Eve's Seed: Biology,the Sexes and the Course of History

Eve's Seed: Biology,the Sexes and the Course of History

by Robert S. McElvaine

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In this provocative reinterpretation of the human experience, noted historian Robert S. McElvaine bridges the gap between evolutionary biology and history to create a new approach he terms "biohistory." Here for the first time he presents a startlingly fresh thesis: misperceptions about sexual difference and procreative power have, along with misleading sexual


In this provocative reinterpretation of the human experience, noted historian Robert S. McElvaine bridges the gap between evolutionary biology and history to create a new approach he terms "biohistory." Here for the first time he presents a startlingly fresh thesis: misperceptions about sexual difference and procreative power have, along with misleading sexual metaphors, been the major forces in history. In a bold departure from the methods of conventional history, McElvaine draws on a wide range of sources, from biology, anthropology, archaeology, mythology, religion, and popular culture, to show how the interplay between our evolutionary heritage and changing environments has shaped the course of history, from hunter-gatherers to the contemporary world. Doubly controversial for its method and its contention that "prehistoric" developments devalued men, subordinated women and continue to misshape our lives, Eve's Seed is sure to engender debate.

Editorial Reviews

Joyce Appleby
Eve's Seed is a bestseller waiting to be discovered: a package of sex, science and species' vanity nicely wrapped in sparkling prose. In this provocative study, Robert S. McElvaine weighs the competing claims of nature and nurture in the shaping of human beings. Although the popularity of culture as an all-purpose explanation for our behavior has given a boost to the nurture side in this contest, nature has made a stunning comeback in the last two decades, thanks in part to the genome project. And if this weren't enough to invest an old question with fresh interest, a team of evolutionary psychologists has caught the public's attention by claiming that rape can be traced to an evolutionary strategy.

McElvaine takes a dim view of assertions that dating habits, philandering and rape can be linked to evolution, but he agrees with the nature team that an understanding of how sex has played out through the last 40 millenniums is indeed relevant today. What is provocative about Eve's Seed is McElvaine's refusal to take for granted male convictions of superiority over females; what is original is his search for the origins of this pernicious contemporary trait in thepre-linguistic past. His research points to three events in the development of misogyny in Western culture: the adoption of agriculture, the novel view of reproduction that made women passive vessels and the emergence of beliefs that only men were created in God's image. This triple whammy, he argues, ensured that human cultures would depict women as lesser beings. McElvaine's conviction that evolution has something to teach us sets him apart from the culture-is-all crowd (he criticizes them for their dogmatic faith in John Locke's dictum that babies are born with blank minds). Moderating the stiff brew that absolutists of the opposing culture and biological outlooks would force us to drink, he builds his argument on historical choices. A scholar with a voracious intellectual appetite, McElvaine wants to abolish the distinction between prehistoric and historic times, conventionally marked by the introduction of writing. His colleagues, he thinks, ignore at their peril what that premier sociobiologist, Edward O. Wilson, has termed the "deep history" of humanity that is also responsible for our present biological development. In other words, those who only know human history through written records don't know it very well. Women, McElvaine argues, undid themselves about 8,000 years ago when they introduced agriculture to their tribes of hunter-gatherers. Giving up the hunt hit men in their psychological solar plexus, even as they seized control of farming. Doubts about their role in the grand scheme of things assailed them when they ceased to be the sole providers of the tribe's food supply. But, McElvaine shows, subsequent developments worked to their advantage. The turn to crop-raising also laid the basis for dense, complex, sedentary societies that gave rise to hierarchical authority that put men on top. Eager to reestablish his pivotal place, McElvaine writes, man-the-farmer analogized from seeds and soil to semen and womb and came forward with the flattering notion that men alone had the power to create life. When men began to cultivate fields, they started to cultivate women also as never before, and the split between reproduction and production took on new cultural meaning. For McElvaine, this "conception misconception" of women's contribution to procreation wiped away the relative parity that women had earlier enjoyed. One giant step forward for man, two steps back for his female partner. As the tribes seized the plough, better food production led to population growth, written records and religions of the book, all of them working against the status of women.

Eve's Seed posits that an even more portentous connection between agriculture and male domination came with the emergence of the so-called great religions, each giving a version of human origins partial to men, as does the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. More ominously, the religions taught that men had been created in God's image. "If it is believed that God is male," McElvaine explains, "and that humans are created in His image, the conclusion seems necessarily to follow that men, who more closely resemble God, must be closer to perfection than women are." With the invention of writing, a permanent structuring of male dominance through law, literature, institutions, religion and popular culture also followed as civilization developed. Then the "male-is-superior-to-female symbolism" became the master metaphor of human history. Images of men planting seeds in women have been ubiquitous ever since, and McElvaine, a man with an excellent ear, hears echoes of this ego-inflating notion everywhere, including amusing examples from the movies "The Big Chill" and "Raising Arizona" and a "Cheers" TV episode. McElvaine gathers an astonishing range of evidence as he explains the persistence and permeation of misogynistic themes in our culture. He canvasses the tenets of every major religion; interrogates philosophers ancient and modern; and presents a modern rogues' gallery of misogynists stretching from Karl Marx to Bill Clinton. Rambo and Rocky, Promise Keepers, men's room graffiti and Rolling Stones lyrics are all subpoenaed to testify to the "notawoman" desperation that pervades the male psyche. Neologisms, puns and parodies serve McElvaine. He says that Sigmund Freud indulged in pathetic phallasies. He spoofs John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus with a chapter entitled "Men Are From New York, Women Are From Philadelphia" and "Darwin Made Me Do It" is his flip characterization of rationales offered by scholars who link contemporary sexual mores to evolutionary imperatives. Eve's Seed, as the title implies, seeks to show the way toward restoring to women the respect and power that they enjoyed before the agricultural revolution. To do this, McElvaine constructs a narrative of events that challenges religious doctrines, undermines the bases for gender differentiation and discredits the biologists who have linked human destiny to the presumed proclivities of primates. He energetically defends his account against all comers in the nature and nurture camps, wielding the weapons of incriminating quotations, astute ripostes, clever neologisms and apposite evidence from sitcoms, rock songs, contemporary novels and movie scripts. It is surprising, however, that in a book so centrally concerned with human evolution, McElvaine doesn't provide an explanation of the Darwinian mechanisms for speciation. Nor for that matter does he present the intellectual footings for the nurture concept, instead focusing on a 17th century epistemological breakthrough--Locke's tabula rasa--as though no one had written on the subject of culture since then. McElvaine writes from firm convictions about the historical implications of human sexuality, but those in the laboratory trenches of biology, psychology and anthropology are engaged in battles that are far from reassuring to the layperson. Evolutionary psychologists continue to discover new legacies for humans that stem from the struggle for survival, enlivened by such catchy terminology as "mean genes" and "kamikaze sperm." Feminist biologists and science writers have shot back with charges of seek-and-ye-shall-find research. Pointing to the sexist ideology underpinning much of the work on human evolution, critics claim that long-discredited theories of sex differences have been mated with ecological misinformation to produce an updated pseudoscience of human nature. For McElvaine, all this is "best understood as the latest battle in a proxy war that has gone on throughout recorded history, in which men have been using women as scapegoats for their grievances against an economy that was new around 8000 BCE." Steering his thesis between the Charybdis of biological determinism and the Scylla of culture power, McElvaine plunges headlong into the Bermuda Triangle of reductionism. This flaw is surprising considering the moral passion packed into Eve's Seed. A full third of the book is devoted to exposing the shallowness of our hyper-individualism, interrogating all its intellectual champions from Emerson and Thoreau to Nietzsche and Sartre. McElvaine prefers to think of our present intellectual predicament as ironic. We rely upon culture to explain human values while denying the powerful truth that evolution has decisively limited our behavioral options. But the irony in his criticism of the antisocial conclusions of evolutionary psychologists eludes him. "Because many of our inbred tendencies are no longer adaptive," he writes, "there is absolutely no reason to classify them as 'good' or 'right."' By seeking a "scientific" counter-interpretation to the evolutionary absolutists, he is reinforcing the idea that the thinking, feeling, choosing, ruminating, fantasizing and responding that we 21st-century humans do remain tethered to our prehistoric ancestors. And this is why McElvaine's convergences are too neat, his proof too scattered, his causal connections too tenuous and his explanation for the vexed relations between the sexes too simplistic. Yet--and it's a very big yet--one cannot come away from reading Eve's Seed without being astounded by the omnipresence of misogynistic themes in our culture and our almost casual acceptance of them.
L.A. Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Why has misogyny been so entrenched throughout history? McElvaine, chair of history at Millsaps College, traces it to the invention of agriculture. The cultivation of crops, he says, devalued males' social role as hunters and, at the same time, gave rise to the "conception misconception," which held that males alone possessed reproductive power while females were merely empty ground in which men sowed their seed. McElvaine argues that from this essential error arose hierarchies, dualistic thinking, competition, war, slavery, racism, individualism, consumerism and, of course, sexism. This thesis is provocative but sometimes oversimplified. McElvaine (The Depression and the New Deal, etc.) is forceful in his reading of creation myths and Western religions, as well as in his discussion of male competitiveness through dominating tactics and imagery (including "mounting" a subordinate male symbolically through language--which is what "fuck you" really means). But many of his secondary themes, including the meaning of the American frontier, racism, war and rape, and the compulsive sexual behavior of powerful men like JFK, need further analysis. For a book that purports to be "biohistory," this study--which takes pains to avoid any hint of biological determinism in its argument--tends to dismiss biological theories a little too easily. But these flaws don't detract significantly from the daring of McElvaine's challenging overview. Written with passion, wit and insight, this accessible book throws down the gauntlet to academics and nonspecialists alike, daring a radical rethinking of the basic "truths" on which cultures have been constructed. Agent, David Hendin. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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A Man's World?

Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.
If the complex argument of this book had to be reduced to a single sentence, that would be it. More about that shortly. First, though, the outlines of the problem that led to the exploration that produced this argument and conclusion.

"Life Is Dramatically Unfair to Women"

"We hear and we say that life is unfair, but what this report shows is that life is dramatically unfair to women," declared the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, speaking of a 1995 worldwide survey of the status of women.

Life is dramatically unfair to women.

If such a statement could still be made with accuracy as the second millennium was drawing to a close, certainly it has been applicable throughout the five millennia for which we have some written evidence of how people lived. Although there are still a few people who cling to the faith that there is a small culture here or there in which men are not dominant, it is now generally accepted, as feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner said in her famous 1972 essay, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?," that although the degree of male dominance varies, the subordination of women to men is something approaching a cross-cultural universal.

But why? Are men just naturally dominant and it has always been so?

Despite the enormous gains women have made in the past few decades, one suspects that many men—and women—look at the long, unbroken history of male dominance and privately still harbor the suspicion (or firmly hold the conviction) that women are biologically inferior. Although I had completed most of the research and much of the writing of this book before Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel appeared, when I read that book I was much struck by the parallel between what he saw as the major reason his analysis of the actual causes of world dominance by European-descended people was needed and my own view of a similar need for an adequate, historical explanation of the subordination of women:

[W]e have to wonder. We keep seeing all those glaring, persistent differences in peoples' status. We're assured that the seemingly transparent biological explanation for the world's inequalities as of a.d. 1500 is wrong, but we're not told what the correct explanation is. Until we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all. That seems to me the strongest argument for writing this book.

Similarly, continuing widespread suspicions that the sexist biological explanation of another broad pattern of history is correct after all seems to me the strongest reason for what I am undertaking with this book.
The broad pattern of history that is the subject of this book is, I believe, even more fundamental than that which Diamond explored. And the broad pattern for which he sought an explanation was one that has primarily been evident for "only" the last five hundred years. The pattern of domination by one sex over the other stretches over at least five thousand years.
If the matter is not so simple as that men are "naturally superior," several absorbing questions open up: When did men establish their control over human societies? How did they do so? Why did they find it desirable to do so? Most important of all, what has the subordination of women meant for society as a whole? Has history itself been shaped in fundamental ways by the belief in female inferiority?

A variety of possible answers to these questions has been offered.

Many people in the Judeo-Christian tradition still respond to the question of why women are treated unfairly by saying that it is not unfair, because women were subordinated by God as a punishment for Eve's sin. Although this argument cannot be taken seriously by educated people today, the story itself plays a crucial part in the interpretation I shall present in this book, as will be explained presently.

A second accounting for the domination of men over women is what might be termed the "because we can" argument.

The claim is simply that men have used their greater average size and upper body strength to impose their wills on women. Thomas Jefferson gave voice to this reasoning in 1785, when he wrote: "The stronger sex imposes on the weaker. It is civilization alone which replaces women in their natural equality." Aside from the Eve-is-to-blame explanation, this belief that men have asserted control by sheer brute force and that male dominance has been lessened by civilization has probably been the most widely accepted answer to the question of why women have been subordinated. The notion that "cavemen" went around clubbing women over the head and mistreating them to a greater degree than have their more refined descendants remains a staple of the popular imagination.

The explanation of why life has been dramatically unfair to women presented here begins with the converse of the "because we can" argument. I propose that the underlying source of male assertions of superiority is "because we can't." It is the male inability to bear and nourish children that causes many men to feel insecure. Because of this relative incapacity, many men suffer, largely subconsciously, from what might be termed "womb envy" and "breast envy." So, while making the claim that women are "by nature" inferior, many men have actually harbored a fear that women are, in certain respects, by nature superior. Men's inability in this regard is a matter of circumstance, and many men seem to have felt as Yossarian did in Catch-22: they are "willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance." Such men seek to make women "by culture" inferior and exclude them from certain roles.

In order to compensate for what men cannot do, they tell women that they may not do other things.

Pregnancy, birthing, and nursing have always constituted a "no-man's land." In response to this circumstance, men have, throughout history and across cultures, set up a variety of "no-woman's lands": war, politics, clergy, business, men's clubs, and so forth. From which activities women are excluded varies from one culture to another, but some form of exclusion can be found in all societies. The underlying motivation for such practice in our own culture is reflected in a striking statement made by an American Catholic bishop in 1992: "A woman priest is as impossible as for me to have a baby."

Because they cannot compete with women's capabilities in the crucial realms of reproduction and nourishing offspring, men generally seek to avoid a single standard of human behavior and achievement. They create separate definitions of "manliness" which are based on a false opposition to "womanliness." A "real man" has been seen in most cultures as "not-a-woman (notawoman)."

Although this fear of male biological inferiority and the resulting tendency to insist that the sexes are "opposite" is the essential starting point for exploring the ways in which women have been subordinated and what the wider consequences of that subordination have been, it is just the beginning. This factor has always been present, although the degree of its impact has varied as other circumstances have changed. It is in those changing circumstances—history—that we must seek more complete answers to questions about why, how, and when females were subordinated and how sex has shaped history.

Evolution as Protohistory
Until the last third of the twentieth century, our view of history was grossly distorted by a huge error: the omission of half of our species from the record of human experience. The exclusion of women from history was, in fact, one of the most important examples of men establishing their own ground, on which women were not permitted to tread: You have the babies, because we can't; but you may not enter our exclusive club that we call history.
Historians have now gone a long way toward rectifying this immense misreading of the past. (The exclusion of women from positions of power never meant that they were without influence in shaping history or were helpless objects only manipulated by men.) But that is just the first step in the needed expansion of our historical field of vision.
Although our understanding of the times that came before us has improved substantially with the restoration of women to our history, two other, closely related, fundamental mistakes continue to prevent us from reaching a proper understanding of the human past and present: the discounting of human nature and of "prehistory." It is these omissions that have left us without a convincing explanation of why women have been so long subordinated and how sex has shaped history. Such an explanation is needed to combat the idea that the received sexual hierarchy is based on biological superiority or inferiority.
This book brings together two modes of inquiry that have advanced our understanding in recent years but have remained separate (and largely hostile): history, especially women's history, and the neo-Darwinian perspective that has appeared in the field of evolutionary biology and has been adopted by some researchers in the social sciences. Much recent work has shown that human evolution left us with a variety of proclivities (human nature) that were "designed" to adapt our ancestors to live in an environment that is vastly different from the one in which most of us live today.
But something very important is missing from these arguments: history. In jumping from evolution to the modern human experience, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology miss fundamentally important developments during the period when human-made changes first created a social environment for which the human biogram was not well adapted. This includes the critical last five thousand years of "prehistory," which, as we'll see shortly, historians conventionally shortchange, as well as most of the five thousand years traditionally called history. It is that gap—the last ten millennia—which the present book seeks to begin to fill.

If the practitioners of revamped evolutionary science have largely ignored history, historians have even more ignored evolution. Most historians, along with most people involved in all of the social sciences and humanities, have long been panicked at any suggestion of the possibility that anything in human beings might be innate.

Misled by a belief that has been dogma in many intellectual circles since the time of John Locke, that humans at birth are blank slates which are thereafter shaped solely by personal experience, and by its modern equivalent, faith in complete cultural determinism, we have generally ignored human biology. Many people today panic at the very mention of "human nature," fearing that if they so much as admit the possibility of its existence they will be castigated as social Darwinists—or worse. In recent years we have been reminded of where an apparently biological approach can lead by the racist ideas contained in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994) and by the argument put forth by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer in A Natural History of Rape (2000) that rape is a behavior that evolution selected for. But the genuinely scientific evidence that we are not, in fact, blank slates at birth, wholly shaped by culture, has become overwhelming. The time is past when historians or the general public can afford to ignore the valid findings of science because some researchers have abused this sort of investigation and reached outrageous conclusions. We must stop throwing out the Darwinian baby with the racist and sexist bathwater. The attempt must be made to bring together neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology and history to form a new way of understanding the human experience: biohistory.

I believe in the unity of knowledge—what Edward O. Wilson terms consilience: that for all the variety of explanations that can be offered by different disciplines, all intersect and "there is intrinsically only one class of explanation." This book attempts to make a contribution to beginning to blend history with other branches of knowledge by combining biology (and several other disciplines) with history to reach conclusions vastly different from those of Herrnstein and Murray, Thornhill and Palmer, or the social Darwinists.

My approach to utilizing biology to enhance our understanding of history differs radically from social Darwinism. That discredited creed held that natural selection is just "the way things are" and that we should—indeed, that we must—model society after its uncaring brutality and intense competition. My position is that natural selection and the human nature that it produced need to be understood so that we can devise ways to guide our innate proclivities into channels that we choose, on the basis of our own moral decisions. It is foolish to deny that natural selection has played a major part in making us the way we are. Our task as humans is not to dispute this notion, but to envision "the way things ought to be" and use our knowledge of the way natural selection has molded us to help us to find means by which we can move closer to that vision. The evolution of human nature must be seen as protohistory, the first history, the starting point for subsequent history.

Anyone who looks seriously and with an open mind (which should not be confused with a blank slate) at the findings of modern biology cannot doubt that there is such a thing as human nature. Our distant ancestors had adapted biologically to live in small bands of collector-hunters, the hominid and human way of life for at least 98 percent of our evolution. It was this process that created the human nature—the mixed constellation of motivations that give human beings predispositions to respond in certain ways to certain circumstances and to desire particular situations of living—that remains with us down to the present. Some understanding of this human biological inheritance (the biogram of Homo sapiens) is essential to a proper comprehension of history. It seems to be common sense that the study of history, the unfolding of human life, should be grounded in knowledge of human biology, the science of that life. Yet for most people in the historical profession, that has rarely been the case.

History Does Not Begin with a Blank Slate
To an only somewhat lesser extent, historians have also ignored "prehistory." Understandably reluctant to draw many conclusions about life in times for which there are no written records, historians have for the most part acted as if human history began about the same time that writing was invented, shortly before 3000 b.c.e. (Before Common Era, what has traditionally been designated as "b.c."). If human history cannot be properly understood without an acquaintance with the innate biological predispositions with which evolution left us, neither can it be accurately fathomed without some knowledge of the effects of the monumental alterations in the human social environment that occurred during the approximately five thousand years preceding the conventional starting point for history. If hominid and human evolution through the Paleolithic Age are protohistory, the five thousand or so years from the development of agriculture to the invention of writing can be seen as <>deuterohistory, a second era of history that set the stage for the five thousand years conventionally called "history."

Although we have rarely, if ever, noticed the connection, historians have been applying Locke's tabula rasa concept to human history as well as to individual humans. To act as if "history" began with a blank slate five thousand years ago is as profoundly misleading as to see the human infant at birth that way. Indeed, it is basically the same mistake, because to say that humanity's slate was blank around 3000 b.c.e. is to discount completely not only all of "prehistorical" experience but also any biological influence on human behavior.

Ironically, historians have generally taken a view of the scope of the human story that is similar to that of biblical fundamentalists, because the latter customarily date Eden at about six thousand years ago. But humans and their direct ancestors had been around by that time for four to five million years. "Conventional history," Colin Tudge rightly observes in his 1996 book, The Time Before History, "starts almost at the end."

It is easy to appreciate the hesitation of historians in saying much about the period before writing. In a literal sense, after all, prehistory is a blank slate. The methodological difficulties involved in considering such periods for which there are no written records are enormous. But there were people living in these vast eons, and they had lives—there is a "prehistoric history." Learning about this history is very difficult, and conclusions one reaches about it must be classified as tentative and in some cases even speculative. It involves borrowing from many other disciplines, including biology, archeology, anthropology, and the study of religion and mythology. Yet if we, as historians, believe that "what is past is prologue," we must face up to the difficulties, because we will understand that human history in the time when there was no or little writing has had substantial effects on the history that followed.

"History from the bottom up" came into vogue at the end of the 1960s. This perspective involves seeing history from the vantage point of the oppressed rather than the oppressors, the losers rather than the winners: slaves, peasants, industrial workers, immigrants, minorities. It has been a most worthwhile and edifying project, one which has meshed well with the expansion of women's history, since women have almost always been "on the bottom." (The significance of such sexual metaphors is enormous, as will be explained later.) The effort must now be made to give "history from the bottom up" a new meaning: to "get to the bottom of things," to find the roots, the source, the basis, of history.

What most of us in the historical profession have been doing is like trying to examine and understand the construction of the upper stories of a tall building without looking at the structure's foundation or its lower floors. To truly transform our conception of history, we need now to go beyond the new carpenters and building materials (women historians and historical women) that have come onto the construction site in the past few decades. We need a new blueprint, one that includes the lower stories, the foundation, and even an analysis of the bedrock on which they rest.

It will be argued in these pages that the bedrock on which the foundation of history stands is the set of innate characteristics and proclivities that developed over the unimaginably long evolution of hominids and humans, that the foundation is sex, including misunderstandings of it and metaphors based upon it, and that the lower stories are the roughly five thousand years between the development of agriculture and the invention of writing.

Sex and History
Feminist historians have done a good job of showing that, as Joan Wallach Scott has put it, "sexual difference cannot be understood apart from history." But all sorts of previously obscured vistas open up when we comprehend that the converse is also, and even more importantly, true:
History cannot be understood apart from perceptions of sexual difference.

One of the primary objectives of this book is to explore how people's views of sexual difference have shaped history.

Karl Marx had it wrong. Class has, to be sure, been a major factor in history; but class itself is a derivative concept that is based on the ultimate causative power in history: sex. Marx's famous formulation must be revised: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of struggles based on the division of our species into two sexes, jealousies emanating from this division, exaggerations of the differences between the sexes, misunderstandings about sexual reproductive power, and metaphors derived from sex. Together, these closely related matters constitute the most important, but largely neglected, set of motive forces in human history. Control—or the claim of control—over the means of reproduction has been even more fundamental to history than has control of the means of production.

The implications of the questions about the sources and development of male dominance and female subordination go far beyond the treatment of women. It will be contended here that male subordination of females is at the very base of how our society operates and how we view the world. An understanding of when, how, and why men asserted complete dominion over women will begin to provide us with answers to many other questions about why human societies operate as they do.

Taking sex seriously as the basic underlying force in history throws everything into question; it obliges us to rethink all of history and see it from a new perspective, one that places primary emphasis on areas that have been almost completely ignored by most historians. It does not simply change the cast of characters; it totally revises the plot line. From this perspective, the most significant historical events took place before or outside the usual field of vision of historians. The climax of the drama, as we shall see, took place in what might be considered Act I, scene 2, at a time when conventional history has not yet raised the curtain. Historical directors have, in fact, simply dropped the whole of Act I from their productions. But the action taking place in the scene we are playing out at the beginning of the third millennium cannot be comprehended, by either the cast or the critics, without a serious examination of that long-ignored opening act.

A Distant Mirror
It is an age in which dramatic social and economic changes have disrupted previously existing sex roles. The traditional roles of one sex have been devalued, and members of that sex have begun to move into roles and occupations previously defined as appropriate only for the other sex. Changes are underway in the sex-linked roles of provider and caregiver. All these alterations are leading to inevitable resentments. Our whole way of life seems to be changing in radical ways. Traditional religious beliefs and family structures are being altered. Many people fear that the world as we know it may be coming to an end.

The time described in the preceding paragraph is a vast era that was, in terms of changing sex roles, the mirror image of the last century. That period continues to hold sway over our lives today. It began about ten thousand years ago, when the invention of agriculture started to disrupt long-established ways of life, finally devaluing the traditional male roles of hunting and group defense. The result was what may be termed a "masculinist movement" by which men gradually took over roles previously defined as female, ultimately changing the human understanding of procreation and religion in ways that have influenced all of recorded history and continue to affect us profoundly in our own time.

The invention of agriculture (including the keeping of animals as well as the purposeful growing of plant food) reshaped human life in such essential ways that it should be seen as the first of two "megarevolutions" in human history. It "dis-placed" (took away their place in society) men by undermining the value of what they had traditionally done, especially hunting. At the same time it "re-placed" (put into a new position in society) women by fundamentally altering the relationship between resources and population. It did so in such a way that substantial population growth became desirable and women were obliged to give up most of their previous role in production and concentrate much more on reproduction. Men, in need of new roles, sought to take over roles previously identified as female. Today, some five centuries into a second megarevolution based on increasing mobility (both social and spatial) and a consequent reconceptualization of the world as a marketplace, it is women who are seeing a traditional role undermined. Extraordinary advances in productivity and medicine have so increased population that we now find ourselves, in one important respect, returning to a situation similar to that before agriculture: the environment's capacity to support human population has nearly been saturated. This development means that women are no longer called upon to spend so much of their lives in child-bearing and child-raising. "There is no longer a single country in Europe where people are having enough children to replace themselves," the New York Times reported in 1998. Women, in short, have now been "dis-placed," albeit to a lesser degree than was the case with men in the wake of the development of agriculture. As men did thousands of years ago, women today are seeking new roles by entering occupations that had been reserved for the other sex. This, in turn, has once again threatened the status of men, many of whom are reacting in ways similar to those of their very distant forefathers.

The Genesis of History
The most important account of the "prehistoric" devaluation of roles for which men had been biologically "designed" and the consequences it had for men and women is well known to almost everyone in the Western world and hundreds of millions of people beyond, but it has not been recognized as such. The key to that recognition is the view that came to be widely accepted among anthropologists and others only in the last two decades of the twentieth century, that it is highly likely that women invented agriculture. The reasons for this conclusion will be discussed in Chapter 4 of this book, but the best-known version of the story is in a very familiar Chapter 3.

The story in Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis which Christians came to call "the Fall of Man" actually does describe a "prehistoric" fall of men, but in a very different way from what has been thought. As I shall explain in detail, the story in Genesis is an allegorical representation of the "fall" that men experienced as a result of women's invention of agriculture (Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge): once food could be intentionally produced, the traditional male roles, particularly as hunters, were greatly devalued. This story (like many other ancient myths in a variety of cultures) blames women for the loss of the collector-hunter way of life, which from a distance came to look like paradise to men obliged to go "forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground" and earn their bread by the sweat of their brows doing the "woman's work" of supplying plant food, and punishes women by declaring them henceforth to be totally subordinate to men. The low esteem in which the "women's work" of agriculture was held is shown dramatically in Chapter 4 of Genesis, when the male God shows no regard for the produce brought to Him by the farmer Cain but is pleased by the "manly" offering of meat from Abel.

It will further be argued in this book that the early chapters of Genesis contain the very basis of history. In the second chapter men attempt to overcome their feelings of inferiority by asserting complete superiority over women through a drastic rearrangement of the order of creation that is given in Chapter 1, where men and women are created simultaneously on the sixth day. The contrast of the account in Chapter 2 could not be sharper: in this version, man is created on the first day, then all other living things, and last of all, woman. Even more important, men claim creative power in Genesis' second chapter through the literally incredible story of the birth of a woman out of a man. In Chapter 3, womb envy is stood on its head when the blessing of the power to give birth is redefined as a curse. The Fall of Man has been transmuted into the Fall of Woman.

Read this way (and there is much more to it, as we'll see later), the first four chapters of Genesis are restored to their place at the beginning of history, but in a markedly different way from that in which they long held that place in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These chapters become a mythologized synopsis of the real Act I of human history, told from the very slanted viewpoint of men who saw themselves as victims of the events in that Act.

Biology + Environment = History
A basic argument of this book is that human history consists of the interplay of our innate proclivities with changing, human-altered social environments. I believe that most of the largest problems we face today—and most of the greatest difficulties throughout the recorded portion of human history—stem from a mismatch between the human nature that evolved over millions of years of human evolution and the human-made social environments that have existed for about ten thousand years, since the invention of agriculture radically altered the circumstances in which Homo sapiens lives. That mismatch has grown much greater in the modern world, as the social environment we have manufactured has departed ever farther from the conditions for which humans are biologically adapted.

The development of agriculture, causing people to become sedentary, live in much larger societies, and deal with such new issues as surplus, property in land, and impersonal relationships, generated social conditions for which humans were not biologically adapted. Because there was insufficient time for much biological adaptation to the rapidly changing social environment, it was necessary to create more complex values, which amount to cultural adaptations to circumstances for which our biological inheritance does not suit us. The invention of agriculture proved to be mother to the necessity of establishing complex values to mediate between human nature and the transformed social environment.

Metaphors Make History
Another of the major beliefs that informs the arguments presented here is that how we live in the world affects how we perceive the world. Changes in the social environment bring about changes in the selection of ideas and worldviews that will be deemed acceptable. This is to say that the principles of Darwinian biology apply to human thought and scientific understanding itself. In much the same way that organisms that are better adapted to a new physical environment are the ones that will survive and thrive, ideas that are better suited to a particular social environment are the ones that will become accepted.

Metaphors are one of the primary means through which the outlook shaped by the social environment is transmitted to science and the thinking of people at large. Metaphors are wonderful devices; writers would be at a loss without them. But the unfortunate tendency to take metaphors literally can lead to gross errors in understanding. Metaphors do not represent reality; to think they do is almost sure to be misleading. Certain metaphors have become so powerful that they have shaped (and often misshaped) in fundamental ways for thousands of years how we have seen the universe and ourselves. A principal focus of this volume is on what I believe are the two most important of the metaphors that have led us astray, the two master metaphors through most of human existence. The first of these is that such concepts as manhood mean superiority, power, and dominance, and terms like womanly equate with inferiority, weakness, and submission. This is literally the Master metaphor, since it is used as the basis and model for all power relationships, all situations in which one man claims to be "master" over another. The use of this Master metaphor can be termed pseudosexing: the classification of an individual of one sex as the other. Plainly this metaphor developed in part as a means of combating male fears of inferiority and is a manifestation of the "notawoman" definition of manhood.

But this metaphor is so fundamental that its deeper origins must be sought not simply in "prehistory" but in prehominid evolution. The idea that other animals use metaphorical behavior may be surprising, but it is clear that this is what is going on when a dominant male among several species mounts a subordinated male and simulates intercourse with him. The former is, in effect, "saying" to the latter: "I am so dominant over you that I can treat you like a female."

Symbolic mounting is, as Chapters 13 and 14 will explain, an unexplored but highly significant aspect of human male behavior. Sometimes the practice is as direct and literal among humans as it is among other primates—in male prisons, for instance. But human males generally do not have to act out intercourse in order to pseudosex other men and indicate that they are dominant over them, as they assume themselves to be over women. The capacity for language has given humans a much wider range of symbols and metaphors than is available to other primates. Men can and do use words in place of symbolic actions. One man saying "Fuck you!" to another carries exactly the same symbolism as does the mounting of a subordinated male macaque by a dominant one. Such language of domination and subordination can accurately be called verbal mounting.

The second master metaphor that has shaped the human experience since before recorded history began is one that proved to be all but irresistible after plow agriculture began. The apparent analogy of a seed being planted in furrowed soil to a male's "planting" of semen in the vulva of a female led to the conclusion that men provide the seed of new life and women constitute the soil in which that seed grows. This metaphor is a central part of what was the most consequential and far-reaching mistake in human history: the idea that men are solely responsible for procreation. This monumental error, which I call the "Conception Misconception," has had profound effects on all of recorded history and continues to plague us today, centuries after we learned for sure that it is an error. The seed metaphor reversed the apparent positions of the sexes in regard to procreative power. What had always appeared to be a principally female power was transformed into an entirely male power. No longer apparent bystanders in reproduction, men now claimed to be the reproducers, while women were reduced from the seeming creators to the soil in which men's creations grow: not to put too fine a point on it, women were equated with dirt. Women were left with all the work of procreation, but men now took all the credit.

During the Neolithic Age, then, women both ceased to be major producers (as men took over the production of plant food along with continuing their traditional responsibility for providing animal food) and ceased to be seen as having reproductive power. The woman-made world of agriculture had, paradoxically, become a man's world to a degree unprecedented in human existence. Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.

Neither, apparently, hath heaven.

The belief that men have procreative power led inevitably to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. The toxic fruit that grew from the seed metaphor was male monotheism.

The combination of the belief that God (or the god who is the ultimate creator) is male with the notion that humans are created in God's image yielded the inescapable conclusion that men are closer than women to godly perfection. Thus the line from the misconceptions about conception emanating from the seed metaphor to the belief, given its classic expressions by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Freud, that women are deformed or "incomplete" men is clear and direct. There is no telling how much evil throughout history might have been averted or eased had the growth of this vine of thinking somehow been nipped in the bud.

Even this brief introduction to the arguments that will be made in this book should be sufficient to show how completely inadequate the usual scope of history is. By the time humans began to record history, what in some respects were the most meaningful changes—the most important history—had already taken place. As a result of the development of agriculture, before the conventional starting point of history, humans had already moved into a new reproductive situation in which population expansion was possible and desirable, women had been largely consigned to reproduction, men had seen their traditional roles devalued and claimed procreative power, and women had come to be seen as inferior. Goddesses were in decline and the ultimate Creative Power was beginning to be seen as belonging to a male deity. By starting near the end, we historians have put ourselves in the same situation as almost all of the other people who lived during the last five thousand years. We have taken all these changes as givens, a constant—the way things are—rather than as the products of historical development that they in fact are.

Asking the Right Questions
The seed that "Eve" showed people how to use for their own benefit changed the world in ways wholly beyond anything "she" could have imagined. We have been living with the consequences throughout the recorded period of history, but with, at best, only the dimmest perception of their genesis. This book constitutes an attempt to begin to bring that genesis into sharper focus and to explore the different understandings of history and present-day life that a greater comprehension of their deep bases opens to us.

I believe that the underlying forces of human nature, male jealousy, exaggeration of sexual difference, devaluation of male roles, mistaken belief in exclusive male reproductive power, and seeing the ultimate Creative Force as male have shaped history throughout the world, at least in all the areas where agriculture developed. But the focus of the book will become increasingly narrow as we move through time, coming in recent centuries to be almost exclusively on the Western world and especially the United States. There are two basic reasons for this: It is in the West and particularly in the United States that the forces of the modern world which are increasingly spreading around the globe have largely taken shape, and this is the portion of the world about which my knowledge is sufficient to make the sort of analysis I am undertaking.

The research and thinking that I have done on the vast questions addressed in this book have substantially changed the way I look at the world; it is my hope that the book might begin to do the same for others. If human beings do not change some of the fundamental ways that we have been looking at the world, our troubles are surely going to become worse, especially since we now find ourselves in an environment in which the roles that have traditionally been assigned to women are declining in value and the roles for which men evolved but were devalued thousands of years ago have still not been adequately replaced.

I do not claim that I have all the answers—or even very many of them. But one cannot hope to find the right answers until one begins to ask the right questions. That is what I have tried to do in the pages that follow.

What People are saying about this

Mary Jean Tully
Working with his scholar's training and his feminist sensibility, Robert McElvaine has given us a 10,000 year history of the relationship between the sexes; sepcifially how, when and why men took over from women as the dominant sex. Citing what he calls "womb envy" as a major factor after the invention of agriculture reduced the importance of hunting, he feels that men saw no other way to be a significant force in society. They even went so far as to change the concept of the deity from Earth Mother to male Father. Nevertheless he holds out hope that the similarities between men and women can in time alter the relationship to make for better lives for all of us.
Carl N. Degler
This most unusual and innovative book successfully draws upon evolutionary theory in interpreting the full span of human history. As Marx turned Hegel upside down, so McElvaine overturns, among others, Aristotle, Marx, Freud, and even Darwin in showing us how biological and cultural evolution need no longer see men and women as opposites or unequal.

For me Eve's Seed is a minor revelation, engagingly and imaginatively written and its author is impressive in his command of a vast literature, filled with fresh and challenging interpretations.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
I admire the way that Robert McElvaine uses humankind's deep history to illuminate recent cultural trends. It's fabulous that it took an historian (in McElvaine's chapter on "Verbal Mounting" and the expression "fuck you") to explain to a sociobiologist just why misogynist themes are so prevalent in the writing of today's evolutionary psychologists!
Paul R. Ehrlich
A fascinating, provocative, and sure to be controversial look at female—male relationships throughout human history. After reading Eve's Seed you'll never look at a farm, the bible, feminism, rock 'n' roll lyrics, mass consumption, or Bill Clinton in the same way. The two groups this book will appeal to most are men and women.
—(Professor Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect).
William H. McNeill
I started to look at it {the Eve's Seed ms.} and found the first chapters so engrossing that I kept on going . . . I still recognize a powerful, learned and provocative work when I see it! So my congratulations on your radical revision of traditional visions of human history, centering it around a 10,000 year war of the sexes.

Let me repeat that I found your first half dozen chapters a real eye opener! I must now rethink my understanding of the neolithic 'revolution' with your help . . .

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