Leonard Shlain has done it again: in a probing and wide-ranging study, Sex, Time and Power (2003) — which probes even deeper into the origins of patriarchy than his earlier The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (1998) — he sets out to answer the question he had posed to a medical doctor (instructor) during his medical training, namely, why there was such a disparity between men’s and women’s red-blood-cell counts.
The answer he received — “Women bleed and men don’t” — made him look silly in front of the other medical students but never satisfied him, especially when, soon afterwards, working in a pre-natal clinic serving poor people, he discovered that most of these late-term women were anaemic and lacked the requisite amounts of iron in their blood for the healthy development of the babies they were carrying.
As any good scientist would, he immediately connected his earlier question about women’s lower red-blood-cell count and the obvious fact that they, more than men, need the iron-rich red blood cells to be able to bring healthy babies into the world. It seemed to him that, somehow, when it came to the best interests of women, Mother Nature had miscalculated! This is just the kind of apparent anomaly that sets in motion sustained scientific investigation.
Eventually, Shlain’s thorough knowledge of evolutionary theory, anthro-archaeology, paleontology and its supporting fossil evidence enabled him to offer an answer to this puzzle, an answer more than 400 pages long. It is impossible to do justice to it here — you’ll have to read the book yourself. Hence, all I can do is to provide a kind of severely truncated synopsis of his argument, where I attempt to draw its main contours.
Our species — Homo and Gyna sapiens — as distinct from Homo and Gyna erectus, Australopithecus and so on (which are among our hominid ancestors) is approximately 150 000 years old. Among those things that distinguish us from other genera and species — such as the relative size of the human brain, and the fact that we have an abstract linguistic system (and not merely a set of signals, by means of which many insects, birds and animals communicate; although there are indications that dolphins and whales exceed most other animals in terms of the sophistication of their means of communication) — is the remarkable occurrence, in human females or women, of menses.
The females of other mammals go into oestrus (that is, they go “on heat”, as the saying goes), and during this time they mate frenetically with the more-than-willing males of their species, which respond to the females’ clearly perceivable, displayed need for sex. Sex is therefore unproblematic, at least in the sense that during oestrus (which comes, appropriately, from the Greek word for “itch”) both sexes want it — badly.
By contrast, Shlain points out, in humans it is different. Because women menstruate, instead of being subject to the powerful hormonal reproduction-serving sway of oestrus, it means that, in principle, they could have sex with men at any time. The flipside, however, is that they can also say no to sex, something that often leads to conflict between men and women because, as Shlain argues, since the time when human females exchanged oestrus for menses because of a genetic mutation, men correspondingly changed from beings that needed the trigger of oestrus to beings that could, and wanted to, have sex more or less all the time, with any woman.
If this sounds uncivilised, remember that he is talking about early humans here — 150 millennia ago — and he fills in the gap between then and now in a most entertaining and persuasive way. In a nutshell, the answer to the question of women “bleeding” lies in this: Mother Nature — or “natural selection”, in evolutionary terms — had to find a solution to the fact that, when the human brain (and therefore babies’ heads) had reached a certain size (for various reasons, including brain-enhancing oxygen from a diet that included iron and protein-rich food), the species faced possible extinction because of the high mortality rate among mothers during childbirth. Recall that, at this stage, women did not have a choice about having sex — oestrus was an irresistible hormonal mechanism. They could not say no, and therefore had infant after infant until many of them perished in the process because of the growing size of the babies’ heads.
The answer to the threat of extinction came in the genetic mutation (initially in one woman, who passed this on to her offspring) that replaced oestrus with menses, and which gave the human woman the ability to restrict the frequency of her sexual intercourse with human males. As Shlain puts it: nature gave her “veto power” in the matter of sex. Less sex meant fewer infants, and a better chance of women’s survival.
Needless to say, this evolutionary “solution” brought problems of its own, most notably the loss of iron through bleeding. In addition, because of the genetic mutation (on the part of human males) that enabled them to surpass their erstwhile dependence on the stimulus of oestrus — something which corresponded to women’s newly minted “free will” concerning sex — men faced a problem: How to secure a stable source of sex? Because women became aware of the link between healthy babies and the availability of red meat, they relied on the male hunter in their “hunter-gatherer cooperative” to bring home the bacon, as it were, and in exchange for the gift of meat she gave the man of her choice what he wanted, namely sex.
It was, in short, the “meat-for-sex” agreement that is at the basis, Shlain argues, of the long-standing relationship or “contract” between men and women, and which could mean a win/win situation for both, provided the man (who could, in principle have sex with any woman) developed a sense of loyalty, and eventually the novel feeling of love, towards the woman in question and their offspring. Some formidable obstacles still had to be surmounted, however, and they remain to this day in the relations between the sexes.
This is where time comes into the picture. As humans, Shlain argues, we owe our sense of time to women, who put two and two together concerning the cycle of their menses and the lunar cycle. After all, what is time? Fundamentally, the ability to connect what has been (but is no longer), what is (the now) and what is not yet (the future). In other words, women’s ability to anticipate their next menstruation according to the cycle of the moon gave them foresight — something that eventually became part of the human genome, which meant that they passed it on to human males as well. This, in turn, stood the men in good stead during the hunt, for the obvious reason that hunters armed with foresight could outwit potential prey with far more facility than without it.
The evolutionary acquisition of a sense of time (and foresight) also meant the painful awareness, to which non-time-aware species are not privy, that some time in the future everyone has to face death. This, Shlain argues (with plenty of evidence to back it up), gave rise to all kinds of (totemic, religious) rituals and ceremonies to “soften the blow”, as it were. When the penny eventually dropped, on the part of men, that they actually had a share in making babies (remember that for a very long time women, who were revered for fertility reasons, were regarded as being the sole source of children), and that resemblance between parents and infants is one indication of this, they sought some reassurance of “immortality” in their children’s names, memory and commemoration of them. To this end — and here lies a powerful source of misogyny and patriarchy, according to Shlain — men eventually set up ritualistic, conventional means (still very much in evidence today) for controlling the sexual and reproductive activities of women.
In other words, Shlain hypothesises, patriarchy has its distant origin in the attempt, on the part of men, to assure the sexual fidelity of their women, in the process ensuring that the children they bear are his, and his alone. Patriarchy, in short, was born as a defence against time, and the fear of death that our awareness of it inspires. Ironically, in the process women, who were the initial evolutionary bearers of what is arguably one of the most far-reaching capacities in humans, namely our sense of time, were (and have been ever since) the ones to bear the brunt of institutionalised attempts to control the consequences of the changes in their sexuality at social, economic and political level.
As Shlain admits, because of the fact that he is offering a novel interpretation of existing anthro-archaeological evidence (and I can assure you, in light of the massive documentation backing up his work, he is a very erudite, if modest, scientist), a large portion of the history (or is it “herstory”?) of Gyna and Homo sapiens reconstructed in his book is hypothetical or speculative. Its explanatory power (and this is the test of any “good” scientific hypothesis) is undeniable, though, and it bathes what we know about our human past in an exciting new light.
Shlain wrote this book because of critics of his earlier book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, arguing that, its explanatory power regarding the demonstrable origin of patriarchy in alphabet literacy notwithstanding, the fact that some pre-literate cultures were also patriarchal points to a more distant, deeper source of patriarchy and misogyny. He may just have found it.
For a discussion of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, see my piece, “Images, language, women and patriarchy“, posted on Thought Leader on March 11 2008, and republished in the e-newsletter of Solidarity, Sustainability and Non-Violence, Ed Luis T Guttierez, vol 4, No 5, May 2008