The Turtle

11 July 2010

The Little Tibetan Inn, Pokhara, 6 am

The Turtle

I dreamed that I was the passenger in a car.  The person driving was a supportive male friend.  A turtle wandered into the road and flipped itself over right in the middle of the lanes.  I made the driver stop, got out of the car, and stopped oncoming traffic.  Then I carefully turned the turtle right side up and gingerly carried it to the side of the road.  I had never picked up a turtle before and worried that I was hurting it by holding it only from its shell.  When I set it down, it began to crawl toward the center of the highway again, propelled by some archaic instinct.  I rescued it once more and again held it nervously while I scanned the area for the place that it seemed to be wanting to go.   I saw a path leading down away from and then underneath the road to a glen.  I set the turtle at the edge of a pool and watched it as it sat, stunned.  Then it eased itself forward into the water and swam away.  I climbed back up the hill, feeling very happy.

When I awakened I wondered if I had dreamed about rescuing myself.  I had to leave the car driven by a supportive man and carry myself to water, safety, and freedom.  I didn’t quite know how to carry myself, and worried about getting hurt.  But it was essential to figure out how to save myself.  Only then could I return to companionship with the person who has always been waiting for me.

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.

Cooperation in Neolithic Culture and the Implications for Feminism

A new study, reported by the New York Times, dramatically challenges the prevailing, Darwinian understanding of human social development.  Not “natural selection” but cooperative behavior influenced the structure of early human societies. This view has profound feminist implications because it contradicts Darwin’s assumption that early human societies formed around dominant men competing with other men for women.

Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago.  The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path.

Anthropologists have assumed until now that hunter-gatherer bands consist of people fairly closely related to one another, much as chimpanzee groups do, and that kinship is a main motive for cooperation within the group.  Natural selection, which usually promotes only selfish behavior, can reward this kind of cooperative behavior, called kin selection, because relatives contain many of the same genes.

A team of anthropologists led by Kim S. Hill of Arizona State University and Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri analyzed data from 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples and found that the members of a band are not highly related. Fewer than 10 per cent of people in a typical band are close relatives…

Darwin did not assert that human beings split off from chimps, but rather that we are “descended from some ape-like creature,” (Origin of Species, Penguin, 658).  More than 30 million years ago, our ancestors belonged to the same group that included the lines that would develop into Gibbons, Orangutans, Gorillas, Bonobos, and Chimps.  We are genetically far closer to Bonobos and Chimps than we are to Gibbons, Orangutans and Gorillas.  Modern-day Chimps and Bonobos are more closely related to one another than modern day humans are to either group, although we are significantly closer genetically to Bonobos than we are to Chimps.  There is very little reason to assume that contemporary chimpanzee behavior and social structure offer us a portrait of ancient human societies, but this has not stopped mainstream scientists–nearly all of them men–from doing it.

Scientists are not immune to the gendered assumptions that dominate the cultures in which they acquire their knowledge, as feminist scholars such as Emily Martin, Donna Harraway,  and Londa Schiebinger have repeatedly demonstrated.  The assumption that early human societies resembled contemporary chimpanzee societies, which are dominated by males who remain in the group and fight with males of outlying groups for mates, has helped to codify the erroneous but deeply entrenched belief that male domination is “natural” and intrinsic to the species.

Evolutionary biologists who base their assumptions about human nature on chimpanzee societies have reinforced Charles Darwin’s sexist theory of natural selection, which states that men did the majority of the work in the early struggle for survival in the wild.  According to Darwin, ancient (he says “savage”)  men were far smarter than women:

The chief distinction in the intellectual power of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman–whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of senses and hands. (Origin of Species, 629)

Darwin offers absolutely no evidence for this argument other than the specious theory of natural selection, which postulates that the “strongest and boldest men” fought with one another for “wives” and got to pass on their genes, and that

the characters gained will have been transmitted more fully to the male than to the female offspring…Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman (Origin of Species, 630-31)

This unscientific assumption is part and parcel of Darwin’s fantastic belief that men are primarily responsible for survival, i.e., that they furnished food and shelter while women sat around nursing their babies or staring stupidly at their feet.  This view of ancient human society has been completely debunked by studies of ancient and modern hunter-gathering societies, which show that women most likely invented tools for cutting, weaving, cooking, fire-burning, and food gathering. Women are also most likely the ones who invented and perfected traps for small game, which could be set around the dwelling area.  The myth of the cave man hunting down the Mammoth so that mamma and the kids could eat is nothing more than a myth, since archaeologists such as Margaret Conkey and Joan Gero, have shown that hunter-gatherer societies subsist largely on gathered nuts, roots, foliage, fruit, and fish, and that game was a rare addition to a mostly vegetarian diet.  [Indeed, even that most unscientific of unscientific documents that lend credence to the fantasy of original patriarchy suggests that human beings originally eschewed meat: Genesis 1:29-30.] So there is actually much more archaeological and anthropological evidence that women and men contributed equally to survival.

This latest anthropological study corroborates the view that, for 90 per cent of the time that human beings have been human beings–100,000 years, we lived in hunter-gathering groups of diverse and distantly related men and women who shared power and work equally.  Instead of assuming that contemporary chimpanzee society illustrates ancient human society, it studies contemporary hunter-gatherers for evidence of how our ancestors lived and developed.  The Darwinian myth imagines that humans banded around dominant males who selected their kin through fighting, and that humans, like chimpanzees, cooperate with one another in the group but are largely hostile to out-lying groups.   (This story never made sense to me, since I could never understand how human beings could survive and develop complex cultures through war-mongering, which is essentially suicidal.) What Kim Hill, Robert Walker and their associates have suggested makes is far more believable.   Contemporary hunter-gatherers, both male and female move around from tribe to tribe.  Moreover, as primatologist Bernard Chapais has shown, the pair bond between a human female and male allowed people to recognize their relatives, which is something that chimps cannot do very well.  Family members that disperse to neighboring bands would recognize and cooperate with one another, instead of fighting with one another, as chimps do.

Cooperation, not competition, is key to survival and development.  As the NYT reports,

Hunter-gatherers probably lived as tribes split into many small bands of 30 or so people. Group selection could possibly act at the level of the tribe, Dr.  Hill said, meaning that tribes with highly cooperative members would prevail over those that were less cohesive.  …

A hunter-gatherer, because of cooperation between bands, may interact with a thousand individuals in his tribe.  Because humans are unusually adept at social learning, including copying useful activities from others, a large social network is particularly effective at spreading and accumulating knowledge.

While this study in particular does not speculate about power-sharing between men and women in ancient human societies, it corroborates the argument that male domination of women is a relatively recent development in human history.  The oldest Neolithic cities that we have unearthed, in Catal Höyük and Asikli, indicate that thousands of people lived together without any centralized architecture and no division of labor.  They were sedentary but not necessarily agricultural, and they traded with distant cities.  Figurines of voluptuous female bodies have prompted some scholars to maintain that the societies that lived in these cities 6,000 and 7,000 years B.C.E. were matriarchal, but Gerda Lerner and other feminists have made a much more convincing argument for an egalitarian civilization.