Sexist Science in the New York Times

Sigh.  Nicholas Wade shows great promise.   At least he knows better than to refer to human beings as “man,” unlike many other New York Times science writers.  In a recent article, Wade shares recent discoveries about ancient human development that contradicts the common androcentric myth that has dominated scholarly discussions since Darwin.  Although these discoveries corroborate feminist arguments that ancient hunter-gatherers lived in egalitarian societies, Wade reiterates many of the sexist assumptions that have distorted our understanding of our species’ history.

Paleoanthropologists often assume that our early human ancestors lived very much as modern chimpanzees do now, in a male-dominated social hierarchies.   Recent research, which Wade eagerly shares, suggests that ancient humans coöperated with one another far more than chimps were ever able to do, and that this coöperation stemmed from human’s unique ability to recognize blood relatives in other tribes.   Chimpanzee males tend to stay in the group to which they were born, while chimpanzee females disperse to other groups.  Because chimpanzees don’t recognize their sisters and other female relatives in neighboring groups, they frequently fight with one another, often to the death.

Wade has been reading the work of Bernard Chapais, a primatologist at the University of Montreal who argues that because early human hominids could recognized their kin in neighboring groups, they tended to coöperate with one another instead of fighting.  This coöperation allowed them to learn from one another and to build complex knowledge, which, in turn, led to cultural and technological advancements.

The problem with Chapais’s theory, at least as Nicholas Wade recounts it here, is that he hasn’t been able to give up the chimps-as-model theory entirely.  He argues that “the two species’s social structure could scarcely be more different” and yet maintains that ancient hominids were male-dominated, as modern chimps are.  According to Wade, Chapais believes that the first human tool that made a difference was a weapon, and that only men had them.  This makes absolutely no sense at all, and in fact presupposes that hunter-gathering females stood around stupidly while men invented and used tools, when it is far more likely that human males and females together discovered tools in order to trap, dig, cut, and, kill.

Chapais’s narrative, as related by Wade, distorts our early ancestors’ history in order to reinforce the ideology of contemporary patriarchy.  Patriarchy is an androcentric and male-privileging social structure that developed slowly over about 3000 years, sometime after the advent of agriculture (roughly 10,000 years B.C.E.).   According to this distorted narrative (and I don’t know whether the distortion comes from Chapais or Wade or both),

It was a tool, in the form of a weapon, that made human society possible, in Dr. Chapais’s view. Among chimps, alpha  males are physically dominant and can overpower any rival.  But weapons are great equalizers.  As soon as all males were armed, the cost of monopolizing a large number of females became a lot higher.  In the incipient hominid society, females became allocated to males more equally. General polygyny became the rule, then general monogamy.

This trend led to the emergence of a critical change in sexual behavior: the replacement of the apes’ orgiastic promiscuity with pair bond between male and female.  With only one mate, for the most part, a male had an incentive to guard her from other males to protect his paternity.

Do you spot the problems here?  Chapais-Wade assumes that weapons were distributed among men who used them to “monopolize great numbers of females,” whom they “allocated to males,” without ever asking why ancient human females would have allowed themselves to be monopolized or allocated, or how ancient males might have gone about this?  The silly argument further assumes that in ancient human society, just like contemporary chimpanzee society, only women leave the group.  This assumption directly contradicts the research of Kim Hill, a social anthropologist whom Wade quotes.  Hill and a number of other anthropologists have also argued that a better model than modern chimps for ancient human society is modern hunter-gatherer society, in which both males and females leave their birth-groups.

Hill posits that ancient humans developed knowledge and culture because they were able to recognize and coöperate with their relatives, male and female, in other tribes.   Yet Wade assumes that only women left, and that they had no choice in the matter:

The bands who exchanged women with each other learned to coöperate, forming a group or tribe that would protect its territory from other tribes.

In other words, the way Wade tells the story, human women started out as the property of men in patriarchal social structures.  Cooperation took place between men, the subjects, who traded women, their objects, between them.  Far back in our history, ancient human men discovered how to dominate and own women.  Feminist scholars postulate that the domination of women took place over a very long period of time, and that the subordination of women had something to do with the manipulation of women’s reproductive capacity.   But there is no evidence for, and no good reason to believe in, the relatively modern myth that men have always dominated women.

Since modern and recent hunter-gatherer societies tend to be far more egalitarian than agricultural peoples, and much more so than modern chimpanzee society, it makes much more sense to assume that ancient human cooperative networks took place between clans in which many different social patterns developed, based on the personality and abilities of various individuals, male and female.  Women may have been the prime leaders and movers at certain times, while men may have guided the clan at other times.

Patriarchy did not become fully established as an institution until human beings invented monotheism and divorced creation from procreation. That is, they separated the ability to create the world, previously ascribed to both male and female gods, to a male god alone.  We have the ancient Jews to thank for this particular division of masculine from feminine agency, but their precursors, the Assyrians and Babylonians, had gone a good way toward disenfranchising women from the rule and government of the state.  They also began to bar women from symbolic practices, such as painting and writing, with which humans recorded and interpreted their history early on.

It is because we can look back and mark the stages of government and religious belief that led to the strengthening and institutionalization of patriarchy that we know that it did not simply emerge, full-blown in humans when they separated from apes.   We can’t with certainly assume that modern chimpanzee culture is structured as it is now 100,000 years ago, either.

In fact, for those persons who still cling to the idea that humans are apes and who argue that modern chimp society is the right model for our ancient forebears, there is the pesky argument about the bonobos.  Human beings are genetically far closer to Bonobo monkeys, who are far more likely to settle social tension between themselves through sex than war, than to chimps. So why don’t they base their assumptions about ancient human society on the bonobos? The reason that this version of the story of human development has not become as popular is that it does not confirm the mythology of permanent masculine domination as well as the chimp version.

I am convinced that human beings evolved from apes.  But it makes little sense to say that our ancestors, who split off from apes long ago and followed their own evolutionary path, must have been identical to a contemporary manifestation of the apes from which we split off millions of years ago.  Our assumptions about our history should look at human models, not contemporary apes, for clues to our behavior and social structure.

Nicholas Wade has raised some interesting points along these lines in his recent articles about Drs. Hill and Chapais, but his report about these anthropologists reiterates many myths–that men, not women, invented tools; that men used these tools to dominate and exchange women between themselves–that are not scientifically valid because there is no evidence to prove them. These myths distort history to make patriarchal oppression seem natural and inevitable.  In other words, they perpetuate the social structure in which men have more privileges and power than women, generally speaking.  Obviously, the structure of oppression is also racial and classed with rich, white men at the apex and poor, black women at the bottom, in our country.  Still, the basic structure is androcentric and masculinist, and Nicholas Wade should think more carefully about it.