an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘warfare

democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. I haven’t looked into the details about how they make their decisions, but the criteria appear to be reasonable. The nations are divided broadly into four categories. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

on the history and future of human beans…

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… the oldest skull normally assigned to our species is almost 200,000 years old. It was found at Omo Valley in Ethiopia in the African rift valley. (In June 2017, human remains from Morocco were dated to 300,000 years ago, but their exact relationship to us remains uncertain).

David Christian, Origin Story p169

Canto: Dating the first Homo sapiens will always be difficult (I mean determining her provenance, not going out with her) because, like the first lion (Panthera Leo) or the first red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus) or whatever, she had parents, and great-grandparents, so when does any species actually begin? But apart from that taxonomic issue, the whole issue of dating, and classifying, hominins is obviously complicated by the dearth of fossil finds. In my reading and listening, the 200,000 year number usually crops up, in spite of the finding cited by Christian, which we’ve known about for some time. The Morocco site, specifically the archaeological site known as Jebel Irhoud, has yielded fossil remains since at least the early seventies, but a paper in Nature, published in 2017, relating to new finds at the site, controversially claimed a date of 315,000 years ago for skull, face and jaw bones of H sapiens…

Jacinta: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it seems to me that the claims about early hominins, and especially the first of our species, will always be hotly contested because of that lack of evidence. Both the place, Morocco, and that early date are outside the known parameters for the earliest H sapiens. 

Canto: But Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist of some repute, appears half-convinced, arguing that, with the new finds and better dating methods, ‘the Jebel Irhoud bones stand firmly on the H. sapiens lineage’. However, it’s not easy to find much discussion online about it since 2017. I did find a full copy of the June 2017 Nature article, referenced below, and the Smithsonian appears to be taking the older date as established. I quote from their website:

During a time of dramatic change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.

They don’t cite any evidence though. I mean, 100,000 years is quite a big gap. I presume there’s been a big search on in Morocco in recent years. The Smithsonian site also tells me most palaeontologists reckon H heidelbergensis is our direct ancestor, but the evidence is frustratingly scant.

Jacinta: Also, what does it mean to be human? I’ve often mentioned our hyper-social nature as something that sets humans apart, but were we hyper-social 300,000 years ago, or even 200,000 years ago? We’ve no idea, or not much idea, how we lived in that period – language, fire, tools, art, clothing, shelter… Did we congregate in large groups? How large, or small?

Canto: One site talks about ‘behavioural modernity’, dating from 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. That’s because there’s virtually no evidence – complex weaponry such as bows and spear-throwers, representational art, rough sculptures, bone flutes – of that kind of modern human stuff connected to earlier human remains. But the evidence from skulls suggests that our big brains were what they are now with the earliest versions of H sapiens. Skulls and genes tell us one thing, artefacts tell us another.

Jacinta: Yes, this Smithsonian site also suggests that human cultures, unlike other apes, ‘form long-term pair bonds between men and women to care for children’. They seem not to notice the rise of single-parent families in the modern era! Of course I’m hoping our WEIRD culture’s going the way of the bonobo – the women bonding together to raise the kids, with help from the odd metrosexual male. Is metrosexuality still a thing?

Canto: That’s so naughties…

Jacinta: But I really think that may be the next development – female power with men at last knowing their place as helpmeet. Lots of sex, fewer kids, and lots of collaborative scientific work to enable us to live better in a fragile biosphere, with a growing variety of other species.

Canto: Hmmm. Tell me more about the sex.

Jacinta: Haha well, what’s evolving is a drift away from religion as explanation, as we continue to pursue the history of our species, our planet, our galaxy, our universe, and considering those old religions were mostly born out of patriarchy and the male control of female sexuality, making a virtue of female virginity and prudery, sexuality will be released into the fresh air, so to speak. I mean, there will always be a power aspect to sex, no doubt, but with women on top, the empowerment will undergo an enormous, enlightening shift. I wish I could be there, in the vasty future, to witness it.

Canto: Dog knows we need more than a bit of female leadership right now, what with Putin, Xi Jinping, Orban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-un, Trump (still President apparently), Lukashenko, Bashar al-Ashad, Duterte, MBS, Raisi, some Burmese fucker, etc etc. We really need more ball-cutters.

Jacinta: Well, obviously, I agree. Back in little old Australia…

Canto: Quite young as a nation, but very old as a culture, odd that.

Jacinta: Not odd at all, actually. Yes, back here in a nation largely sheltered from the storm, we’re too small, population-wise, to be internationally despotic the way Putinland is currently being. But I’m happy that we’re joining the chorus of condemnation against Putinesque aggression. I’m just wondering if this is the future. This attack on Ukraine seems like a throwback, throwing us as far back as – well, Putin isn’t even an ‘enlightened despot’ in the tradition of Catherine II, or Elizabeth (Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762). He’s more like Peter the Macho Thug, whose reign certainly modernised Russia, but the women who followed him did a far better job of improving Russia’s internal state. It was of course a time of violence and warfare, and these women were always surrounded by macho advisers at a time when warfare was a way of life, but their record for internal improvement stands the test of time. Russia has never had a female ruler since Catherine the Great – and it shows.

Canto: Yes, I know it annoys you that these early female leaders are like anomalies – treated as honorary males, surrounded by male advisors and expected, in fact virtually forced, to continue the fashion of aggressive territorial expansion. But current female leaders are a different matter, and maybe the current macho thugocracies are a dying breed, trying to bring everything down with their last gasps.

Jacinta: Yes, pleasant fantasies indeed. But with the growth of global problems – global warming, air pollution, species loss, refugee crises (caused by those thugocracies, but also by climate change and the eternal tendency of animals to move from high-danger low-opportunity regions to regions of lower danger and higher opportunity) we need collaborative solutions, rather than macho weapons build-ups. Enough arguing, let’s collaborate, and if the men want to contribute, they’re welcome. If not, they need to be put in their place. We need to set our social evolution in that direction. The point isn’t to understand our human world, it’s to change it.

References 

David Christian, Origin story: a Big History of everything, 2018

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2017.22114

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317834148_New_fossils_from_Jebel_Irhoud_Morocco_and_the_pan-African_origin_of_Homo_sapiens

https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-sapiens

https://theconversation.com/when-did-we-become-fully-human-what-fossils-and-dna-tell-us-about-the-evolution-of-modern-intelligence-143717

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

17th century perspectives, 21st century slaughter

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Vlady the Thug – returning us all to the glories of centuries-old slaughter

Canto: So much is happening, so much is being learned, so much of my ignorance is being brought home to me, and so much of my good luck is also being brought home, in that I’ve never had to live in or be brought down by a thugocracy. Then again, if you’ve come to this ‘lucky country’ be means of a leaky boat, trying to escape a foreign thugocracy by any means possible, you’ll likely have a very different perspective.

Jacinta: Haha yes it’s Writer’s Week here in Adelaide, and we’ve been sampling, generally by sometimes dodgy internet links, the thoughts of former refugees writers, investigative journalists on even more dodgy pharmaceutical companies, and words of wisdom from our intellectual elders. And of course many of these conversations have been clouded by the invasion of Ukraine by Vlady the Thug, and the consequent carnage.

Canto: Yes, it seems he’s trying to channel Peter the Great, but he’s 300 years behind the times, and hasn’t been told that warlordism just doesn’t fit with 21st century fashion. But Vlady the Thug, that’s good, it would definitely be helpful if all world leaders, including and especially Zelensky, started  addressing him as such. Vlady is extremely small-minded, with a narrow understanding of nationalism and glory, and with a huge sense of his own grandeur. The WEIRD world may not be able to unite to destroy him, given the protection racket around him and the vast nuclear arsenal he and his predecessors have been allowed to assemble, but I think that worldwide mockery, difficult though it might seem at this awful time, might unhinge him just enough for a rethink, or alternatively, might be enough to turn his thug underlings against him.

Jacinta: True, but I don’t think Vlady the Thug is punchy enough…

Canto: It’s a good start, certainly a far cry from Peter the Great (who was a bit of a thug himself of course). And don’t forget, world leaders have never been too good at comedy, they’re generally too full of their Serious Destiny. I doubt if they would come at Vlady the Thug, never mind Vlad the Tame Impala or Mr Pudding.

Jacinta: True, but Zelensky is apparently a former comedian, and he’s absolutely Mister Popularity on the world stage at the moment. If he went with this mockery, and encouraged his new-found fans to follow his example, it might be the best, and certainly the cheapest form of attack available at present. Though it’s true that I can’t imagine Sco-Mo or Scummo, our PM, managing to deliver any comedy line with the requisite aplomb.

Canto: Well, it’s an interesting idea, if only we could get Zelensky’s minders to take it up. Unfortunately he seems to have caught the Man with a Serious Destiny disease recently – for which I don’t blame him at all. And anyway, I have to check the internet on a regular basis currently to see if he’s still alive.

Jacinta: Yes, I thought the imitation of Churchill in his address to the British Parliament was a bit cringeworthy, but I agree that it’s hardly a time to criticise Zelensky when Vlady the Thug is on the loose. Anyway, the WEIRD world is stuck in dealing with little Vlady. I listened to a long-form interview with Julia Ioffe on PBS today – she’s a Russian-born US journalist who has reported from that country for some years, and her depiction of Vlady was spot-on – that’s to say, it chimed exactly with mine. She feels that he will never withdraw or change his mind about Ukraine. He has stated often in communication with other leaders that Ukraine is not a ‘real country’.

Canto: Yes, unlike Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and all those African countries. Russia on the other hand is a real country thanks to the wars of Ivan , Peter, Catherine and the rest. Thanks to all the slaughter, rape and suppression of alternative languages and cultures. Just like Australia and the USA are real countries thanks to the removal of previous cultures from their land – with associated slaughter, rape, and ‘white man’s disease’.

Jacinta: Yes, few countries – or maybe there are no countries whose national ‘development’ hasn’t involved a fair amount of bloody repression. Ukrainians, as Ioffe pointed out, have made it abundantly clear in recent times that they reject Vlady’s thugocracy, and their resolve has hardened as a result of the 2014 events. But Ioffe’s view is also quite bleak – due to Vlady’s complete inability to back down, in her view. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that. And, according to her, his ‘inner circle’ has contracted considerably in recent times, and they’re all as crazy as himself, maybe even crazier. So this may mean the invasion will continue, until he becomes master of an almost uninhabited wasteland. Nobody wants to provoke him to take the nuclear option, which he’s quite capable of.

Canto: So the only real option would be to kill him. And he’s no doubt been guarding himself against that option for years.

Jacinta: It would most likely have to be an inside job. I’m sure there are negotiations under way, but Putin is very much a survivor. At the moment he’s cracking down on dissent like never before. But the world is seeing it, and this will ultimately be a victory for democracy. In the short term though, it’s a terrible tragedy.

Canto: If there is a silver lining, it’s the winning of the propaganda war, the worldwide condemnation will give the CCP thugocracy something to think about vis-a-vis Taiwan. At the moment they’re trying to blame NATO for the invasion, and of course they have blanket control over the media there, but people have ways of getting reliable information, for example from the massive Chinese diaspora.

Jacinta: So I’ve been listening to Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill and others, but of course no amount of analysis is going to improve the situation, and even our concern seems more debilitating than anything. I imagine holding Vlady prisoner and then pointing out some home truths…

Canto: Very useful. But here’s a few arguments. As you say, he’s been fond of claimng over the years that Ukraine isn’t a real country. But what makes Russia a real country? What make Australia a real country? What make the USA a real country?  Presumably Vlady thinks that Russia’s a real country because the slaughter, rape and suppression of ‘minority’ languages and cultures occurred earlier.

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know what he would say. What if we didn’t tell him why he’s wrong, but allowed him to explain why he’s right? What would he say?

Canto: Well, we know that he’s a very ardent nationalist, so to suggest to him that all nations are artificial in an important sense would just incense him. But once he calms down (and we’ve got him all tied up and hanging upside-down so he can’t escape, and we’ve promised him that if he provides really cogent arguments according to a panel of independent experts, he’ll be given his freedom, with his thugocracy completely returned to him), what will be his arguments?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t have his views on the legitimacy of Russia as a nation, and I suspect he would scoff at the very idea of having to justify Russian nationhood, because I’m sure he believes that if Russia didn’t exist his life would have no meaning – which is about as far from our understanding of our humanity as one could possibly get – but we do have his essay from last year about why Ukraine isn’t and can never be a legitimate nation.

Canto: Yes, he harps on about Ukrainians and Russians being ‘a single people’, who shouldn’t have a border between them, but the very idea of any nations being a ‘single people’ is a fantasy. It’s of course where the terms ‘unAustralian’ and ‘unAmerican’ get their supposed bite from – the fantasy of individuals being united by their ‘nationhood’.

Jacinta: More importantly, he seems completely unaware, or prefers to be unaware, of the extremely repressive state he’s created, and that few people in their right minds, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Icelandic, would want to live under a jackboot when they have the opportunity to choose and criticise their own government.

Canto: Yes, he talks in the vaguest, most soporific terms of Ukrainians and Russians occupying ‘the same historical and spiritual space’, and  being ‘a single people’, and with ‘affinities’ created by Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus over a thousand years ago. As if.

Jacinta: Yes, the fact is that Ukrainian pro-European and anti-Russian sentiment has obviously grown since Vlady’s bloody adventurism in 2014. Ukrainians are wanting to survive and thrive in the here and now. I mean, it’s good, sort of, that Vlady takes an interest in history, as we do, but from a vastly different perspective. His potted history, like many, is about rulers – earthly or spiritual, and territories won and lost between the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Russians and so on. But these battles for territories from centuries ago bear little relation to the lives and thoughts of individual people today, people whom Vlady is completely disconnected from, just as Xi Jinping  and his fellow thugs are completely disconnected from the everyday freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Canto: The point to make here is that no amount of tendentious historical description will conceal the fact that Ukrainians, like Hong-Kongers, see that their best future lies in the arms of the WEIRD world, with all its messiness. Here’s a banner epigram – fuck our history, what abut our future?

Jacinta: Good one. Yes, Vlady doesn’t like that not-so top-down messiness. He prefers stasis and control, especially by himself. And if it means wholesale slaughter to obtain it, so be it. Mind you, I strongly suspect he was misguided in his perception of Ukrainian sentiment, for whatever reason. And the people who are paying for this misguidedness, by and large, (and horrifically) are the Ukrainians.

References

Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions

 

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm

a bonobo world and other impossibilities 15

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returning to the ‘farm’ in 1919 – 10 million dead, 21 million more mutilated

stuff on aggression and warfare

Warfare has long been a feature of human culture; impossible to say how far back it goes. Of course war requires some unspecified minimum number of participants, otherwise it’s just a fight, and one thing we can be certain of is that there were wars worthy of the name before the first, disputed, war we know of, when the pharoah Menes conquered northern Egypt from the south over 5000 years ago. The city of Jericho, which lays claim to being the oldest, was surrounded by defensive walls some three metres thick, dating back more than 9000 years, and evidence of weapons of war, and of skeletal remains showing clear signs of violent death by such weapons, dates back to 12000 years ago. None of this should surprise us, but our knowledge of early Homo sapiens is minuscule. The earliest skeletal data so far found takes us back nearly 200,000 years to the region now covered by Ethiopia in east Africa. We know next to nothing of the lifestyle and culture of these early humans. There’s plenty of dispute and uncertainty about the evolution of language, for example, which is surely essential to the planning of organised warfare. The most accepted estimates lie in a range from 160,000 to 80,000 years ago, but if it can ever be proven that our cousins the Neanderthals had language, this could take its origins back another hundred thousand years or more. Neanderthals share with us the FOXP2 gene, which plays a role in control of facial muscles which we use in speech, but this gene is regulated differently in humans.

In any case, warfare requires not only language and planning but sufficient numbers to carry out the plan. So just how many humans were roving about the African continent some 100,000 years ago?

The evidence suggests that the numbers were gradually rising, such that the first migrations out of Africa took place around this time, as our ancestors sought out fresh resources and more benign environments. They could also be escaping human enemies, or seeking out undisputed territory. 

Of course there may have been as much collaboration as competition. We just don’t know. What I’m trying to get at is, were we always heading in the chimp direction of male dominance and aggression, or were there some bonobo traits that tempered this aggression? Of course, I’m not talking about influence – we haven’t been influenced, in our development, by these cousins of ours in any way. We only came to recognise them as cousins very recently. And with this recognition, it might be worth learning more from family.  

Human warfare has largely been about the expansion or defense of territory, and it was a constant in Europe from the days of the Roman Empire until well into the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, armaments became far more deadly, and the 1914-18 war changed, hopefully for good, our attitude to this activity, which had previously been seen as a lifetime career and a proof of manliness. This was the first war captured by photography and newsreels, and covered to a substantial degree by journalism. If the Thirty Years’ War had been covered by photojournalists and national newspapers it’s unlikely the 1914-18 disaster would have occurred, but the past is another country. Territory has become more fixed, and warfare more costly in recent times. Global trade has become fashionable, and international, transnational and intergovernmental organisations are monitoring climate change, human rights, health threats and global economic development. Violent crime has been greatly reduced in wealthy countries, and is noticeably much greater in the poorer sectors of those countries. Government definitely pays a role in providing a safety net for the disadvantaged, and in encouraging a sense of possibility through education and effective healthcare. It’s noteworthy that the least crime-ridden countries, such as Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal and Denmark, have relatively small populations, rate highly in terms of health, work-life balance and education, and have experienced long periods of stable government. 

Of course the worry about the future of warfare is its impersonality. This has already begun of course, and the horrific double-whammy of Horishima-Nagasaki was one of the first past steps towards  that future. Japan’s military and ruling class had been on a fantastical master-race slaughter spree for some five decades before the bombs were dropped, but even so the stories of suffering and dying schoolchildren and other innocents in the aftermath of that attack make us all feel ashamed. And then what about Dresden? And Auschwitz? And Nanjing? And it continues, and is most egregious when one party, the perpetrator, has far more power than the other, the victim. Operation Menu, a massive carpet bombing campaign of eastern Cambodia conducted by the US Strategic Air Command in 1969 and 1970, was an escalation of activities first begun during the Johnson administration in 1965, in the hope of winning or at least gaining ground in the Vietnam war. There were all sorts of strategic reasons given for this strategy, of course, but little consideration was given to the villagers and farmers and their families, who just happened to be in the way. Much more recently the Obama administration developed a ‘kill list’, under the name Disposition Matrix, which has since been described as ‘potentially indefinite’ in terms of its ongoing targets. This involved the use of drone strikes, effectively eliminating the possibility of US casualties. Unsurprisingly, details of these strikes have been hard to uncover, but Wikipedia, as always, helps us get to the truth:

… Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council, stated that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law. The Intercept reported, “Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” 

Cambodians, Afghans, distant peoples, not like us. And of course it’s important to keep America safe. And the world too. That’s why the USA must never become a party to the International Criminal Court. The country is always prepared to justify its violent actions, to itself. And it’s a nation that knows a thing or two about violence. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the USA is ranked 121st among the most peaceful countries in the world. 

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_strike#United_States_drone_strikes

https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/non-economic-data/most-peaceful-countries

Written by stewart henderson

December 3, 2020 at 12:18 am

Posted in Japan, USA, Vietnam, violence, war

Tagged with , ,

a bonobo world? 11

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another bitter-sweet reflection on capacities and failures

I was in a half-asleep state, and I don’t know how to describe it neurologically, but subjectively I was hearing or being subjected to a din in my head, a kind of babble, like in an echoing school canteen. Then I heard a knocking sound above the din, then in a transforming whoosh all the din stopped in my head, it became silent apart from the knocking, and then, as a kind of wakening crystallisation clarified things, another sound, of trickling water. I quickly realised this was the sound from the shower above me, and the knocking was of the pipes being affected by the rush of hot water. But what really interested me was what had just happened in my brain. The din, of thought, or inchoate thought, or of confusedly buzzing neural connections, was dampened down instantly when this new sound forced itself into my – consciousness? – at least into a place or a mini-network which commanded attention. It, the din, disappeared as if a door had been slammed on it. 

I can’t describe what happened in my brain better than this, though I’m sure that this concentration of focus, or activity, in one area of my brain, and the concomitant dropping of all other foci or activity, to facilitate that concentration, was something essential to human, and of course other animal, neurology. Something observed but not controlled by ‘me’. Something evolved. I like the way this is shared by mice and men, women and wombats. 

But of course there are big differences too. I’ve described the experience, whatever it is, in such a way that a neurologist, on reading or listening to me, would be able to explain my experience more fully, or, less likely, be inspired to examine it or experiment with its no-doubt miriad causal pathways. I suppose this experience, though more or less everyday and unthreatening, is associated with flight-or-fight. The oddity of the sound, its difference from the background din, or perhaps rather my awareness of its oddity, caused a kind of brain-flip, as all its forces, or most of them, became devoted to identifying it. Which caused me to awaken, to marshall a fuller consciousness. How essential this is, in a world of predators and home intruders, and how much fun it is, and how useful it is, to try for a fuller knowledge of what’s going on. And so we go, adding to our understanding, developing tools for further investigation, finding those tools might just have other uses in expanding other areas of our knowledge, and the world of our ape cousins is left further and further behind. For me, this is a matter of pride, and a worry. I’m torn. The fact that I think the way I do has to do with my reading and my reflections, the habits of a lifetime. Some have nerdiness, if that’s what it is, thrust upon them. I’m fascinated by the human adventure, in its beginnings and its future. Its beginnings are connected to other apes, to old world and new world monkeys, to tarsiers, to tree shrews and rodents and so on, all the way back to archaea and perhaps other forms yet to be discovered. We need to fully recognise this connectivity. Its future, what with our increasing dominance over other species and the earthly landscape, our obsession with growth, our throwaway mindset, but also our ingenious solutions, our capacity for compassion and for global cooperation, that future is and always will be a mystery, just outside of our manipulating grasp, with every new solution creating more problems requiring more solutions. 

A few hundred years ago, indeed right up to the so-called Great War of 1914, human warfare was a much-celebrated way of life. And we still suffer a kind of hero-worship of military adventurism, and tell lies about it. In the USA, many times over the most powerful military nation on earth, the media are always extolling the sacrifice of those who fought to ‘keep America safe’. This is a hackneyed platitude, considering that, notwithstanding the highly anomalous September 11 2001 attack, the country has never had to defend its borders in any war. Military casualties are almost certain to occur in a foreign country, where the USA is seeking to preserve or promote its own interest, generally against the interests of that country. In this respect, the USA, it should be said, is no better or worse than any other powerful country throughout history. The myth of military might entailing moral superiority, which began with the dawn of civilisations, dies hard, as ‘American exceptionalism’ shows. 

But globalism, international trade, travel, communication and co-operation, is making for a safer and less combative human society than ever before. So, as militarism as a way of life recedes, we need to focus on the problems of globalism and economic growth. As many have pointed out, the pursuit of growth and richesse is producing many victims, many ‘left-behind’. It’s dividing families and creating a culture of envy, resentment and often unmitigated hatred of the supposedly threatening ‘other’. The world of the bonobo – that tiny community of a few tens of thousands – tinier than any human nation – a gentle, fun-loving, struggling, sharing world – seems as distant to us as the world of the International Space Station, way out there. And yet…

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2020 at 12:10 pm

women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am