an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘ultranationalism

a bonobo world 36: there is no bonobo nation

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nations, some say

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 and 300 thousand years, depending on various theories and interpretations. I always like to point out that the ‘first’ H sapiens had parents and grandparents, who wouldn’t have noticed any difference between junior and themselves, so when does a new species actually begin?

Leaving that thorny problem, I’ll turn to another – when did the first nation begin? My uneducated conjecture is that it was an evolving concept, post-dating the evolution of human language, and we have little idea about when that process was completed, at least to the point where we could conceptualise and communicate such ideas. Modern nations, with boundaries, checkpoints, passports and state paraphernalia, are of course ultra-new, with some fresh ones popping up in my lifetime, but I’ve heard Australian Aboriginal language groups described as nations, with the first of these H sapiens arriving here around 65,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Australia. Of course they wouldn’t have arrived here as nations, however defined, so when did they become such?  Bill Gammage, in The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, makes this point at the outset:

Hundreds of pages try to define Aboriginal social units (tribe, horde, clan, mob, language group, family, kin) without achieving clarity or consensus.

So is this a silly question? Surely not, since the term ‘First Nations’ has gained currency in recent decades. Rather bizarrely, the Wikipedia article on First Nations focuses solely on the early inhabitants of what is now Canada. This is presumably because these people are recognised as such by the Canadian government, at least for statistical reasons. In any case, these early people of North America, Australia and elsewhere mostly didn’t use writing, and their doubtless various self-references might be translated by us, at their bidding, as nations, but it’s clear that using such a term adds a certain gloss borrowed from modern lingo. Gammage does the same thing, perhaps justifiably, in referring to Aboriginal Australia as an estate, a term which I tend to associate with snotty landowners and gated communities. However, it also puts the focus on land, rather than people. 

We’ve come to associate nationhood with progress, civilisation and sophistication. No wonder the Kurds, the Basques and other cultural-linguistic groups are striving for it, and in particular for land on which to fix these qualities. The progression appears to go from group – as with chimps, bonobos and no doubt early hominids – to tribe, to settlement, to a collection of settlements or villages, to a centralised, sort of inward-facing region of shared culture, flourishing up to a civilisation of sorts. So it starts, for us, with our common ancestry with our primate cousins. 

We know that chimps and gorillas separate into groups that control particular territories, but if these groups are too small or avoid interaction with other groups, inbreeding will become a problem. This problem, which confronts all social species, can be solved by male or female dispersal – that’s to say, by breeding or ready-to-breed young adults flitting from their natal group to a neighbouring one. But moving to a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood might be as fraught, or more so, for non-human species as it is for us. According to an article published by the Royal Society in 2017, when there are limited opportunities for dispersal, many species appear to have a behavioural avoidance pattern to prevent inbreeding. For example, closely related elephants avoid mating altogether. In other species, they manage to mate without producing offspring, or produce healthy offspring even where the chances of inbreeding would seem to be high. 

We often make jokes about human inbreeding, especially with island populations (Tasmanians are sometimes targeted), but there are real issues with inward, ultra-nationalist thinking, which can lead to a kind of cultural inbreeding. This can even transcend nations, as with the touting of ‘Asian values’. Considering that millions of Asians have paired up with non-Asians, this might pose a problem for the offspring, if such notions were taken seriously.

Anyway, my own view of nations, for what it’s worth, is that that they’ve become a useful mechanism for divvying up land into states. Land has been an essential feature of human culture – this land is my land, this land is your land, this land is made for you and me. The obsession humans have with the myth of land ownership is something I’ve often found rather comical. I won’t go into the shenanigans around Antarctica, but I’ll relate a couple of illustrative anecdotes.

In my boisterous youth I accompanied a couple of housemates in visiting a nearby tennis court, which I’d previously noticed was surrounded by the usual high, open-wire fencing, but fronted by an unlocked gate. On the far side of the court were the vast sporting fields of St Peter’s College, one of the most exclusive private schools in the city, and beyond that, the imposing buildings of that august institution. I’d persuaded my housemates to take our racquets over for a fun hit out, though there was no net, and we only had two racquets between three. So we’d been at it for about 15 minutes when I spotted a figure marching towards us across the sward. As he closed in, I took note of the tweed jacket, the flapping flag of his woollen scarf, the swept-back, neatly combed blonde hair. I won’t try to mimic his accent or recall his exact words – distance lends a certain enchantment to the view – but there was no forgetting his sense of complete outrage. ‘Excuse me boys, but you must realise that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY!’ Those last two words are the only ones I’m certain of. 

I spent the next few weeks daydreaming of hoisting this gentleman by his own petard, but also reflecting on the quasi-religious power of landed property. It was exactly as if we’d abused, or worse, denied, someone’s god.  

Another incident was much more recent. An Aboriginal woman complained to me on the street that I – meaning we ‘whites’ – were on her land. I responded to her, perhaps in a frustrated tone, that land was land, it belonged to itself. This wasn’t particularly articulate, but she didn’t have any response. I suppose what I meant was that the Earth’s land, ever changing, shifting and subducting, had been around for billions of years, and for most of human existence we thought no more of land ownership than did the animals we hunted. How things have changed. 

Of course, nationalism is not going away any time soon, and I’m prepared to make my peace with it. States have their obvious uses, in binding a smaller proportion of the human population together via laws, economic co-operation and political policies. The Einsteinian dream of a world government is unworkable, and the United Nations still needs a lot of work, though it has been beneficial on balance, especially via its ancillary organisations. The problem of course is ultranationalism, in both its outward expansionist form, and its inward-facing exclusivity and xenophobia. Diversity, or variety, is obviously a good thing, whether in diet, industry, arts or genetics. My own modest experience in teaching students from scores of nations tells me that Homo sapiens, like Pan paniscus, are one people, with similar interests, in laughing, loving, wondering and striving for more. Our strivings and problems are much more global than national – a veritable internet of interests. I hope that this realisation is growing.  


Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, 2012.

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2021 at 7:57 pm