Saturday, January 26, 2008

A long answer to "The Muse"

This is an analytical reply based upon a long comment by the individual known as “The Muse” on Stephen Parrish’s blog. Her comment is part of the discussion to Stephen’s post, “Elect a Girl, Prevent a War”. In her comment, “The Muse” is attempting to demonstrate that matriarchal societies were once “the” social order and that somehow, “evil male-dominated societies” moved in and took over…resulting in today’s male dominated societies. Ok, that is a bit of a simplification of her position, but a decent one sentence summary. I commend any who have not read the post to read it in its entirety and draw your own conclusions.

Her logic is flawed on face value, but worse, there seems to be a great deal of feminist revisionism in play for explaining the development of human society. So, rather than ramble on and take up Stephen’s blogging space with my lengthy answer, I provide my answer here.


Yours was an interesting anthropological analysis, but like any theory about what transpired before writing, speculative. Nor is it “mainstream” anthropological theory. Not that the “mainstream” is necessarily correct either. In both cases, we are developing hypotheses based on incomplete information. The theory you put forth is fundamentally flawed in that it ignores many aspects of human social development.

Beginning with this comment: If you study the oldest relics of art that have survived the ages you will find archeological evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were not likely involved in warfare. (I know that this is a debatable subject because this predates writing and much that is told about this period of time is speculation.) However, the oldest work of art that is known to man is a small limestone statue of “The Venus of Willendorf” which is a fertility goddess that dates back to 25,000 B.C. and was found in Austria. You lay out the reasoning for a supposed dominance of matriarchal societies at one time.

Let us begin with some fundamental facts. The city states of ancient Greece existed in the Bronze Age, as did ancient Egypt and the city states in Mesopotamia. To argue that they did not know warfare, or that it was a rarity, flies in the face of all archeological and written evidence. (There was writing in the Bronze Age and the most common surviving stories are about warfare.)

Looking at Neolithic cultures, the archeological evidence of weapons whose purpose is fighting and killing other humans is overwhelming. While spears, bows and arrows, knives and hatchets can be assumed to have had first a function in hunting game and were later adapted for warfare; clubs, swords and sword-like weapons would have had as a primary purpose from the beginning, fighting other humans. Even the adaptations of Neolithic tools like axes, show clear use for warfare as opposed to peaceful purposes. Combine this with the forensic evidence in human remains which have clearly suffered traumatic injuries from such weapons and any doubt about existence of warfare at a very early time in human history is removed. Assuming from feminine deities in clay that the society did not know warfare is a ludicrous leap in logic, given the other artifacts found in the same strata as your figurine.

However, let us assume that during the period you cite warfare was at least infrequent. Logically one should assume that the majority of societies in existence from 25,000 B.C.E. to around 2,500 B.C.E. would have infrequent experience with warfare for the simple reason that the human species was so widely dispersed and not very numerous in terms of available territory. Chances for collisions of cultures or competition for resources would have been rare, except on the fringes of those societies, whether the society was patriarchal or matriarchal. In areas like the Fertile Crescent, with greater population density, frequent warfare would have developed earlier. Therefore making an assumption of matriarchy on the basis of “no evidence of warfare” is a wild leap and seems driven more by a fanciful revisionist feminist view on relative merits of systems than on evidence.

As population density increased, so did competition for resources. It comes down to basic economics. In other words, I am not about to “share” my hunting grounds and risk having my tribe die of starvation, therefore I will fight you if you are on my territory. It is the most basic of reasons…survival. The dynamic and frequency would have developed first in areas of higher human population density. We see this dynamic among other species too, but the key difference is that we hominids have the ability, due to superior brains, to organize and fight as groups rather than just individuals.

This dynamic is being witnessed among chimpanzees in the wild as they are getting squeezed by human activity. Chimpanzee communities are starting to “wage war” with one another over the reduced available territory and they have been observed using crude weapons. Even more startling is that they even attack and defend using ruses, feints and other basic tactics as if they somehow are communicating a “plan”. How many supreme male god figures are involved in this development?

The very nature of hunting large prey forced hierarchy and organization on early human males. Hand in hand with hierarchy and organization, is development of requisite aggression necessary for successful hunting in the first place. It has nothing to do with any sense of god hierarchies or some domineering male god entity. That may have evolved later as a crude social explanation of the dynamic. Societies tend to “create” gods that reflect their society as an explanation for why things are ordered the way they are.

In order to be successful on the hunt, organization was imperative. War bands grew out of hunting bands as competition for territory increased. In order to be successful in a fight against other humans, hierarchy and organization are even more important than when hunting. Given that survival of the tribe depended upon the success of the males hunting and fighting, it is far more likely that this is what drove elevating the importance of the male as the assumed leader of human societies.

If we assume your model of peaceful matriarchal groups, such groups slow to make this transition would have been ill-suited to survive against those that made the transition earlier. Again, the root is competition for scarce resources. (If indeed there was any such transition in the first place.)

Pagan Celtic tribes worshiped a wide variety of “gods and goddesses”, but the most powerful was the “Earth Mother” and yet their warlike nature can’t be disputed. Worshiping a female deity does not necessarily imply primacy of female leadership in the society or “peacefulness”. Celtic society even allowed females to train for war and accompany the war bands as warriors if the female was so inclined…which they often did. Queen Boadicea of the Iceni in Britain led a revolt of tribes against the Romans in 60 – 61 C.E, obliterating London (then Londinium), Colchester (then Camulodunum), and St. Albans (then Verulamium) and slaughtering every man, woman and child in all three cities, a number totaling between 70,000 and 80,000 people. Her two daughters were “generals” in her army and all three died in the Battle of Watling in 61. C.E. where the rebellious Britons were defeated by Suetonius.

Passing rights to the eldest son, primogeniture, was predominantly a Germanic custom that gained prominence with the ascendancy of German culture in Europe. Again, even this development was most likely driven by the scarcity of resources and was a solution of how to distribute property without diluting the political/social power of a family in the process. This then led to more aggressive war bands of “dispossessed” males seeking new territories, but it was not just kings who did this, nor was it driven by worshipping some evil male deity bent on dominance of females. It was all about resource allocation and acquiring more resources for growing populations.

In Celtic culture, social position inheritance came through the maternal line…after all; you can always be sure who your mother is. But the principle is the same, preservation of social status for the family through conservation of resources by a scheme of distribution that favored an individual over their siblings. A drawback of ancient Celtic culture was that they allowed for equal division of property inheritance, which diluted political strength and created a myriad of social problems that left those societies vulnerable to outside enemies and contributed to their demise.

Additionally, even into the 1700’s in Ireland and Scotland, becoming clan chief had nothing to do with being oldest. The clan selected the “best qualified” to be the chief which could even be someone other than any of the existing chief’s sons.

In other primitive societies that exist today, many of which are not particularly warlike due to their isolation from competition, the operating dynamic seems to be balance, not primacy of female over male, or visa versa. It seems they “play to the strengths” of each sex in ordering and maintaining the society.

Bottom line is that all cultural adaptations have at their root survival of the group. They are adaptations developed and settled upon based on what the group deems is the best way to assure its survival as an entity vis a vis other groups, and through the group its individual members. For most of recorded history, survival of the group has been dependent upon the primacy of the males and their ability to protect the group against threats and provide food and shelter.

We can argue about whether or not continued male dominance is good or bad given the fact that human society has evolved. Or, we can speculate on whether putting females “in charge” will somehow fundamentally alter patterns of warfare to the good. However, simply saying that more aggressive males equals more warfare vs nurturing females equals less warfare is overly simplistic and ignores factors that lead to warfare in the first place. It also ignores that males and females have each evolved in a certain way to advance survival, first and foremost of the species and second of the groups to which we, as individuals, belong.