonobo, anymore than the researcher-reporter on the Science Show really would’ve happily exchanged his amazing human brain for that of a rather less intelligent mammal eking out a threatened existence on the banks of the Congo River, but I have no doubt that we can learn from this remarkable species, and that it would be to our great benefit to do so.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2020 at 12:07 pm