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17.8.03

Leonard Shlain Believes That Evolution Gave Women An Edge That's Been A Threat To Men

[Author Leonard] Shlain contends that "the history of our species could be written from the perspective that males have spent the last 150,000 years trying to regain the power they so emphatically lost to females when we differentiated away from Homo erectus."

Let's consider some adaptations Gyna sapiens [prehistoric women, as opposed to Homo sapiens men] underwent. First, there's that messy menses thing. Only the human female endures such periodic intrinsic housecleaning. As well, only the human female has a cryptic estrus, experiences orgasm with a capital "O," is sexually receptive year round and has the wherewithal to deny a male her sex, thanks to the annexed brain that can at least partially override sexual urges powered by instinct and hormones. All the while, the menfolk remained more or less as they were. They did, however, modify their behavior (whatever it took to gain a lady's favors). But can you imagine the supreme confusion of the first man who got shut down by a woman?

The oldest and most baffling question ever to bubble from a man's head is this: What do women want? Never shy to put in his two bits, Shlain believes he knows. It's iron -- at least that's what ancestral Eve craved. Iron is the catalytic center of the hemoglobin molecule that transports oxygen to cells. Our big brains require an awful lot of oxygen; that, coupled with a woman's periodic loss of blood, creates a chronic need for iron. So it goes that Mother Nature gives with one hand (the big brain to say no to a man) while taking away with the other (requiring a woman to secure a rich supply of iron by way of meat, by way of a hunter). Man gives woman meat, woman gives man sex.

-- via WitchVox


This theory seems on some level insulting to women. It's based on the old idea that women don't want sex for itself (ironic considering the article just pointed out that human females are unique in experiencing orgasms), so sex is just a bargaining chip they have for getting stuff from heterosexual men. Sex has exchange-value but no use-value for women, to put it in Marxist terms. The same appears (later in the article) to go for children, as well -- the desire for progeny is presented as a male response to the fear of death. Yet if women didn't have sex, there's nothing stopping them from hunting their own meat -- men tend to take on the role of hunter because that role is incompatible with childcare. It's also insulting to men, by suggesting that our desires are that simple and transparent (we just want sex), and that the remainder of our behavior toward women ammounts to a ploy to make sure we can get some. A glance at the women's magazines at any supermarket checkout should suffice to establish that straight women ask "what do men want?" at least as often as straight men ask the reverse.

Then there are the other anthropological errors. First, the explanation of women's shift to year-round fertility and the ability to say "no" applies equally well to men. For all the talk about how men think with their genitals, we've come a long way from animal-like instinctive mating seasons, due to those big brains that both sexes have and can use to regulate their sexual behavior. Men can do without sex, if necessary.

Then there's the misunderstanding of hunter-gatherer food sharing practices. We'll set aside the oversimplified "men hunt, women gather" idea. Shlain's theory seems to be based on a conception of a society made up of sexually active adults, living in independent nuclear families. But that's not how it works. Both men and women in hunter-gatherer societies share with a large social network, made up of people of both sexes and all ages, few of which are having sex with the provider. Unless this wider sharing of meat is an additional price extorted by the hunters' wives in exchange for their sexual services (a proposition consistent with the Goddess feminist idea that women are inherently altruistic), something doesn't add up.

Finally, a need for male hunting seems like something that would confer power on men. Consider the Yamana and Selk'nam people in Tierra del Fuego. The Yamana are a fairly gender-egalitarian society, whereas the Selk'nam strike me as having been among the more patriarchal tribes we know of. The Yamana eat a variety of seafood, collected and hunted by both sexes. The Selk'nam, on the other hand, live almost entirely on guanaco meat, which was procured by men. It's not a stretch to say that male dominance was built in part on their control of the food supply. Interestingly, Selk'nam men seem to have experienced a lot of anxiety about the possible return of a repressive matriarchy, and felt the need to maintain their superiority through the subterfuge of the Hain ceremony. The Yamana later adopted the Hain, but treated it as a joke.

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